Grimshade is a tactics based RPG whose story is to save the city of Brann from its peril. Creatures have invaded the city’s walls and has caused a war. Players run around with a party consisting of diverse characters like the badger (Charlie) or a kid with no memory (Kiba). Its art style is different, conveying the bleak tone of the game, and the RPGesque map is an element that made me smile.
Grimshade’s major selling point during its Kickstarter campaign was to be an RPG tactics game without a leveling system, like traditional games in its genre. The developer, Talerock, set out to break the mold by releasing a title that is reliant on gear choices as opposed to a tired old leveling system. As a game that was successfully Kickstarted with over a thousand backers and a hundred thousand dollar goal, I expected Grimshade to be better. As time progressed, I found myself less and less interested in playing the game and I’m sad about it.
Story and Gameplay
At the beginning, players are presented with a cinematic that shows the reason why the city of Brann is in trouble. Alister, the protagonist of the story, ends up plummeting to the earth and is saved by a magical gauntlet that is only carried by Champions. Since the King’s loyal guards and companions have vanished, it is up to the Champions to save the city from the evil creatures that threaten it. We learn quickly that the fate of Ree’Fah (the name of Grimshades’ world) lies in the balance.
Now, at first this is a great way to start off a game, but it quickly becomes cumbersome. To begin, Alister befriends a boy who doesn’t remember his name, and in bringing him back to safety, gets into several fights that ultimately lead to Alister’s death. This is the first thing that annoyed me about the game – the fact that only Alister has the ability to fight, while the kid wastes combat actions. Why include him in combat if players are forced to skip his turn each time?
If that wasn’t enough to sour the taste in my mouth, the next point that bugged me about the introduction, outside of the tutorials with small text, was that Alister HAS to die. I restarted that fight several times with the assumption that I could win. Anyways, right off the bat players ‘lose’ their main character for a story beat. (Just to explain, in novel writing if a character dies without readers having some kind of connection to the character, then the character isn’t needed in the story. Novel editors will often tell the authors to eliminate these space-filling characters, because the characters had no real value to begin with. This is what Alister dying at the beginning felt like.) Since Alister ‘dies’, the kid is then forced into remembering his powers because now he has to ‘save’ Alister – a person whom he doesn’t really know. Now, I get that characters need motivation to do the things they do, but technically these two characters just met. Kiba should not lose his shit because of a stranger who was nice to him. Because of these two things, I felt like this game introduction felt very empty and forced progression in a negative way.
Persisting through the introduction, players must make their way to Haven in order to heal, but since this is a tactics based game, players have to fight their way there. Now, I expected this to be the case, but it continued to feel forced because some of the fights were quite difficult – a point that I will explain in the next section about combat.
Characters and Combat
To start with, there are a number of characters to choose from, but a party can only be up to four members – which is part of the overall strategy. Another part of the strategy with combat is dependent on which weapons each character is given. Instead of following a standard leveling system like most RPG’s, the developers decided to go a different route, allowing players to outfit characters with weapons which would hopefully tip the scales in their favor. Designing a combat system like this is interesting, but there are several points about the combat that I disliked.
For one thing, the combat was frustrating due to the fact that characters could only be placed on one of three columns. If the party consists of more than three people, then Alister would be placed at the front because he’s the ‘tank’. Kiba and Charlie (the cool rifle-wielding badger) are placed behind Alister because neither of them have a shield or dodge actions. Essentially, at the beginning of the game, players are limited to one of four spots. As combat progresses, none of the characters can cross over the middle line. In my opinion, this was a mistake. A good tactics based game always has options for flanking an opponent and this game simply does not allow for it. I consider this to be a large strike against the game. I could have lived with the inventory management for abilities and lack of leveling characters, but not being able to use terrain advantages or lacking options for flanking annoys me greatly.
