Grim Dawn is simultaneously a blast from the past devoid of originality — and potentially the most refreshing ARPG of the last decade. Traditional hack-and-slash RPGs have evolved into somewhat of a niche sub-genre. While a handful of noteworthy titles appear annually, few receive sufficient fanfare to stand alongside the biggest AAA projects. Diablo and perhaps Torchlight are recent exceptions, but both have their detractors. Diablo III launched in an incredibly frustrating state, while Torchlight II’s whimsical aesthetic might not strike a chord with old-school fans fond of the subgenre’s earliest offerings.
Grim Dawn lives up to its name. Set in the fallen kingdom of Cairn, humanity finds itself on the brink of annihilation due to two warring supernatural forces, the Aetherials and Chthonians. The player character spends most of his time helping the few remaining humans survive, rather than mounting a resistance against the forces of darkness.
Grim Dawn introduces the protagonist as a demon-possessed human about to face death at the hands of mankind’s desperate remnants. The campaign launches with the “good” guys attempting to hang him, like some old Western starring Clint Eastwood. Once the demon leaves the host human, the group spares him because humanity cannot afford to lose any more members. Grim Dawn’s opening moments expertly establish this universe’s dark and depressing tone. Even as the protagonist, you spend a lot of your time hunting down possessed humans.
While nothing original, Grim Dawn’s story contains a couple of interesting side-quests driven by characters out for revenge or frantically seeking to persevere in this post-apocalyptic age. The main campaign leads the hero on a track across the vast continent. A separate realm inspired by ancient mythologies eventually opens up. The player has the opportunity to align with unique factions, each providing their own side-quests and benefits. Combined with the various different character builds, Grim Dawn is immensely replayable, even if the main campaign can be completed in about 25 hours.
Grim Dawn utilizes Titan Quest’s engine, a game originally released in 2006. Consequently, Grim Dawn is a spiritual successor to Iron Lore’s good albeit flawed ARPG. In fact, quite a number of Grim Dawn’s systems, enemies, and locations ripoff Titan Quest directly. Now, in all fairness, Crate Entertainment succeeds in improving virtually every single department. Grim Dawn puts to shame Titan Quest’s 2018 port.
Grim Dawn sticks to the standard point-and-click control scheme popularized by the subgenre’s earliest offerings. Once again, the wheel is merely polished rather than reinvented. Surprisingly, the game has controller support and it works quite well.
Visually, Grim Dawn is effective. Whether traversing the claustrophobic Tombs of Korvaa, the slightly modern Burrwitch Estates, or the Western-inspired Four Hills, Grim Dawn looks amazing. A complimentary soundtrack further enhances the ambiance.
Grim Dawn embraces its retro callbacks and seldom attempts to deviate from the norms set by the likes of Diablo II. This absence of innovation may sound damning, but classic ARPGs are rare in this day and age. By passionately honoring the subgenre’s roots, Grim Dawn feels fresh.
For example, enemies are not expressly unique, but Grim Dawn packs more than a dozen mob types, each possessing multiple subcategories. Variety is not lacking. While not quite as visually impressive as Diablo III, Grim Dawn’s bosses are plentiful and genuinely challenging, particularly on higher difficulties. You can unlock a couple of unique Nemesis bosses by purposefully turning a faction against the main character.
Obviously, loot is a big part of the experience and Grim Dawn seems painfully aware of this fact. With a total of eight weapon types split across melee, ranged, and caster categories; Crate has stashed approximately 2000 killing machines into Cairn, and the rarest weapons look great while offering unique spells. Along with hundreds upon hundreds of armor and accessory pieces, Grim Dawn boasts a robust and easy to comprehend crafting system revolving around components designed to augment specific item types. Blueprints can also be found to craft special consumables or extremely powerful weapons.
If anything, there is a touch too much loot. Storage is quite limited, so be prepared to frequently travel back to Devil’s Crossing to sell any redundant equipment. Gratefully, Grim Dawn has a satisfactory fast-travel system.
As tends to be the case in such games, killing enemies rewards XP to level up, which in turn grants skill points. Grim Dawn offers the option to specialize in one of seven Masteries, with each category containing an expansive skill tree stuffed with flashy attacks and spells. Crucially, dual-class mastery unlocks at level 10, increasing the number of potential builds from 7 to 28.
Want to unlock even more skills? Cairn is peppered with shrines waiting to be restored. Once the necessary items are offered or the spawning enemies cleared, a Devotion point is earned that can be used to upgrade a passive skill system revolving around special pet attacks or stat boosts. This largely secondary mechanic is incredibly comprehensive.
Grim Dawn is not going to convert any non-believers. That being said, anyone already enamored with ARPGs is destined to appreciate Crate Entertainment’s modern project. The Titan Quest similarities are too blatant to ignore, but Grim Dawn improves upon its ancestor.