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RPG Codex Review: Grimoire - The Real Official Review
Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 21 October 2018, 02:31:18Tags: Golden Era Games; Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar
[Review by Dorateen]
There and Back Again: A Barrower’s Journey through Hyperborea
Playthrough begun under version 220.127.116.11-R, completed with version 18.104.22.168-R
On page six of the Wizardry 8 Game Manual, under the section Importing Characters, it reads the following: If you’re interested in this option, then you’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.
It is a reference of course, to the game’s highly acclaimed predecessor, Crusaders of the Dark Savant. Released in 1992, that adventure had reached a cliffhanger climax, and it would be nigh ten years before players could experience a satisfying conclusion. However, this sentiment is equally applicable to Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar. Not just for its laborious development cycle, but also in the context of the latter Wizardry series of computer role-playing games.
To appreciate the historical significance of Grimoire, one must consider that Wizardry 8 was the numeric and literary sequel to Wizardry 7, ending the story arc of the Dark Savant and the Cosmic Forge trilogy. One year earlier, in the autumn of 2000, another title called Wizards & Warriors was published, designed by D.W. Bradley, the author of Wizardry 7. Wizards & Warriors could also be treated as a successor, in writing style and fundamental design. However, both of these at the turn of the millennium represented a move to 3D graphics, introducing real time elements and generally embracing advancements in software technology. At last, in Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar we have a sequel that has hewed to the traditions of Crusaders of the Dark Savant, and to a good degree Bane of the Cosmic Forge, in both presentation and seizing that intangible quality, the spirit of the game.
It is with this understanding that one should approach Grimoire. To state it plainly, this is a cRPG belonging to the early 1990’s, and places value on many design principles of that period. The game is viewed through an adventuring window, turn-based and grid-based, unapologetically opaque in delivery of its mechanics as much as narrative; a behemoth in scope allowing multiple hundreds of hours of playing time for a player who is given just enough rope to hang their party as they explore Hyperborea. All this, as well as the chance to rise in exultation with each triumph, whether in combat or deciphering the mysteries of the richly developed game world.
It is not to say there aren’t some concessions made for a modern audience. Features of comfort are present such as the automap, an encyclopedic journal, and a quick fix method to heal characters in the party post combat. Yet even these do not detract from the overarching classical agency of the game, setting the player loose in the world with little direction, until they search around following their own instinct and volition, for the threads from which the tapestry of Grimoire is weaved.
Once loading up the Main Menu, it will be immediately apparent this is a highly customizable game. In addition to the standard difficulty configurations, the player will find that the encounter rate can be adjusted, from NEVER producing random encounters, to a mode called ONSLAUGHT, in which the party will seem to have to fight for every square inch of the map. I played through with the setting on FREQUENT. This allowed for a steady diet of battle, with the occasional back-to-back fights even when just turning around on a tile. Not unreasonably, though, exploration also exhibited stretches of corridor that could be traversed unmolested, especially after the first time clearing a map. As expected in this genre of dungeon crawlers, random encounters will re-spawn upon leaving and re-entering an area. So there is never a shortage of wandering monsters to cross. These settings can be adjusted mid-game, which makes for further adaptive play depending on the situation or the player’s present objective.
On a purely superficial level, Grimoire allows the player to select the appearance of the Interface Theme, varying from gilded borders, to a more sylvan wooded style, or imposing stonework. Cosmetic, but a nice touch. Perhaps the most important choice to be decided from the menu is the starting location of the game. This is a clever throw-back to Wizardry 7 and 8, which both featured alternate starting points based on imported save states. Grimoire, having no previous installment in a series, uses this method to let players experiment with different ways the adventure shall be introduced. The areas each have distinguishing characteristics, making some more challenging than others or yielding some small early game advantage. Most noteworthy, they can cut off a few locations from being accessed during the rest of the game. For example, I opted to initiate play from the Briarpatch Woods. The default location, I think it best set the tone for the game and was reminiscent of the wilderness area when I had embarked on Crusaders of the Dark Savant. Yet by choosing this entrance to Hyperborea, I know of at least three maps I would not be able to access in the future. Choice and Consequence, indeed.
The greatest aspect of customization within the framework of Grimoire is the player’s party. The infrastructure of the adventure, this is the team of characters the player will be tasked to assemble in order to delve into the game world’s story and accomplish their quest. Up to eight characters can be created, an impressive number by modern mainstream standards, but once more illustrative of a different era when larger party-sizes were expected. There is also a broad cast of NPCs throughout the game who can be recruited into the party. This presents another decision for the player, about what configuration to build their party, what mix of player created characters and NPCs, or to take no recruitables at all. It is true the NPCs met early seem to be overpowered in statistics and skills, as if they were built to be a crutch for new players. As it stands, I would recommend generating eight characters of your own to start with because you can always dismiss them to a predetermined location and pick them up again at a later time. There were only a few occasions I brought an NPC into the party, and usually this was for a specific quest that is designed like an escort mission, or to test something out.
