There’s a moment at the beginning of every RPG when you have to steel yourself for dozens of hours of play. In a genre that is infamous for hot “it gets good after the first 10 hours” takes, there needs to be some kind of hook, whether narrative or mechanical to get you to commit. Many games offer a distinctive world, political setting, or innovative battle system as a way to differentiate from their competitors, and Grimshade does do these to a certain extent, but its most distinctive feature pre-release was easily a steampunk badger carrying a rifle. This eye-catching detail works both to draw you in and serve as a microcosm for the world and setting of the game.
Russian developers Talerock have created a gaming world that feels like a cross between Terry Brooke’s sci-fi and Brian Jacques’ anthropomorphic animal forms of fantasy. The result is a surprisingly effective and detailed setting with its own lore and backstory. This is mostly related through optional dialogue choices, through which you can immerse yourself as much as you want. The broad outline of the story involves a war between the neighbouring Liv (human) nations of Brann and Bespierre, with the Eleore (animal residents) caught in the middle. The latter reside in Brann as citizens, but are considered slaves in Bespierre. This metaphor for class and race, while simplistic, does provide a good opportunity for the game to explore ideas of oppression and exploitation. As you explore the wider world, you find reclusive tribes of Eleore with their own unique views of the world of Grimshade.
As a team-based RPG, Grimshade’s characters have to balance being interesting with being useful in combat and here the result is less successful. In trying to give every character a unique battle style, several end up feeling underpowered or too fiddly to use. When your opponents often attack in mobs of eight or ten, it feels stingy that you can only have four characters active, an aspect exacerbated by there being no way of switching between team members mid-battle. The team members you recruit along the way all bring their own characteristics and alliances to exploration and dialogue, so even the ones you don’t use in battle have a part to play, but I found myself sticking mainly with the first four since I had become familiar with their skills.
Character development is unusual in that there is no system of experience or level progression. All stat or skill upgrades are directly tied to equipment. While this means there is no penalty for characters not frequently used in combat, it does detract from the frequent battles as they become more of a hindrance than anything. The game as a whole would have benefited from fewer encounters given the lack of real rewards.
If the frequency of battles was not already off-putting, the fact that it is almost impossible to finish any undamaged adds to the frustration. When the only healing mechanics are returning to home bases or using bizarrely expensive medicines, this made every combat an exercise in annoyance. Even playing on Very Easy didn’t alleviate this much, and beginning a fight with damaged teammates almost guarantees a death. On higher difficulties these deaths are punished by an injury system that limits character effectiveness, which seems like a sadistic choice. The whole battle system seems set up to punish the player which doesn’t gel with the interesting narrative. Hopefully the developer will balance things somewhat in an update.
Combat takes place on grids with character placement being essential to using skills and avoiding attacks. Characters have melee and ranged attacks with different equipment offering different moves. This introduces an extra layer of strategy as you have to choose the best team members and the best equipment for each situation but unfortunately you often have to die or reload before you can react to this. One major boss was immune to the status effect of my main fighter’s weapon, a weapon which was frustratingly found just before the fight itself. Knowing that the new and more powerful staff would be useless in an upcoming fight borders on precognition and again feels like the developer wilfully punishing the player.
This lack of balancing soured my experience with Grimshade, even though I was interested in the narrative and setting. If a game offers a Very Easy mode for people to enjoy the story, it seems perverse for this to also be affected by the combat difficulty issues. Maybe healing the team after fights would be the easiest way to solve this but enduring even more lengthy loading screens between every combat quickly removed my enthusiasm. I will keep an eye on it in my Steam library and hope that a balancing patch will be released as I am still looking to follow the adventures of my motley crew, but find it difficult to recommend in its current form. This is both frustrating and disappointing since the team have created a fascinating world to explore and then actively deterred players from doing so.