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Grimshade Review — Grim Indeed

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Grimshade promo art

In this decade’s brave new world of crowd-funded video games, one need not be unusually observant to see a trend in throwback RPGs. Among these are massive hits (Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2), PlayStation-style JRPGs (Legrand Legacy), and characterful new turn-based adventures that hearken to several different styles (Earthlock)—and among them are also games like Grimshade.

Also inspired by JRPGs of the ’90s, Grimshade combines an isometric overworld—one that actually looks a little bit more like Infinity Engine games such as Baldur’s Gate than Japanese RPGs—with tactical turn-based battles. Boasting a huge world, lengthy story, and a complex battle system, there is certainly a lot of game to be had in Grimshade.

Similarly to the aforementioned Legrand Legacy and Earthlock, Grimshade had to be looked at, in case it was another diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, when a title comes in this hot (translation issues and all sorts of glitches abound in the current for-sale version) the question is not whether it contains any value in its sheer volume, but rather if it is worth seeing through.

As in JRPGs of yesteryear, players begin with a tenacious young soldier-ish and gather a party of ragtag misfits as they “blah-blah magical war”, “blah-blah verbose world exposition”, and, of course, the trademark mysterious amnesiac kid. The game is nothing if not an on-the-nose emulation of JRPG patterns, filtered through visibly sweaty writing; comprising try-hard humour and sub-Tolkien obliqueness that all fantasy writers probably remember committing to paper at some point.

Part of this might be down to the translation, as Talerock, the developer, is a Russian indie team. The language gap withstanding, however, Grimshade‘s tedious structure cannot be ignored. One way or another, the early hours force a lot of expository dialogue around the edges of a generic dungeon-punk setting.

Purely from an execution standpoint, the look and feel of Grimshade‘s fantasy world Ree’fah is not a weakness. Character designs are simple and effective (though the dialogue portraits can seem off-model from the rest of their depictions) and the city of Brann, where the game begins, is fairly well developed. The original soundtrack is also a highlight, helping bring each setting to life in the tradition of old school JRPGs.

At the same time, the game has far fewer interesting encounter types than there are battles, echoing some of the worst of the JRPG tradition: the tedium and grind. Even the battle backdrops, which remain essential to these sorts of turn-based RPGs for continuity of location, are very limited—one example had an early story sequence, happening indoors, suddenly switch to the city streets for the battle screen.

In the terms of a JRPG throwback, the game has none of the “take a step” sort of random encounters. Enemies can be encountered wandering in the world or during story sequences. Mechanically, Grimshade‘s battles sit about halfway between the relatively hands-off positioning of say, Chrono Trigger, and the detailed, grid-based battles in the Trails in the Sky games, closest to the recently re-released Radiant Historia.

Players arrange their party on a three-by-four grid and face off against enemies that stand on an opposing grid. With no overlap between the sides, the ‘tactical’ aspect tends to boil down to tanks up front, squishies at the back. In teaching this early, the game makes very clear from the word go that player choice is a secondary concern.

Grimshade‘s battles simply do not provide an exciting hook for the RPG fan. Encounters are designed with strict parameters, where experimentation kills and enemies must be dealt with in repetitive, prescribed fashion. The early hours are not button-mashing boring like Final Fantasy XIII, but they are rigid in a way that the aforementioned Radiant Historia never was.

Grimshade’s art is beautiful but its battles are rigid.

For example, the first time push attacks are introduced makes and breaks both games respectively. In Historia, players learn to push enemies into other enemies for extra damage or to move them side-to-side so that their charging attacks fizzle harmlessly. In Grimshade, enemies start whipping player characters left and right long before the game even introduces a method of delaying their attacks.

Another mechanic, ‘Avoid Tokens’, further restricts player choice by preventing all damage dealt until the tokens are spent. This mechanic should create another layer of strategy, but initially just lengthens each round of combat. Not to claim that such design decisions are explicit missteps , but they reduce battles to little more than Simon-says: not a great foot to start off on.

The game promises a bigger world beyond the early game city of Brann, but the development resources appear to have been spread very, very thin. For instance, the same extreme economy in the design of battles applies to the quest log, which offers very little guidance beyond the immediate next objective. Other games also focus on a linear critical path with little to either side, but even reused locations will have lots of interesting details. The opening of Final Fantasy VII is a clear comparison point, given how it too spends a long time establishing its characters in the city of Midgar.

A lot of work went into developing Grimshade’s world, but discovering it is not a lot of fun.

Grimshade attempts to create a feeling of epic scale by suggesting the bigger world beyond the game screen, but without offering much to cling onto. Perhaps what Talerock has developed was a labour of love, but its love is not necessarily the same as the players’ enjoyment.  A less ambitious epic with better quality of life, a shorter, less scattered story, and more time given to designing encounters for variety and experimentation would have mended several of the game’s most egregious problems. With luck, the developer will learn from Grimshade and go on to better and more recommendable success.

One should keep an open mind with long games, especially those that are ambitious and clearly made for the love of the medium (I could not tell you how but I played through days of dull, repetitive musou missions to be extra sure that Valkyria Revolution was not good). Like with so many RPGs, though, one can be tricked into hoping the story picks up, or at least tricked into hoping that the mechanics become intrinsically engaging with more familiarity.

True, too, I do not think I have ever played a game available for retail that was as unfinished as Grimshade. Unfinished games on Steam are a dime-a-dozen, but I cannot be certain I have the strength to trudge through to see the rest of a game that, doubtless, bit off more than it could chew. Besides, if this really is as large a world and extensive a narrative as promised, one should never feel obligated to push through hours of also-ran adventure hoping for an uncertain and potentially imaginary catharsis.

OnlySP Review Score 1 Fail

Reviewed on PC.

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Review

The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not

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The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 1

Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.  

One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.

The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.  

Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals. 

This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell. 

The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying. 

Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.

Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.    

The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.  

The Great Perhaps gameplay screenshot 2

So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.

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