There are fifteen player classes, called professions or vocations, and fourteen races to combine with, making for myriad options during character creation. The essential part of this customization is how ability scores are rolled, and how the race and class of a character interact with one another. Different races have different native stat attributes, some higher than the baseline and some low. Thus when attempting to roll a specific character, the player must generate a number that is high enough to reach the minimum specs of the class while adjusted for race. Ultimately, what this constructs is a form of racial affinity for professions: some races are better suited than others for a certain class, or have no hope of attaining the elite classes at all. In combination with unique properties for races, such as faster magic regeneration, the player will find some races make better choices for spell casters, or others as brute warriors, and so on.
The good news is the Grimoire role-playing system proves to be flexible enough that the player is not locked into any specific race and profession combination. Not to mention with the class changing aspect of level advancement, characters can aspire to switch to different professions, which they might not have had available to them at creation. I will briefly mention there are a number of items that exist in the game, hard found and hard earned, which can increase the magic regeneration rate of a character. Thus, a human or drow wizard, two races that have much slower rates, can become viable options with a little patience.
This only adds further to the complexity of initial character creation. After rolling to meet the requirements of a profession, any extra points are available to be distributed as skill points, attribute points or added to the character’s hit point total. With no less than eleven ability scores, again, the player’s plate is full of options. I’m sure there are many theories about the most favorable point spread and how to distribute bonus points accordingly. Looking back at the early game, I can only advise that skill ranks are very important, especially for spell casters or item use. And it doesn’t hurt to get some extra hit points on your frontline fighters.
So then, after spending a full weekend to build a party of eight created characters, the player is now ready to begin Grimoire. Upon entry onto a vibrant handcrafted 2D map presented in first-person perspective, there will be read narration written to provoke the imagination, painting the tone and atmosphere of the adventure. One of the areas where this role-playing game excels, such word imagery from descriptions to NPC dialogues exudes charm and whimsy, detailed with flourishing prose. After being treated to the game author’s inimitable style of text, the player will take a step or two and be promptly confronted by a one-eyed flower with violent intentions.
Now depending on the encounter rate toggled in the configuration menu, battle will likely be found often in Grimoire, alternating between wandering enemies throughout exploration and set piece fights. Combat unfolds in a phased-based system, much like Crusaders of the Dark Savant. Each character must be assigned an order. In the case of melee attacks, this includes the mode of attack associated with a weapon type (swords can thrust or swing, hammers smash, and daggers can even be flicked and retrieved after battle). Items can be selected to be used from the inventory bar, permitting that character has a high enough skill such as invocation or incantation. And spells might be chosen for the appropriate classes. Once all orders have been assigned, the player can review and begin combat. The battle then plays out in turns determined by initiative, taking the attribute Speed into account for both characters and monsters. Some of the most difficult encounters are with enemies who are quicker and can act before the party’s fastest character. Conversely, some tough opponents will make it almost necessary to go first and disable them, or else face their devastating attacks.
One wrinkle to this sequence is that spell casting always occurs at the end of a round, after other characters and enemies have acted. Thus if a player thought to immobilize the foe with a hold monster spell, they could find it is too late by the time the sage is able to cast. The same consideration applies to healing spells in combat. Here becomes important the utilization of many of the consumable or limited charged items found throughout the game. Using a stun rod or a faerie staff might be a better option than casting the spell dancing lights, especially if you need to incapacitate an enemy in a hurry. This is where the versatility of the bard profession shines. Many musical instruments replicate crowd control effects, and such a character with a high speed (and music skill) can land these afflictions in a timely manner.
Another consideration for combat set up, early in the game, enemies will go after only your first two (top left and top right) characters. So you should want to put your most heavily armored and highest hit point warriors in those spots. But if that sounds too predictable, not to worry. Soon enough monsters will appear who can attack your third and fourth characters as well. There are boss enemies who “reach” and make multiple attacks on the poor character hiding in the sixth spot. Eventually, spells and special abilities will be thrown at all members of the party so that no one is completely safe.
If one envisions the party formation in Grimoire as four ranks deep with two characters each, then it will be discovered that monsters line up in similar groups as well. Many battles are with single opponents, including some of the toughest villains, but there are also fights with two and three rows of enemies. This is where tactics can get interesting. Your bard might be able to put the monsters in one row to sleep, but there are still two more groups to contend with. Hopefully your team has a few more support casters who can confuse or paralyze the other groups, but they will have to survive the initial clash of the first round of combat.
Due to the nature of a phase-based system, where targets are selected first and then the action plays out, if one group of monsters is killed, the other groups then move up in ranks. If this happens before your casters fired their spells (and casters always act last in a round) it means the spell can be wasted. Again, it is an area where planning ahead comes into play, which group you prioritize in taking out, and how you use your ranged and melee fighters with long reach weapons to target other groups. Some of the more tense moments can occur when the sequence of battle does not unfold according to your careful strategy. It requires the player to consider all the abilities and treasures found, which are at their disposal, to manage these larger confrontations. Individual rows can contain up to six monsters, and there are some devious enemies who can summon help, further inflating their ranks.
