Review: Grim Dawn

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Grim Dawn let me make a sorceress with a shotgun. More than that it encouraged me to, because that shotgun happened to be the perfect fit for the build I was working towards. I could have given her an enchanted pistol, or a giant warhammer, or really any of the countless weapons to be found throughout the world, and made it work. But as I was dashing through the ruins of a seaside town, ducking in and out of crooked doorways to blow zombies and floating eyes to hell with burning buckshot, I knew I had found my calling. At least until I find a bigger gun.

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Freedom of choice is the chief takeaway from Grim Dawn, one of the most recent entries in the crowded ARPG/Diablo lootsplosion genre. Unlike its peers, Grim Dawn decouples weapons, armors, and even skills from specific classes, letting you be anything from an armored shaman with a lightning scythe to an arcane fire-slinging gunman to a demon-worshipping hammer-wielding assassin. The only thing limiting your gear choices are your level and your three base character stats, which all rise as your character grows and you invest in your classes. And yes I said classES because Grim Dawn lets you choose two of its six archetypes to mix into your character.

The classes themselves can be a bit of a hangup for new players because of the unique level of control you have over your skill progression. Rather than unlocking skills at certain levels, each class tree has a Mastery bar for you to spend skill points on. This bar grants you important base stat boosts and unlocks your actual skills with enough points invested. Of course, then you have to balance spending points on Mastery or the skills, and across two class trees to boot. It can be a bit daunting until you fully understand the balance and where your greatest gains per point are going to come from, and that’ll take some work to suss out.

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Many of your skills are passive, meaning combat tends to be less technical than Diablo or other competitors. Indeed, more than a few battles are won or lost in the preparation of auras, toggle abilities, and weapon selections. You’ll also find skills baked into the gear and upgrade components you find, some powerful enough to design an entire build around. In another liberating design decision, class skills are much more focused and specific while item skills are your more general fireballs and lightning novas, allowing you to make a pure caster out of literally any class combination.

Unprecedented freedom means nothing if there’s nothing to do with it, but Grim Dawn does not disappoint here, either. The world of Cairn is in the throes of a magical apocalypse, with ruined towns and valleys and forests full of unspeakable horrors to bludgeon. Enemies and allies alike are divided into factions, with new quests and gearing options availiable from those that like you, and new bosses and challenges from those who don’t. The main quest will keep you busy for a good 30 hours just putting down one of the major threats to the world, but building reputation and uncovering new secrets can last you dozens more hours.

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And my God, the secrets! I’m a big fan of exploration in games and few reward you so richly as this. Unmarked dungeons and unique bosses can pop up just about anywhere, providing unexpected challenges at any level. Virtually every map has breakable walls and hidden chests, and much of the best loot to be had is found in hard-to-reach containers. I once found a secret dungeon beneath a side dungeon inside a completely optional dungeon! On top of all this, there’s another character progression system called Devotion that uses points earned from hidden shrines all over the world, a genius system that more ARPGs would do well to ape.

Grim Dawn doesn’t hold back in challenge, either, with some brutally hard side dungeons and optional bosses right from the first few hours. The main quest is easy enough to get through for even the inexperienced, so you have your choice of difficulty through exploration as well. All of this is presented with a gritty, moody look and some meaty sound work, though the soundtrack is pretty lacking and gets repetitive in a hurry. The Lovecraftian themes are well-realized and there’s a ton of detail to the world, from engaging lore to morally gray decisions to make. Even if there wasn’t so much to work with in the gear and skills systems this would be a solid competitor to Diablo and its ilk, but the wealth of options and progression systems easily makes Grim Dawn one of the top titles in the genre.

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