It is honestly hard to quantify how much I both love and hate Grimoire: Legends of the Winged Exemplar. On the one hand, it faithfully re-creates the style of a late 80’s-early 90’s dungeon crawler. On the other hand, it is mind-numbingly frustrating because it plays like one too.
To understand Grimoire, you need to understand the mindset of its developer, Cleveland Blakemore. He has been working on Grimoire since 1995, with the first previews of the game being published as far back as 1997. Within RPG circles, Grimoire has a rather dubious history, most of it tied to Blakemore himself and his often brash, outspoken persona. Blakemore has attempted to crowdfund Grimoire for over a decade before it finally released last year, thanks in part to several Indiegogo campaigns, and he has been incredibly protective of the Grimoire name, even threatening a trademark suit in 2014 over indie developer OmniConnection's Grimoire title- an FPS MOBA that would ultimately fail in securing enough funding on Kickstarter.
Blakemore is effectively an auteur developer. It is clear throughout Grimoire that the game he made is a personal passion project. It is impossible to separate the game from Blakemore, so much so he has continuously promised to update the game even further (an all-new V2 El Maximo Overdrive Version planned for release this month, for example.) On that level, I can give Blakemore some respect for publishing his work on his own terms.
Sadly, this doesn’t necessarily translate to a good game. In a lot of ways, Grimoire is the perfect game for the ‘grognard’ crowd, the old soldiers of roleplaying games. You know the type, the tabletop players who prefer to map out their worlds on graph paper and calculate THAC0. The people who claim that role-playing games achieved perfection in the 1980s. Tabletop gaming has always been counter-culture. For some, the ‘purest’ form of it is the only way to play; the ‘streamlined’ versions of their favorite game worlds are not ‘true’ tabletop gaming.
That is the type of game Grimoire is, rewarding players in the grognard mindset. Every stat is presented to you, necessitating players to track and tweak them to maximize their effectiveness in-game. Players can create a party of eight adventurers, with almost all their stats and attributes randomly rolled. The sheer amount of choices in character creation are vast, with 14 playable races, 15 classes, and over 50 unique skills.
Players will need to track more than just health and mana in Grimoire. Weight, individual body slots for armor, over 140 spells, and much more are all here. Party movement is on a grid while encounters are random and turn-based. Players uses a point-and-click adventure style interface to interact with the world at large, creating challenging, context-based puzzles. Some even require a specific spell or two to solve.
It is hard to do the game justice with the sheer number of features to track. Blakemore promises a 600+ hour game with over 244 map areas, 1,000 items and over 8,000 lines of dialogue across 64 intelligent NPC characters. Considering the game took 20 years to make, the large quantity of content is impressive, if overly daunting and even worse, totally irrelevant to most players. Not to mention filled with some bugs and technical quirks that go with it.
Honestly, if you've played and enjoyed any first-person dungeon-crawler in the past thirty years you will enjoy Grimoire. Blakemore didn’t really try to do anything new here outside of adding some decent 2-D graphics and mediocre MIDI music to set the old-school mood. That is really the point though. This is supposedly the next Wizardry title, at least from Blakemore’s perspective. It sits firmly in the past despite seeing release in 2017.
Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is a passion project by a lone developer first, a curious piece of gaming history second, and finally, a game third. I can’t necessarily recommend it to just anyone, but those interested in seeing a bit of gaming history come alive, or simply those grognard’s seeking their next dungeon crawl, will appreciate Grimoire for what it is. Sometimes, that's all a game needs to do to find success.
TechRaptor covered Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar on PC via Steam with a copy purchased by the reviewer.