Grim Dawn (including Ashes of Malmouth, Crucible, and Forgotten Gods)
Playing Time: About 130 hours to date
Having posted reviews for Diablo 2, Path of Exile, and Last Epoch, it’s only fitting that I also post one for another of the big names in that genre, Grim Dawn. Honestly, I hadn’t played this one sooner because the glimpses of gameplay that I saw for it never really caught my interest, but after realizing that I’d snatched it up at some point in the past, I figured that I might as well give it a try.
Given the rating that I’m giving it, that was a good idea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly is Grim Dawn? It’s another loot-based ARPG (similar to Diablo) in which your character survives possession by an extradimensional ghost and goes on to blunt invasions by both further extradimensional ghosts (“aetherials”, who believe they deserve to own all life) and their rival extradimensional demons (“ch’thonians”, who want to use the blood of all living things to revive their dying god) before also putting down an incursion by yet another extradimensional being (this time an actual god looking for revenge on account of having been held captive and forgotten). And then you get to do it all twice more because extra difficulties in Grim Dawn work like classic Diablo, albeit with different names (normal/veteran, elite, and ultimate). In short, it’s basically another take on the usual “fight deities in a Crapsack World” framing. Nothing terribly original on that front, but it works well enough as an excuse to do what you do in the game, and the actual lore in the game is pretty interesting.
Some would say that there are 36 classes in Grim Dawn with the expansions (15 in the base game by itself, 13 more in Ashes of Malmouth [AOM], and another 8 more in Forgotten Gods [FG]), but that’s misleading because classes in Grim Dawn work in a different way from the other game I mentioned. Each “class” is actually a combination of two masteries, which are more in line with what would be called classes in Diablo or Last Epoch: a collection of potential skills and passive nodes that form the basic framework of how a given character plays. The masteries are:
Soldier: a standard fighter-type, focusing on weapon-based damage along with a host of passive boosts
Demolitionist: a technology-based fighter/mage hybrid, employing various explosives and (literal) firepower
Occultist: a devotee of the three Witch Gods, capable of either using magic directly or summoning beasts to do the fighting
Nightblade: an assassin with a curious mix of dual-wielding attacks, cold- and poison-based damage options, and support skills
Arcanist: a typical “elemental blaster”-type mage at first glance, but also boasting some powerful support buffs and defensive abilities
Shaman: another fighter/mage hybrid, this time focused on nature-based magic alongside two-handed weapons and/or strong (but limited) summons
Inquisitor (AOM): a sort of Magitek mage/trapper with a side helping of ranged weapon-based attacks
Necromancer (AOM): pretty much what the name implies, a spellcaster with life/death-focused spells and undead summons
Oathkeeper (FG): a divine fighter, combining weapon-based attacks and supportive magic
After picking one mastery at level 2 and then another at level 10, the combination gives your class (Soldier + Demolitionist = Commando, Soldier + Inquisitor = Tactician, Shaman + Arcanist = Druid, Oathkeeper + Inquisitor = Paladin, and so on). Apparently, the system comes from Titan Quest (a previous loot-based ARPG made by mostly the same people, and it being a basis for Grim Dawn’s mechanics doesn’t end there), but having never played that, it was a fresh take on character building for me. Some classes have obvious synergies (e.g. Occultist + Necromancer = Cabalist for a summons-focused character), while others seem to work at cross purposes (e.g. Nightblade + Shaman = Trickster has a jumble of skills that can’t be used together because they require either dual-wielding or two-handed weapons), but ultimately, there are endgame-viable builds possible for any class. It’s a very interest middle ground between the strict classes of Diablo/Last Epoch and the formless mass of nodes in Path of Exile.
For those who like some formless masses of nodes, you haven’t been overlooked by the developers, because the third major basic aspect of character-building is devotions: a huge screen of constellation-themed node bundles with occasional additional abilities (all of which are bound to abilities from your masteries and have percentage chances to trigger when the bound ability is used). At first glance, I found this much more daunting that Path of Exile’s passive tree because there are no clear links between the nodes, but once you play around with it enough to start identifying the high-value constellations and working backwards to map out a plan to fulfill their affinity prerequisites, it’s a fun subsystem to engage with. Now that I have enough experience to have a basic understanding of the devotions, my biggest complaint about whole thing is that it’s too easy to reach the 55-point limit less than midway through elite difficulty, at which point your setup is basically fixed (unless you want to respec the character afterwards to build around different core skills and/or damage types) and your only remaining interaction with it is seeing a pop-up when one of your devotion skills gains a level (which takes long enough that you’ll probably be starting into postgame content before all of them max out). That’s kind of a lackluster finish for one of the core ways of shaping your character.