Regarding the use of crowd control effects, it is worth noting that conditions such as sleep, paralysis or being frozen, have a chance to be broken upon successful contact and penetration. From what I experienced, this means that, yes an enemy can be rendered helpless. But if your bard acted early in the round, and then your slower fighters smack the foe, they will just “wake up” that monster again. If this all happens before the monster’s turn in the round, it will naturally still get its attack. All of this requires a juggling of factors including speed and initiative; when will your opponent strike, and the order your characters act. When dealing with a group situation of multiple enemies, it might be worthwhile to hold them and have some of your fighters refrain from attacking in the same round, otherwise risk breaking the enchantment of all the paralyzed enemies. This plays nicely into some special abilities available to classes, as it takes one round to hide in shadows or go into berserk mode.
Scrutinizing such details, it can be seen that combat in Grimoire has depth and nuance for the player to either exploit or view as another puzzle to unravel. Numerous variables, not the least being party composition, all contribute to the nature of an encounter. A cadence or rhythm to the flow of battle begins to develop as characters grow in competency. Like the latter Wizardry games it is modeled after, Grimoire features a learn-by-use system. Your character’s martial, sneaking, music and invocation skills will go up over the course of battle. Thus fighting the same monsters again can play out differently than it did a few minutes ago, because your ranger’s lethal blow skill is now a point higher. Another way to look at it, combat is a means in itself to continually improve each party member’s skill set.
The itemization in Grimoire would fill a voluminous catalogue of equipment and trinkets found, stolen or purchased. It seems there is an item that can mimic the effects of almost every kind of spell in the game, including enough musical instruments to commission an orchestra. And many weapons come with special status effects that might be inflicted upon successfully hitting and penetrating an enemy. Even a simple stone that can be thrown, will possibly knock a monster unconscious. Again, the use of these helpful objects is governed by the appropriate skills. And the character will want to keep increasing their aptitude, to ensure successful activation and effectiveness while avoiding an untimely backfire.
I found this a critical aspect of keeping combat fresh and exciting, through experimentation with different actions among all members of the party, sometimes equipping their off-hand for various secondary attacks. In addition to cycling through interesting weaponry, there are a lot of consumables such as wands, powders, combustible potion bottles, that are made available to the player. Use them! This is one role-playing game, not the least due to the sheer length of the campaign, that there is no need to hoard everything jealously. You will continue to find more items for utility around the next corner, and the more characters use items in battle, they will further raise their Invocation skill. (Or Incantation, which is a separate skill for using scrolls.)
The best defense is a good offence, but even in Grimoire you will want to obtain some protection for your characters. The Armor system is designed with multiple levels including a Total Armor Class, as well as armor class ratings derived from items and magic, and a natural armor class. Using ascending integers where the cap for TAC is 125, it involves localized regions for protection such as head, arms, hands, legs and feet. So even if a character is maxed out at 125, it is likely he can still upgrade individual pieces of armor that will improve other locations. Some forms of armor are made of lighter material, which one must consider to avoid becoming encumbered. There are shields, too, and some of the most powerful ones have magic properties that can raise ability scores or grant regeneration of hit points.
NON PLAYER CHARACTERS
As mentioned already, an ensemble of colorful non-player characters has been put together to populate the world of Hyperborea. These are the NPCs the player will meet while wandering wilderness areas, exploring dungeons, or at specific locations. Some of these personalities will offer goods to sell, others are a vital source of information. Encounters with an NPC are opportunities to sell off some of the miscellaneous loot found, or battle them if one is feeling antagonistic, or ask them to join the party. Verbal interaction is achieved through a keyword input window, triggering responses from the NPC accordingly. The player can offer greetings, inquire about a wide range of topics, or even present items to be identified or for completion of a quest.
It is possible to cast a charm spell when engaging in diplomacy with these characters, to increase one’s odds of obtaining a more favorable reaction. But by far, the most useful conversation-related spell to cast is Mind Read. This will reveal the keywords indicating that the NPC has something important to discuss when prompted. Of course, not every character the player meets will be amicable to such probing, and the ensuing reaction can be interesting.
What is enjoyable to experience is the level of reactivity between non-player characters as you progress through the adventure. Locally, the inhabitants seem to have a lot to say about one another. And they will often take note of the party’s deeds and accomplishments. Sometimes this will lead to a reward. Other times, the actions of the party will cause an inflammatory change of attitude in certain NPCs. When this happens, the conversation interface offers the chance to bribe or negotiate the situation, in an attempt to talk down a hostile character. The conversation interface has dual meters to track disposition, so you can see how effective your diplomatic efforts have been.
Some of the wandering non player characters who the party will run into might demand items or try to extort large sums of money. How the player responds can have consequences later in the game. Whenever I crossed an NPC under these circumstances, the characters in question learned they should not mess with the Winged Exemplar’s Heralds.
