Review: Grime

The thing about rock that’s easy to forget is just how solid it is.  A misplaced stone may not look like much of a problem until it’s time to move it, at which point something that looks like it’s going to be a bit heavy reveals itself to be almost impossible to budge, much less lift.  Stone is amazingly tough and heavy, and any life that springs from it would require serious power to dispatch.  The newborn black-hole-headed creation in Grime comes to life in the depths of a cavern where anything that isn’t a barely functional wretch is outright hostile, and fighting through the twisted rock-based creatures on his way to find his place in the world requires deliberate combat that never lets up on the crunch of weapon on stone.  And platforming, of course, because weird as Grime‘s world is, it’s still a classic and fantastically-designed Metroidvania.

While the world of Grime is a bizarre and alien one, it’s still familiar in a good number of ways once you mentally strip out the beautifully-strange scenery.  An under-powered protagonist fights its way through ever-more-ornate platforming challenges while learning the attack patterns of an expanding menagerie of enemy creatures.  Sure, the enemies in this case may be misshapen stone humanoids with giant rocky heads, pulsing bio-lithic electrodes, multi-legged walkers attacking with root-whips, spear-throwing statues and plenty of other oddities, but at heart Grime is a classic Metroidvania.  Just a weird one that fully commits to its lore.

Understanding the gameplay of Grime means getting to grips with its lore, because while you can look at the various bars and know exactly what they mean, understanding how its systems interact mean knowing the difference between Breath and Ardor, or why you’d want to expend Levolam Dust to return to a Surrogate.  Everything is phrased in the game’s terms, which can lead to a learning curve that lasts well into the first several hours of the game, but nothing is overly complicated once you begin to get used to the world.

At the beginning of the game the hero is conceived, starting off as nothing more than a black hole before taking in enough stone to build his own body.  Naked (Ken-doll style) but not defenseless, it needs to use the absorption power of its head to counter any enemy attack.  Absorption is basically a counter-attack you trigger just before an enemy strikes, with a generous window so it’s initially not particularly hard to do before trickier enemies with slight pauses in their attack patterns show up, and the reason Grime reinforces this mechanic so hard at the start is because absorption is the easiest way to gain mass.  Once you’ve got a weapon you can just beat on enemies until they break, but a properly-timed absorption can take down weaker enemies in a single hit and even the tougher ones might only take an additional hit or two.  The mass from defeated creatures counts as both experience and currency to upgrade skills and eventually buy items.

Absorption also powers one of the most important abilities in the game, healing.  The health bar in the upper-left can drop from full to a sliver in a handful of hits, but a glowing orange crescent beside it indicates the availability of a single-use heal skill.  Once drained, defeating five enemies by absorption fills it back up again, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. The enemy health bars are designed to provide information on how to best approach them, with a blood-red bar meaning absorb away while a grey one indicates you might as well just beat on the critter instead.  Some enemies even have alternating health bars, grey at the start of the fight and red as you wear it down being the most common, but by no means the only one.  You can still counter an enemy attack on the grey section, of course, but it just stuns them rather than fully defeats them with a single well-timed button press.

The final use for absorption is to increase the Ardor counter, which is a fancy way of saying “mass multiplier.”  Each enemy drops a certain amount of mass when absorbed, but the more you defeat with absorption the higher the multiplier goes, all the way up to a 2X bonus.  It doesn’t sound like much but new, stronger weapons require higher stats, and when saving up to buy the skills to equip a fancy jagged sword then every little bit helps.  True, the sword may not end up being all that useful after all depending on your play-style, because every weapon feels different from the others and there are a few oddball ones in the bunch, but it’s always fun to experiment.

Even before you’ve got the gameplay basics down, however, Grime starts paying off with its level design.  The caverns are a twisty mass of passages, and if you keep an eye out there are plenty of hidden areas and shortcuts to uncover.  Exploration is rewarded, and while sometimes that ends up meaning little more than another item to toss in the inventory, it may also lead to a hidden weapon or mini-boss.  The mini-bosses in particular tend to pay off nicely, although usually after a few tries to learn their patterns.  Most new enemies, once you’ve defeated a few of them, provide a unique skill you can buy, and the most common reward from the mini-bosses is a gem to put towards the next upgrade.  Want a bigger window for successful absorption or an after-image left behind after dashing that can damage an over-eager enemy? There are a good number to find and new skill options come more quickly than the gems to buy them, so you’ll need to make some choices as to what works best.

A good Metroidvania is as much about combat as exploration, and Grime handles the fighting in a satisfying way.  Each fight and encounter is test of your ability to read the enemy, and while it may take a time or two (or a couple dozen) to take down some of the larger bosses, the patterns are clear once you learn to read them.  Red attacks can’t be blocked but the dash grants a moment of invulnerability so you can zip through them, yellow attacks mean the enemy is open to what’s basically a force-pull, yanking it out of the animation and straight into a moment of vulnerability, and plain, non-flashing attacks are open to countering.  There’s more than a little Dark Souls in Grime‘s fighting engine, which isn’t to say the game is as hard as its inspiration.  I found Grime an inviting challenge, sometimes hard but never unfair, as evidenced by a boss I must have tried well over a dozen times until I finally sailed through having only taken a single hit.

The one disclaimer I’d give about Grime is that currently it’s still undergoing revisions.  It came out in a playable state but it’s still being tweaked based on player feedback, such as more quick-travel points being added and a framerate-stutter issue having been ironed out.  I’m still seeing flickering textures here and there, not to mention enemies getting stuck in the scenery, but nothing that counts as a game-breaker.  On top of that there are plans to allow re-allocating stats so players don’t pick up a cool new weapon only to find their build is entirely wrong to use it without an hour or two of grinding, plus a couple missable items are going to be made non-missable.  If there were to be no more work done on Grime ever it would be an excellent game I’d have been happy to play, but it’s also one of those cases where maybe a month or so of Early Access may not have been a bad idea.

Closing Comments:

Grime is a brutal rocky beast of a Metroidvania, set in a strange and truly alien world of bizarre monsters and darkly-beautiful landscapes.  There’s a huge amount of imagination on display in every aspect of the visual design, whether that be the fantastic bosses in both mega- and mini- format, garden-variety enemies and the environments that house the constant action.  Grime‘s combat manages to be fast and responsive while still feeling deliberate, and it’s matched with platforming that requires full use of all Black-Hole-Head’s abilities in order to track down the secrets hiding just about everywhere on the map.  The in-game jargon can be a bit much at times, especially when trying to remember which consumable item does what due to the way name and design bear almost no relation to function, but it’s learnable if you decide you really need to know.  The depths and caverns of Grime are home to terrible creatures, weird residents, gorgeous scenery and a huge amount of secrets to chase after, and once you get a hang of it, it’s almost impossible to stop until you’ve fought and explored through every inch of its twisted world.