Having touched on damage types, though, let me talk some more about itemization in Grim Dawn. Many, if not most, skills can deal multiple types of damage, whether that’s from multiplying your basic attack damage, having its own built-in damage, or a combination of the two. This is clearly inefficient because best way of enhancing your damage output is through reducing the enemies’ resistances (simple “more” multipliers like Path of Exile or Last Epoch do exist in Grim Dawn, but they’re quite rare and usually tied to a specific skill), so you want to convert as much of your damage as possible into a single type, ideally one for which you can stack multiple sources of resistance reduction. Thus, an important element of making your character strong enough for ultimate difficulty and postgame content is getting item pieces to support those conversions (few skills have truly 100% conversion built into the skill tree) while also getting sufficient resistances, increased damage multipliers, armor, attack/cast speed, pet modifiers for minion builds, etc.
That said, this can lead to tension between the items that you want to get through the game’s core content and the items that you want for your ideal min-maxed final character, particularly since the clearest path to stat-dense items is using non-randomized item sets and thus blocking out multiple equipment slots from having any flexibility. There is some alleviation of this in the forms of components and augments (essentially add-ons that give additional stats to a given item, though they have restrictions on what base items they can be used for, e.g. mark of the traveler [most notable for granting movement speed] can be used only on boots), however, adding another layer to the balance puzzle.
Taken as a whole, this leads to a stronger divide between “leveling” gear and “final” gear than I’ve felt in other similar games. Whether I think that’s good or bad isn’t clear to me yet, so I’m just mentioning it as a point for the reader to consider because I don’t have enough experience to make a firm judgment about it yet. In the other similar games I’ve played (the aforementioned trio as well as select others, such as Sacred), this would’ve been a negative point, but Grim Dawn’s item drops aren’t as absurdly rare as to make the best deterministic items a pipe dream.
Which brings to me a big strong point for Grim Dawn: item generation. Randomly-generated items in Grim Dawn never have more than one prefix and/or one suffix, but those affixes often have multiple stats that fit together sensibly (e.g. the "thunderstruck" weapon prefix grants increased lightning damage, lightning damage over time, increased lightning damage over time, offensive ability, physical-to-lightning damage conversion, stun duration, and even a lightning skill that can proc on hits!), with rarer affixes having more stats. While this limits the variability of any given item, it makes it far more likely to get random items with a good collection of stats, though actually great items (“double rares” with a high rarity prefix and suffix) still take a lot of time to get.
Additionally, Grim Dawn has several item bases that are “monster infrequents”: base items with special implicit stats which can only drop infrequently (which can be anywhere from 1%-50% chance per kill) from specific monsters (which can mean anything from a category of monsters appearing in multiple acts to just one specific boss). These items are almost always better than regular bases (excepting cases where they have unfavorable damage conversions), and getting one with a double rare affixes (for a so-called “triple rare”) can be a best-in-slot chase item. Grim Dawn does have some weighting in its affix generation for monster infrequents (e.g. the minion implicits on Zaria’s Pendant make it more likely to roll affixes related to minions), but it’s still possible to find exceptions to that trend (e.g. my first character to clear the game ended up with an Aggressive [+% offensive ability] Zaria’s Pendant of Alacrity [+% attack speed], which was more in line with what I wanted as a non-minion druid).
Taking those two things together, there is a lot of potential for target farming in Grim Dawn (i.e. killing specific monsters in hopes of getting specific items), whether for build-enabling monster infrequents that just need reasonable affixes during leveling or for juicy triple rares to scale up into postgame, which I love.
On top of that, target farming is also possible for a fair number of set and unique items, which are mostly if not exclusively tied to specific bosses (e.g. Shar’Zul for its legendary weapon Worldeater).
Incidentally, monster item drops are actually generated when a monster is spawned because they get to use the stats of any gear they’re going to drop, so you can end up with neat moments of a certain monster taking an unusually long time to kill before dropping an armor with high resistance to the damage type(s) you were using. Perhaps even cooler, humanoid enemies will show weapons and shields that they generate with, so if you’re farming a specific weapon from a humanoid boss (like Shar’Zul’s Worldeater), you can look at the actual enemy model and reset if it isn’t using that weapon. This is a minor thing in the greater scheme, but it’s pretty nice that the possibility even exists.
As you might surmise, there’s a lot going on with getting items in Grim Dawn that I’m a big fan of (and I haven’t even mentioned that you can gamble with set items to either try getting new sets or other pieces of the same set!).
That all said, Grim Dawn does suffer from a lack of item crafting. The closest thing it has is being able to make items from preset recipes at blacksmiths once you find the corresponding blueprints. There are only a handful of bases that you can roll affixes on, the better ones of which are even locked to rolling only a single affix to offset the nice implicits. Even Diablo 2 let you do more with the Horadric cube crafting recipes, on top of runes in that game having far more customization potential than components/augments in Grim Dawn due to the latter having restricted base items, to say nothing of the crafting systems in Path of Exile or Last Epoch. Grim Dawn gives you more control over planning a character and getting at least some of the specific gear that you want (there are still plenty of nice unique items that are just random global drops), but that comes at the cost of less potential for really making your own items.
As for what you can actually do with those items (i.e. game content), Grim Dawn has a good amount to offer.