There are a couple of additional ways to recruit non player characters using items found in the game world. The first are various bones of long dead adventurers, which can be revived only through use of the Raise Dead spell. After speaking to the newly returned to life individual, they can be asked to join the party, or else shall remain wandering in localized areas, to be encountered later. Also possible to find are legendary weapons that hold the spirit of mighty warriors trapped within. Using these specialized items will summon the spirit who can be recruited like any other NPC, or they will return to the weapon until their services might be desired at a future opportunity.
I think it would be difficult to gracefully summarize the game’s backstory, and going into great detail would not do justice to the wonder of an emergent narrative. I will mention only that early on, the name of one of the chief antagonists is presented to the party like a fearful whisper and they will encounter the ripple effects of his forces and agenda throughout their adventures. It builds up with sublime pacing until at last meeting this character produces a dramatic interaction. The way events play out can vary, which is another attribute of the wild nature how Grimoire unfolds. However, the adventure is certainly more about the search for sacred relics and the answer to cosmic mysteries, rather than defeating a specific singular entity.
Yet perhaps the pinnacle of Grimoire’s design is its characteristic of free ranging exploration. This is not a railroaded adventure. There is not anyone to hold the player’s hand and tell the party where to go. Clues will need to be picked up and pieced together, which will slowly coalesce into a sense of direction. Left to their own devices, the Heralds of the Winged Exemplar can wander whither they choose, so long as they have the appropriate tools and ingenuity to overcome obstacles. In one of the earliest dungeons, there is an alcove where the player will be required to place an object in order to open a hidden passage. This introduces a concept that will permeate the game’s progression: inventory-based puzzles. Such to the degree that these necessary items are flagged as CRITICAL, and there is even a setting in the configuration menu to toggle whether or not you can drop these crucial artifacts.
The keys to unlock the world of Hyperborea come in different shapes and sizes. There are hands, skulls, braids, feathers, pieces or armor or wearing other items of clothing, talismans, statuettes and stones; frequently wrapped inside riddle and enigma. Sometimes the player will have to merge objects to make entirely new creations, and once solved, these allow access to deeper secrets. The list of items that need to be located and used in this fashion is extensive, marked by creativity of design and a delight to the imagination. Throughout this extravagant scavenger hunt, there are tools available to the player to help them figure out what is expected. The LOOK command, from drop down menu or dragging an item to the appropriate icon, gives a detailed physical description. Characters who build up their ASSAY skill, can view an object to discern its in-game properties. Finally, the Improved Identify spell will record even more information into the party’s journal.
On the subject of inventory, Grimoire uses a shared system. Rather than individual backpacks for characters, other than what they have equipped, the party’s inventory is displayed as a horizontal bar with dozens of spaces, and scrolling arrows to either side. In this one regard, it follows the design of the computer role-playing game Lands of Lore, and presents a limitation to how much can be carried and the sorting through of all the various items. However, the party will be able to pick up specialized containers that open up anywhere from six to sixteen more spaces. These include magical bags and pouches, barrels, sacks, a food pantry, scroll case, ammunition quiver, and even a book case. This is another example of the game delivering an imaginative solution (the circumstances through which the party finds these containers and accompanying narration is typically clever and well-written) to a practical problem. It should be noted that items can also be dropped on the ground, and will exist permanently in the game world. It is helpful to pick a nice quiet spot and unload some of your excess goods that you don’t want to sell just yet or get rid of for some reason.
As the party explores the outdoor and dungeon maps, there are a number of utility spells to aid in navigation. Direction will place a compass up on the screen, and True Seeing will detect illusory walls that the player can pass through. By far, the most useful magic available to the characters is Detect Secret, which conjures a small globe at the top of the screen that will blink whenever you step in front of a secret passage, or trigger a tile that has some noteworthy feature. This is essential as the twisting corridors that make up Grimoire’s environments are riddled with hidden paths, and rooms with alcoves bricked up behind walls. There exists an even more potent spell that will reveal the entire map, however to get the most effective use of this supernatural view, it must be cast at the highest power level and consumes a lot of magic. Thus it serves more as another trick in the high-level party’s adventuring toolkit, something to cast only upon becoming stumped by an incomplete map and to confirm whether you’ve missed anything.
One of the most important features the party will discover in their travels are the squares on the map grid marked as Safe Havens. A character with the scout skill will immediately recognize these special locations, which allows the party to rest without interruption. In the process, the scout skill will often increase, another example of the game’s system of learning through successful application. Also, another desirable quality about a Safe Haven is that a character who has had their Spirit bar depleted, will regain spirit when resting only in these spots. Furthermore, party members who have sadly died in battle but have been revived through means of Resurrection or Raise Dead, will lose 10 points of constitution. Yet these points will be restored gradually, each time a rest is completed at a Safe Haven.
As the party walks around the game world, over time the characters will be depleted of precious Vitality, one of the four resource meters in addition to Hit Points, Magic and Spirit. Represented by different colored bars, the interface beneath each portrait can be toggled to display numeric values as well. This mechanic is important not only to keep the character from collapsing into sleep from exhaustion, but also because more Vitality equates to hitting and penetrating more often with attacks. The measure of this secondary attribute is influenced by a number of factors including race. The feyfolk, for example, are notoriously slight and delicate, seeming to be easily knocked over by a feather.
