Ripped from the pages of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels, the Victorian-era town of Burrwitch is a wasteland of deserted dirt roads and derelict clapboard homes. But something lurks beneath the ruddy earth of this ghost town — something hungry. It greets me with clutching hands and gaping mouth, and in a blink, it is everywhere. My Occultist character returns the greeting with magically fortified rounds fired from a pepperbox revolver and arcane spells that bind, blast, and fry.
I blast the front door of a nearby home to splinters and find more undead waiting. My bullets and magic explode moldy foes and furniture alike as I slam through a living room, a bedroom, and out the back of the home itself like a one-man wrecking ball, a swath of glorious, glittering loot in my wake.
I pause for a moment, leaving the world of Grim Dawn. I grin at Arthur Bruno, the creator of this action RPG, and smile. “That was awesome.”
Outside of Crate Entertainment’s two-man full-time team and handful of part-time contributors, I was the first to play Grim Dawn. And I’m glad I did. I not only experienced a terrific new take on top-down action RPGs, I found a great story about a guy chasing a dream.
Bruno’s game-design career began at Iron Lore Entertainment with the critically acclaimed, Greek mythology-themed action-RPG Titan Quest. A Titan Quest sequel looked like a sure thing, but publisher THQ balked and Titan Quest 2 died, taking Iron Lore itself down with it in 2008. Stubbornly, Bruno and a fellow Iron Lore alum formed Crate Entertainment shortly after, and in 2010 Crate announced it was working on Grim Dawn.
“There were some lean years,” Bruno said with a smile widened by Grim Dawn’s successful (and still ongoing) $310,000 Kickstarter campaign. “Now, with the Kickstarter funding, I’m able to sleep a lot easier at night.”
A large framed poster of Titan Quest’s Spartan hero hangs on the wall of his Boston apartment, and knowing that Grim Dawn has risen from the ashes of TQ2, I wondered if Bruno considered it a spiritual successor.
“I had a lot of liberty in terms of system design on Titan Quest, but there was a strong pre-existing vision for what it would be and the broad market it was being made for,” Bruno said. “With Grim Dawn, having total creative freedom, I’m making the game I want to play. I’m not being self-indulgent when I say that. I always consider the audience we’re targeting. But in this case, I am the audience we’re targeting. I’m a hardcore action-RPG fan, and I’m making the type of core game fans want to play.”
So while the two share a very similar class system (called Masteries), beyond that they’re near-polar opposites — most notably in setting. Where Titan Quest is bright, shiny, and features fantastical mythological creatures and characters, Grim Dawn is, well, grim. The world of Cairn has been ripped apart by beings from another plane of reality. Humanity is on the brink, and the game world reflects it.
Five Masteries are planned, and thus far the Occultist, Soldier, and Demolitionist have been revealed. I selected the explosives and rifle-wielding Demolitionist and began my Grim Dawn adventure within the crumbling walls and iron bars of the Burrwitch Prison. It’s here that a small group of human survivors has banded together, transforming the prison into a fortress while doing their best to start a new life. Even in what Bruno calls a pre-alpha state, the prison sports some intriguing visual details, like a cushioned red armchair beside a stained mattress inside one of the cells-turned-homes — a small thing, but it made it feel like humans were actually living there. But I wasn’t there to sightsee, I was there to fight back against the darkness. I left the walls of Burrwitch Prison and braced for impact.
That impact came quickly, in the form of a zombie horde. Bruno and team are shooting for satisfying enemy reactions to attacks, and as I threw what looked like Holy Hand Grenades into a pack of roamers and watched the bodyparts and blood fly, I decided it’s safe to say they’ve hit their target.
Roaming through the streets of the town of Burrwitch, I took the action into the many houses, loving the on-the-fly transition between open and closed-area fights and back again. It’s something Bruno said he’s worked hard on, and it goes a long way toward making Grim Dawn feel more like a real world rather than a linear path surrounded by window dressing sets.
“The space that you’re playing in has a big impact on combat,” Bruno said. “It can totally change the dynamic, especially when you’re more of a ranged character or a glass-cannon build. Suddenly, you’re fighting inside this very confined space, and it makes everything feel a lot more intense. Normally, action RPGs keep those types of areas underground with dungeons. We wanted to bring that above ground, and that inspired our modular house system.”
That system allows Crate to build houses of various shapes and sizes, and they’re all fully explorable. It’s a key feature that differentiates Grim Dawn from the wave of action RPGs coming soon.
Grim Dawn may not be a completely open-world action RPG, but many barriers can be broken. For example, while on a road lined with stone walls, I found my Occultist surrounded by monsters. Not wanting my frail magic user to become lunch, I hurled a bolt of magic at the nearby stones and watched them crumble. I jumped through my self-made exit and took the fight out into an open field; as my attackers funneled through after me I was able to cut them down one at a time.
The simple act of blowing up a wall and jumping off the beaten path made me feel as if I was in control of this adventure. I wasn’t being pulled along by the wrist, I was making my own way in this world gone wrong. And it felt great.
Bruno warned me not to get too comfortable with locations I learned to use to my advantage, though, because they might not be there the next time I played through. Grim Dawn features a dynamic-barrier system that spawns immovable and indestructible objects that force players to choose different paths.
“After a few runthroughs, players tend to find the most optimized path through a level. We play those same paths over and over again, and that leads to tedium. This is a way to promote players to try something different and to have a better experience. Maps aren’t totally randomized, but it’s a good compromise.”
Though there will be plenty of elements that are completely randomized, Bruno said. Yes, there will be different enemies spawning in different places, but that’s just the tip of the random iceberg. Crate is working on a system that will spawn random NPC camps capable of giving quests, create random events such as enemies attacking a group of humans which players must try to save, and even random entrances into Cairn’s vast underground.
The ARPG You’ve Been Waiting For?
It all sounds overly ambitious, the types of features fans would talk about when dreaming up a game. But from what I saw, Crate (and by Crate I mean Bruno, one other full timer, and a handful of part-timers — all working from home offices across the country) is somehow managing to pull it off. With Diablo 3 trimming some hardcore features and Torchlight 2 sticking to the full-on cartoon route, Grim Dawn could well be the core action RPG fans have been clamoring for since Diablo 2.
So when will you be able to hack and slash your way through Cairn? Bruno said he’s shooting for alpha testing to begin at the end of 2012 or early 2013. If all goes well, the beta will open in early summer 2013, and Grim Dawn will launch in August of next year. Just how much bigger and more ambitious it will become depends on all of you. The Grim Dawn Kickstarter campaign is currently at $310,000 with eight days to go. I recommend chipping in. Grim Dawn not only looks terrific, it’s a great story, too.