The main campaign (including AOM/FG) is long enough that it didn’t feel repetitive to play through three times per character (though I’ve only done that twice so far). The individual parts of it are mostly brief enough to not overstay their welcome in the way that Diablo 2’s jungles/sewers in Act 3 do, though some exceptions exist (I find the Candle District and Crown Hill parts of AOM tiresome already from the combination of bad pathing around stairs and the awful green bloom effects). All in all, it does have a nice sense of progression and feels satisfying to clear; avoiding most of the issues that Path of Exile has with failing to explain why an escaped exile can almost immediate kill demigods and yet still cares about getting involved with incidental tribal successions, mundane trade routes, or anything to do with Heist; though many of the story details are left for the player to piece together via lore notes and skill/item/devotion flavor text.
Postgame content comes in three main flavors: “roguelike” dungeons (three in the base game, plus one each in AOM and FG), crucible (a separate game mode DLC which is a timed arena with 170 waves of enemies in each of its own three difficulties), and shattered realm (a FG feature with an infinitely-scaling mixture of randomized maps with kill thresholds to advance, uncommon challenge maps, and one-to-four boss arenas). Each of those is spiced up with mutators that can add from one to four global modifiers to your character and/or enemies, though compared to similar systems in Path of Exile or Last Epoch, there is considerably more variance in how impactful any given mutator is since they tend to affect only two or three specific stats (e.g. having a mutator with “enemies deal increased chaos damage, have increased chaos resistance, and have reduced aether resistance” can be entirely meaningless if you’re facing beast-type monsters with a vitality damage-based character). For the most part, the roguelike dungeons are a stepping stone for gearing up to be able to either clear crucible fast enough to self-sustain or to progress into the “beyond here is just more difficulty for no extra rewards”-depths of shattered realm.
There are also a number of optional superbosses, though as I haven’t faced any yet (excepting a brief encounter with Ravager in my first jaunt through elite difficulty where I quickly recognized he was way beyond anything I’d dealt with up to that point and ran away until he stopped), so I can’t say anything about them other than that the easiest of the lot can be farmed for a set to speed up leveling future characters.
On which note, I will also add that Grim Dawn has a handful of other features to help with that (mandates and warrants that speed up gaining reputation with various factions, purchasable potions for an hour of increased experience gain, and consumable merits to unlock later campaign/crucible difficulties instantly, all of which can be transferred in game via the shared item stash). I haven’t touched most of them personally because I still enjoy the leveling process, but the mandates are definitely welcome for maxing out reputation roughly at the same time as finishing the ultimate campaign without extra grinding.
To touch on a glaring weak spot, the music in Grim Dawn tends to range from lackluster to actively annoying. There are a few good tracks (Story Told, for instance), but they’re the exception to the rule (like hearing the first 20 seconds or so of Stand Your Ground damn near all the time in crucible because it keeps restarting when a new boss spawns and cutting off when it dies). Of course, it doesn’t do the soundtrack any favors that the music will cut off randomly, though that might be a small mercy for the player. It might be fine to play with the game’s actual music the first time through, but muting it in favor of playing your own mood music after that would be a good idea.
Being able to rotate the camera is nice and helps a lot with finding hidden side areas (of which the game has plenty, though most are just a niche with a few chests), though it also taxes the game’s performance terribly. While I understand rotating 3D models puts a major load on a computer, it’s still kind of shameful that a game from 2016 is prone to stuttering during rotation on decent-to-good modern computers when the good Sacred games from 2004-2009 figured out how to do it without that issue. Doing it more gradually can help, but even slow rotations with no enemies around could cause me moments of lag.
In terms of complexity, Grim Dawn can be played without external references, but a few third-party references can go a long way in making it a smoother experience. Grimtools (made by the same Dammitt who did the Last Epoch build planner) and the Rainbow Filter (a mod that only recolors item names/descriptions without any mechanical effects) are very useful for learning what is possible with items and for experimenting with skill point/devotion allocations without needing to pay for respecs in the game itself. The tooltips are mostly reasonable (certainly better than Path of Exile, though not as good as Last Epoch), and while there are some odd interactions (such as +% all damage not affecting retaliation damage), the way that the game works is fairly intuitive for genre veterans aside from damage conversion (which is not documented properly in any official source and is best learned in this RektbyProtoss beginner guide video). Crate does deserve credit for actually having a basic game guide on their website (including links to Grimtools, which was cool to see), but all in all, I’d still say EHG set a new gold standard on that front with Last Epoch.
In the bigger picture, though, those are small complaints compared to how much I’m enjoying Grim Dawn’s itemization and build diversity (and there are plenty of other mechanics that I love about it, too, but they feel too detailed for one of these review posts). Despite approaching the game with some trepidation, I came away feeling like it’s the only game of its type I’ve played that can challenge Diablo 2’s spot at the top of the genre. I am still excited about Last Epoch and look forward to its ongoing progress towards full release, but Grim Dawn will likely be the main looter I play in the immediate future. Crate did announce an end to active development (aside from bug fixes and the like), and they’re veering off into at least one other game before considering starting on Grim Dawn 2, so for all intents and purposes, Grim Dawn is in its final state, and it’s a hell of a good game. Highly recommended.
Playing Time: About 130 hours to date