Fortunately, Grimoire provides several alternatives to keep the party’s Vitality at healthy levels. Resting naturally restores characters to full points. Throughout numerous dungeons, there are fountains that replenish Vitality. Even more helpful are the abundant amounts of food products to be discovered, from ham and wine to oatmeal cookies and magical baldercake, which increases the value the most. As I mentioned with other consumables, the food supplies in Hyperborea are rich, and the player need not go overboard hoarding these items. One might want to keep a small stash in reserve in case of an emergency, but generally I found when stumbling across a tasty morsel, I would use it right away on the characters that needed Vitality. There is also a Refresh spell available to clerics and bards. Eventually a high enough level spell caster regenerating their magic quickly should be able to keep the party refreshed throughout an adventure so as not to be a concern. One last delightful remedy is the spell Vitality Drain, which as the name suggests, will siphon an amount of Vitality from monsters (dependent on skill, power and the type of enemy) transferring it to the caster. It has the added benefit of rendering a special effect on certain creatures.
The maps in Grimoire, being laid out on a grid, include a couple of particular tiles that are hostile toward movement. The first is deep water and stepping on these square hues of blue will sap the Vitality of all party members. There is a Swimming skill that should be useful, but only mitigates the hazard slightly. Pressing further will only see the characters fall unconscious and then drown in a watery grave. This has made it necessary to seek out some clever methods of aquatic travel, and of course it is where the turtle-riding phenomenon originated. In addition, there are items and spells that will aid the party should they only need to traverse a short distance. The other danger tile is molten fire, which damages the party each step they take. Again, spells can be learned to protect and allow for a limited range of walking. These formidable obstacles further inform the game’s itemization making it desirable to obtain the appropriate adventuring equipment.
There are two types of doors the Heralds will be frequently blocked with. One is a metal clanging gate, often operated by a lever or else requiring a special item to trigger its opening. The other is a less imposing but sturdy wooden door. This particular portal offers a variety of options to attempt passage. Without a key, when one is required, the player can still pick the lock through use of the appropriate skills (Inspection and Lockpicking) making a thief in the party a handy inclusion. This method brings up an interactive window accompanied by a word riddle, with three rows of partially missing alphabetic letters. A character with high enough proficiency must click on the correct letters to spell out the answer of the riddle and unlock the door. Should that fail, there is a Knock Knock spell available for a wizard to try. And if none of these yield the expected result, then repeated banging against the wooden door will bring up a new user interface to attempt forced entry.
An early breakthrough moment for me was on such occasion when I lacked the key to bypass an important door that was barred with a high level lock. It was the first time I encountered the interface, which allows you to select two characters, and together they will test their might to achieve success. I was able to cast the spell Strength on the party’s ranger and berserker for an added boost and push our way through into the next room. The solution was rewarding as it enabled progression that was vital to our mission.
One of the qualities of Grimoire’s exploration I found is an aspect of “rabbit hole” interconnectivity between maps. The party will be exploring a dungeon, and suddenly find passage to an entirely new area, perhaps unrelated to their current itinerary. It is not at all difficult to get sidetracked, the way the game world keeps expanding, and easy to lose sight of the larger view until one steps back to consider how it all fits together. (Fortunately there is an Orienteer, showing not only the local map, but also an Atlas of wider Hyperborea.) In one such scenario, I was investigating a tomb and came across a ladder that climbed up to a mountain region, which in turn contained another cavern to explore, and a secret method to reach a wizard’s barge floating in the sky. It can be enough to make one’s head spin, but also generates this amazing sense of discovery. There is that magical curiosity about wondering what lies beyond the next stairway or other transition, which defines the most memorable dungeon crawlers.
Therefore, Grimoire is clearly a role-playing game that demands one’s attention to details. Some of the puzzles likely to confound the party can be reasoned out from information collected as part of a dungeon’s environment. Descriptive narration about writings on walls or other important observations are often scribbled into the quest journal, and it is wise to consult these words when trying to fathom what to do. Spending the effort to think things through coupled with trial and manipulation of various items, makes solving the combination a rewarding exercise.
Grimoire is a game that introduces gradual character development of party members. This is why it requires an investment of time to get the most out of the game’s mechanics. One example would be building up the ability to backstab a target in combat. A tactic that involves the synergy between two skills, a character must be able to use Stealth to first hide in shadows on their turn. And in the following round, with a sufficient amount of points in Backstabbing, they can launch an attack that will result in double or triple damage. In both cases, the more points invested in these skills, the greater the chance of succeeding. It requires diligence and perseverance to get Stealth high enough to be able to hide with a degree of consistency. It is one of the skills that will improve through use, so even a neophyte starting out will be encouraged to keep trying. The actual skill Backstab, however, can only be raised by investing points upon gaining a level. Combined with the attribute Speed, which determines how many standard attacks and how many extra attacks a character gets on his turn, the result can be worth the effort. A hasty pirate striking upward of seven times for over one hundred points of damage per each hit adds up to a lot of pain for the enemy.