Certain characters possess an armor or a dodge mechanic, which is just as well since the game does not allow players to use any type of heal in combat. According to one of the developers who responded to a Steam user, the lack of combat healing was by design. They did not want to have fights last for extended periods of time due to endless healing – a point which I can partially get behind, but taking out all forms of healing in combat artificially increases the games difficulty. Anyways, the tank gets a couple of these dodge moves each round, a fact that is both quite useful and irritating. There are characters that will have armor on the other side and it forces players to use a couple of attacks just to break the defenses down. To do otherwise would mean that Alister would not do any melee damage to the opponent. As a result, it feels useless to have him up front if he is constantly forced to use his pistol – a weapon that felt more like a nerfgun. Alister’s melee attack is more powerful than the pistol. Part of the reason this is frustrating is because each character is restricted to certain types of attacks based on their weapons, meaning that there are points where combat just becomes a waiting game. If that wasn’t enough, when a character is ‘killed’, they don’t actually die, they instead lose their senses for a couple of rounds. In the case of Alister, if he is knocked out, then the other party members are prone to being attacked and killed.
There is one more element of the combat system that annoyed greatly, and that is the fact that once a player enters combat, there is no option to retreat. The only options are to fight it out or to restart the battle. If players want to avoid combat, they have to keep an eye on where the patrols are or, reload from a previous save point. Thankfully, the game autosaves frequently enough to be useful in this particular case.
Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I haven’t progressed far, but for a tactics based game, I expect the combat to be difficult based on a number of options that are not inherently tied to blatant restriction of movement, weapon types, and no combat healing to speak of.
UI and Graphics
When it comes to the UI of the game, a lot of it is straightforward. The combat abilities are displayed on the right while the wait button is on the left side of the screen. General movement commands are simply point and clicks.
While in combat, players can use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, and pressing and holding right click allows camera movement. Since there are only so many spaces for characters to move, the camera sits in a static location. Also, since Grimshade is a 2D tactics game, the camera remains in a static location much like Path of Exile or Diablo games.
Something I appreciate about the UI of the game is that in combat, players can right click on an opponent to see what abilities and resistances it has. This makes combat easier to plan out because you know what types of abilities would be most beneficial to use. Outside of combat, players can click on a group to see what it consists of before entering a fight.
I think my biggest gripe about the UI is the ludicrously small and intrusive screens that appears during the introduction, serving as its tutorial. Not only was it a nuisance to read paragraphs of description for each new feature or ability, but the text itself was too small. The last thing that any player wants is a game that explains too much. It’s especially frustrating in a tactics game where players want to focus on their combat strategies than endless tutorial popups that end up being ignored. Other games in its genre handle tutorial sections much better, and I think it would be great if the developers take a look at other games as benchmarks for any future project of this type.
One more issue I had with the game is the lack of proper spelling littered throughout the text, whether that be present in the tutorial windows or in character dialogue. For a game that doesn’t have any voice acting to speak of, proper writing for the English market is important. I understand that Talerock is a Russian indie studio with only one game to its credit, but spending a little extra money to hire a translator would have gone a long way. Overall, with the combat issues and the difficulty in reading the text portions, I found that my play through was significantly slowed to a point where I simply stopped playing.
All of that said, the graphics in Grimshade are stunning. I love the art style of the game because it gives a distinct RPG feel to it. Unfortunately, I found that the graphics, the idea of having an oversized badger character, and certain bits of dialogue, were the only things that I really enjoyed about Grimshade. That is sadly the truth of it.
Grimshade, while it has a nice story concept, fell flat for me. I’ve played several tactic based games from tabletops like Risk, to video games like XCOM 2, Mech Commander, Battletech, and Attack of the Earthlings, and Grimshade is just not at the same level. The difficulty in the game can be prohibitively frustrating to the point where the game allows players to drop the difficulty level. I’ve read that even on easy difficulty that some of the battles are quite challenging. It restricts players in many ways and purports itself to be challenging – a point that I feel is forced.
As a result of my issues with the game, I have to give Grimshade a 6 out of 10. It was meant to be challenging and different, but this isn’t a game that frustrated me in a good way. Unlike XCOM 2 where players had to pray that their 98% chance to hit would actually be successful, this game frustrated me in its overall design and not its mechanics.
Anyways, just because the game isn’t what I expected, doesn’t mean that others will have the same issues. As such, make sure to follow Grimshade on Twitter and Facebook. The game can be purchased through Steam and GOG and may release for other platforms at a later time.