Grim Dawn: The Green Diablo
Updated: Aug 20
Diablo 3 left many people, even now at a loss; it is not hard to see why really. The DRM, that auction house rubbish, the poor story telling with more focus on epic battles between good and evil then personal hopeless battles against evil more powerful then death itself, the online multiplayer direction and more caused any hope of the dark unsettling atmosphere and visuals of Diablo 1 and 2 to wiz off into the sunset with no hope of return. Ever since the release of Diablo 3 in 2012 we have had some attempts at spiritual succession like Path of Exile which came out one year after Diablo 3 and Grim Dawn in 2016, among others. It is clear that people still want to experience the haunting atmosphere and writing of Diablo 1 and 2 and Grim Dawn does come surprisingly close to that nightmarish greatness, as flawed as it might be.
Grim Dawn instantly sets the tone with the first and only cut scene with the Aetherial possessed Player Character getting hanged due to being a vessel for said Aetherial race. However the Player Character is cut down at the last second due to the ghostly Aetherial leaving the host. That cut scene breathes quiet hopelessness and desperation. The rest of the game’s story is like that, no epic battles here but silent determination to fight a threat more powerful then you or me to hope to match. Even towards the end of the game when you have access to the most powerful of abilities and levels you may stumble across a boss or cluster of enemies that overwhelm you if you are not paying attention. Grim Dawn, unlike Torchlight 2 puts effort into the world building and creates agency in the player by making a world that actually existed before and after the apocalyptic event known as the Grim Dawn. Unlike a certain other Isometric RPG I felt I was working in a world not controlling a character in a game, Grim Dawn has a deep level of immersion for players that even Diablo 3 lacks to an extent.
However that is not to say that the story and writing are perfect, the characters; while passably voice acted do not leave much of impression and appear very two dimensional which make tragedy fall flat. The final boss fight especially cannot help feel like an anti-climax not just due to what happens with a major character but how the game ends as a whole. With a rather weak “Hooray, now piss off” type of ending that while keeping theme of small victories against overwhelming odds just feels underwhelming and disappointing. The pacing is also all over the place with act 2 and three being slow while act 1 and 4 steamroll by with very few quests and a high number of places travelled to and forgotten about. Act 4 especially feels jarring with only four main quests and three side quests in comparison to act three which had 14 side quests and 12 main quests. I cannot help but feel that money was running short or release date was looming closer then Crate Entertainment anticipated because act 4 is really rushed in terms of story-telling.
Game play is your normal Isometric RPG fair, different types of classes to chose from that all have different skills that can create any type of play style for you. The skills themselves are fun to play around with and feel suitably satisfying to use. Unlike that other game I will not mention you have three points to spend each time you level up, it helps you invest in making yourself stronger or experiment with different skills. The game also has a mastery bar that lets you increase your stats as well as unlocking skills; it creates a need to balance between levelling up skills and upping your character. How much to you want to level the skills you already have in comparison to looking for new ones and giving your character a stat boost? This could get tedious if you were given a smaller number of points or if the experience bar did not fill as fast but it works well due to generosity of experience given by completing quests and points leveling up .
The levels themselves unlike a lot of Isometric RPGs are not randomised and are very expansive, with multiple pathways and secrets. There is nothing wrong with this in theory as you can find the quickest ways to traverse the map and get to quest objectives. However due to the massive size of said maps with no real save system ( I suspect it is checkpoint based but I can be wrong as Grim Dawn does not make clear when it saving) so if for whatever reason you die and you did not make a portal you would have to walk all the way back to the place from the rift point which can be tedious and dull if you have to walk a long way as monsters do not respawn unless you restart the game, if you close the game you will be booted back the safe heaven and you would have to teleport to the rift then walk and fight your way all the way back as the game does not save where you are when you exit. Heaven help you if you got most of the way through a quest line and the power went out or the game crashes then you will have to fight though all the foes and bosses you fought through until that point. It all feels like padding and punishing the player for daring to have other things to do in their life.
Each area is governed by a levelling system, again this is not to bad in theory expect they you might go through a dungeon with monsters that are say level 40-47 and suddenly have a boss that is level 50 or 52 and you cannot beat it, so you come back later when you have the levels to kill the boss but the normal enemies are well below your level, you almost always have to kill them to move forward but they do not grant exp, not even one single point of experience, so if you ever have to go back to dungeons you will almost always have to waste mana for no real benefit to yourself and it can get tedious because you cannot skip any part of the dungeon. This again feels like an over site on the devs part at best and at worst padding. The boss fights themselves are intense, challenging and fun as well as given a story reason for existing and wanting you dead. Last of all the inventory management is a little bit rubbish, you have only limited space that fills up very fast (as is common with these types of games) so when your inventory fills you have to slog back to your safe heaven and sell everything or store the stuff that is promising or you have no idea whether or not it will be useful in storage before heading back to exploring the dungeon again. It was not good when Diablo 3 did it and it is not fun in this game either as it grinds the pacing and atmosphere into a ditch. Storage itself can only hold so much and as you cannot stack certain items your space will fill quickly forcing you to sell and risk having to grind for that item because you sold it and/or check each bit of the items in your inventory and make sure that you did not pick up something better then the item you were waiting to reach the level to unlock. While it is not as annoying as it sounds as the interface is good enough there is still a lot finickiness involved that could have been smoothed out by letting the player stack items.
Graphics and art style are great even now, the top down perspective helps the game remain ageless and the colours help make the game memorable and beautiful to look at. The creature designs themselves are delightfully horrific, they all help create a surprising amount of tension and fear each time you head out into the great unknown waiting to see what creatively disturbing ways the Aetherials have twisted the land into. Nothing more to say, the designers did a fantastic job.
The game runs fine majority of the time asides from a few minor frame rate drops if too many particle effects are on screen. However this occurred only three times in my 36 hours of playtime. Could be smoothed out maybe but otherwise a nice PC port.
Grim Dawn may just come close to that Diablo 2 successor that we all want, it is fun while having a decent helping of dread and unease. However some middling design choices prevent it from being truly great. I would still recommend it over Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 due to it being a better game in its genre but maybe not one of the highlights of what it can offer. I would say give it a go.