The Lethal Blow skill is, perhaps, the most gratifying and valuable ability available to martial characters. It is the chance to score a critical hit that will kill an enemy outright. Only certain professions start with this skill, which is something to consider at character creation or planning advanced classes to change into later. However, it is also used in conjunction with weapons that have the lethal property, and it is a skill that will improve once your character starts landing critical hits in battle. The skill rank seems to have some correlation to the percentage of health remaining on an opponent before the lethal blow will trigger. In other words, with ten points invested in the skill, a monster will need to be reduced to about ten percent of its health. As you move closer to putting fifty points into lethal blow, you start producing critical hits on enemies when they have lost half their hit points. And with a skill of one hundred, a character will likely start one-shotting enemies left and right. A word of caution, I noticed some high level creatures seem to have a built in resistance before they succumb to instant killing. Characters with maximum lethal blow still had to whittle down these abominations, and usually triggered a critical only when the monster had few hit points remaining. The percentage of health after damaging a target is communicated in the combat window, which is a helpful feature to tracking the progress of a battle.
There are certain monsters in Grimoire who also appear to have the lethal blow skill. These can be some of the scariest fights, as the player should watch the hit point totals of their own characters. Falling under half their health likewise made these vulnerable party members susceptible to critical kills, in a dangerous display of mechanical symmetry.
Another realm of this slowly developed but edifying skill system is spell casting. Magic use in Grimoire is an appropriately complex and intimidating practice. No less than twelve categories or schools are available to characters, including two that must be unlocked via a special method and have their own unique spellbooks. Some of these themed categories might eventually contain over ten spells each, building up quite the arsenal for powerful casters. The deadliest schools are the Arcanum and Eldritch. Attempting to learn spells from those respective books is a difficult proposition, and will inflict a temporary insanity condition upon the character who tries to glean the forbidden knowledge from its pages. For all other schools of magic, learning happens by choosing spells upon gaining a level, or from spell books that require a suitable rank in the Scribe skill. This important skill will increase upon successfully scribing a new spell, but is worth investing some points when advancing, as a higher Scribe will make it possible to access more potent spells.
There are also different magic-related skills that are relevant to specific professions. For example, wizards use the Sorcery skill, clerics use Litany, and a thaumaturge uses Alchemy. A necromancer, aptly, must concentrate on Necromancy. These are the skills that govern how effective a character’s casting will be, whether they will backfire or fizzle, or how often a monster will resist. Again, the higher the number the better, and spell casting seems to only become reliable with the relevant skill raised into the twenties or more. That translates to early mages who will struggle to land offensive spells, for at least a few levels. Magic skills do not increase through practice, only by applying points upon gaining a level. This is important to remember especially when switching classes. A sage who has been building up his Sorcery skill and then becomes a cleric, must now start over investing in Litany, because that is the skill required for the new profession.
Casting is accomplished through the adventuring screen, by clicking on the appropriate icon next to the character portrait, or selecting from the drop down menu the Spell command. This will present the player with a new screen showing the schools of magic to toggle through and find the desired spell. Many of the spell names can be recognized from Bane of the Cosmic Forge, owing to that Wizardry title’s influence on Grimoire’s design. Once this is done, the player must decide the power level to cast the spell, ranging from one to seven. Obviously, at power level seven, the chances are greater of doing more damage, having greater duration, but also increase the odds of failure. This mechanic is another feature carried over from the D.W. Bradley Wizardry titles, where the power levels are graphically represented as dice, demonstrating a deeper inspiration from the table top role-playing hobby.
As has been alluded to previously in this discussion, there is an impressive variety of purposes among the spells in Grimoire. In addition to utility spells that help exploration, there exists magic to augment individual characters making them stronger and quicker, or able to learn better from books. There are group spells that protect the entire party, or the Enchanted Blade to assist all party members in hitting and penetration. Healing spells will remedy direct damage, or remove harmful conditions (and there are many nasty afflictions). The application of offensive magic can range from the single target type that does an overwhelming amount of damage, to hitting all creatures in a group, and even some that will affect all monsters (multiple rows) in a battle. There are spells that do diminishing damage over several rounds in the form of a cloud that hangs over the enemy, and counter spells to dismiss such magic. All this, as well as multiple types of summoning spells. At higher levels, prepare to bend the fabric of reality through teleportation or travel to other planes of existence. Experimentation is the key to enjoyment and a fulfilling experience as a practitioner of the magical arts.
Every player character in Grimoire is gifted to use magic in some capacity, regardless of profession. While the traditional spell casting classes will be the ones to specialize in this area of expertise and take the most advantage of the system, even slow-witted warriors will start to select spells from a limited repertoire by the time they reach tenth level. Other classes start learning spells sooner, making the possibility of a hybrid character. I had a barrower metalsmith who, combined with the race’s natural fast magic regeneration, was able to cast modest heal spells to keep the rest of the party patched up regularly. This freed our cleric to save his magic points for more important situations.
Enchantment is all around the player in Grimoire. I have mentioned the fountains found in some dungeons that restore Vitality. There are also beneficial fountains that revitalize a character’s magic, and hit points, too. Curative waters exist, and stepping on special squares accompanied by the flashing of multi-colored lights can heal serious maladies. On the other hand, drinking from some fountains will produce ill effects. An unusual form of enchantment is the possibility of seeing a character polymorph into another creature. Fortunately there is yet another utility spell, Divination, which can be cast to detect the properties of the many fountains the party will encounter.
One of the worst afflictions I had to deal with was the curse of lycanthropy. The effects are subtle, as there is no indication on the list of conditions accessible from the character sheet. It will only manifest itself when in the middle of battle, the character will start attacking other party members. (Similar to being under the influence of confusion or insanity.) But none of the healing spells or the Remove Curse spell will restore the infected character. It might be that lycanthropy will wear off with the passage of time, although the condition persisted over multiple rests including at Safe Havens. I watched as the character’s portrait would transmogrify to a snarling werewolf, and then back again. This introduced a real element of horror into the game, and I was only able to get rid of the lycanthropy by seeking out one of the magic tiles that cure disease, near one of the starting locations of the adventure. This happened to me twice over the course of playing, and each time it felt like a mini quest to save our unfortunate party members.
In May 2018, Grimoire was updated to include a functioning Spirit bar mechanic, one of the four resource meters I mentioned previously. Influenced by the attribute Devotion, it is a measure of a character’s intestinal fortitude when faced with frightening and innately evil creatures. Demons and undead are among the enemies that will produce a fear effect on party members when first confronted. Affected characters will have their Spirit bar reduced, representing a hit to their morale, and risk sinking into a state of panic. In gameplay terms, it requires a remedy as quickly as possible or else the fear condition is exasperated. A single power level of the Bless spell will restore the Spirit bar. Then a Sane Mind spell should be cast to alleviate any fear lingering on a character. Resting at a Safe Haven will also restore spirit, but it can be a daunting proposition when the party is stuck in a fortress of skeletons and liches quite a distance from being able to rest in peace.
Of course, this is Grimoire, so there is a further complication in that the Necromancer profession is unreceptive to a Bless spell. In fact, it works like a Curse on those wielders of the dark arts. It means that a necromancer character must instead use the spell Cerebral Shield, if they wish to restore the Spirit bar through magic. All of this blessing, and shielding and removing of fear gives the player more to handle in battles with infernal monsters, while already trying to fend off dangerous opponents.
The intricacy of this system extends to how characters build up a resistance to the effect of these creatures the more they face them. Thus, the first time meeting a dreaded lich lord, the entire party might be quaking with fear and low Spirit levels. But as they continue to fight and defeat the liches, they develop a sort of confidence or inoculation, and you will see fewer and fewer characters reacting in terror. By the time the player is midway clearing a dungeon, they should no longer need to deal with the horror of these creature types.
A mechanic that traces its roots back to the dawn of the Wizardry series is the option to change the class of a player character midway through an adventure, by increasing stats and meeting prerequisite attribute scores for the new profession. The most enthusiastic embrace of this system can find a character switching through multiple careers, even moving back and forth, to take advantage of new skills or spells. In Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar, this iconic feature is present, although with some restrictions imposed upon the player. Changing professions is accessed by clicking on the character portrait from the main adventuring screen, and the option becomes available only after attaining three levels. Furthermore, only a limited number of classes are allowed to be switched to from the present profession, and of course the character must meet the minimum attribute threshold.
For Grimoire, this means that the Warrior class can only change into a berserker, ranger, or pirate. On the other hand, a Ranger character has available to them the outgoing professions of warrior, thief, and assassin. Thus, when I wanted to move our party’s ranger into a pirate, it first required dipping into warrior for several levels and then making the switch to pirate. Another example of plotting a path is for spell casting characters who might wish to break out into more physical pursuits. A Sage can only be a wizard, a thaumaturge, or a cleric. But it is the cleric who, in addition to becoming a bard or a sage, opens the door to the holy fighter hybrid known as the Templar. A further consideration is that unlike earlier Wizardry games, once a character changes professions, they can never go back to their old class. The thief who dabbles in becoming a bard, makes a difficult path to ever upgrade into an assassin.
When switching classes, the attributes of a character will be set to their racial minimums, and the minimum attribute requirement for the new profession. For example, A Necromancer requires a 60 in both Intelligence and Willpower. A Wizard who builds up a high intelligence over the course of an adventure, might find switching to Necromancer appealing because the attribute will only reset to 60. It does make starting a new profession something for the player to weigh carefully. But other than facing some lowered statistics, the hit points, magic and vitality values of a character remain the same as well as existing skill ranks.
And this is why the multi-classing system is worth exploring and becomes quite a powerful option. A party member who has reached ten levels in their original class, can now switch and start over, while adding onto their health and vitality, and continuing to increase their skills to the max number of 100. Since the rate of leveling slows down exponentially, it is the vehicle to keep improving your characters, along with the acquisition of new abilities. In fact, it does seem the sweet spot for taking the plunge is around level seven or eight. Under a new profession, characters will gain levels quickly especially when the player is likely fighting monsters with more experience, keeping advancement at a satisfying pace. One thorn for primary magic using classes is that it might be tempting to persevere and stay pure in hopes of obtaining more powerful spells. I needed our party’s cleric to get Water Walking and Remove Paralysis, which are only available at double-digit levels. He was about to hit fourteenth level by the time it was right to change into a Templar.
Thus leveling up is always a joyous event in Grimoire. Upon gaining the required amount of experience points, the player is immediately taken to the character screen after combat. (It is possible to receive experience points outside of combat, as well, for completing quests or accomplishing other noteworthy feats.) Three random attributes will increase from one to three points, and then the character will get up to six bonus points to be freely distributed or pumped into attributes. This system allows for a degree of unpredictability, while also giving the player direct control to build a party member as they see fit. It provides a means of the game adding points into an area you might otherwise neglect because you want to raise a different attribute rapidly. Obviously, increasing these statistics is crucial not only for gameplay impact, but to meet class changing requirements. So those higher rolls of five or six bonus points become precious.
Characters also receive points to invest in skills, which are divided into three categories. Mental, Physical and Martial, each receiving a portion from the total pool of points available when leveling up. Under the Mental umbrella, magic wielders will need to give attention to their respective casting skills, yet scribing and invocation are important, too. The Physical sphere is an opportunity to better one’s climbing and swimming skills, or hiding, among many other areas to develop prowess. Self-explanatory, the last category is where characters boost up the ability to use the weapons they fight with. Some professions receive more points in a given category, than others. And while many of the skills will increase through use during the course of the game, some do not, and the chance to push them higher through allocation of points at level up gives the prudent player much to consider.
The last element of leveling up is the picking of spells. Since all professions have the ability to use magic, this selection eventually becomes available to all characters. While base spell casting classes might get two or three new spells to choose, other warrior types will only be granted one spell. Of course, this is dependent on a wizard or cleric not having filled his book already through other methods such as scribing.
I should mention that the attribute Intelligence has influence over when a character will increase a skill from using it successfully. But Wisdom has the effect of letting characters increase a skill, even if they fail an action. As described earlier, Speed determines the order that characters act in combat as well as how many attacks they generate. The following information is also detailed on the character sheet, in a box when the player clicks on different attributes. In summary, it is Strength and Agility which makes it easier in melee to hit and penetrate. Constitution affects the carrying capacity of characters, how much weight they can equip before becoming encumbered. Willpower helps with resisting certain forms of magic, Devotion pertains to how characters learn new skills and magic, and Fellowship is for interacting with NPCs. Metabolism is an attribute that informs how a character develops, how much health and vitality as well as regeneration where applicable. Finally there is a special attribute called Destiny. A number that represents fortune and favor in the midst of battle; if a party member takes damage that would normally kill them, there is a chance that “destiny prevails” and he will remain standing with one hit point remaining. The Destiny attribute will then be reduced by one point accordingly.
The Grimoire ruleset employs a table of staggered leveling, meaning different professions have different experience point requirements in order to advance. From the Sage who needs the least, all the way up to the elite Jester, which not only accumulates the need for a lot of experience to level up, but has very high entry attributes to begin with. At the start of the game, multiple characters will frequently train at the same time. Later on, the player will notice more of a rotation through characters in the party. With Eight members to manage, it seems there is always someone facing the prospects of a new level. And when you have a freshly changed class character in an area with challenging enemies, it is possible to gain multiple levels at once. The gulf of experience needed to advance between each level will grow wide, on average around two hundred and fifty thousand by the time characters are tenth level. However, there are zones fill with creatures that are worth between 2,000 and 4,500 experience. Even pushing through one hundred fights at 2,500 XP each is not out of reach, and the promise of a new level from exploring dungeons fully.
CULTURES OF HYBERBOREA
The spectrum of races available to player characters offer their own advantages and disadvantages. Ranging from the standard human and those found in traditional fantasy such as dwarves (here called barrowers) and elves (known as drow, but with little relation to the sadistic masochistic variety from Dungeons & Dragons) to more anthropomorphic lions, wolves, and rats; and even the exotic alien oddities. The snake-like naga have the ability to inflict poison when they make unarmed attacks, and rhattu will likewise cause disease on a successful hit. There are vamphyr characters who have an innate charm ability, but are weakened when venturing outdoors in the sunlight. Races also come with armor and weapon restrictions.
But the interesting observation in Grimoire is how these disparate peoples have representation in the world of Hyperborea. The player will meet barrowers underground, journey to a pyramid that dwells at the heart of rhattu civilization, and assault a stronghold of the naga. There are leonar, saurian, and wolfin NPCs who will converse with the party and are available to join the ranks. This is a departure from the cultural construction of the latter Wizardry series, which populated planets with races inaccessible to player character creation. Thus, Hyperborea can be treated as with more of grounded connection to the party of adventurers.
On each map the player will face a variety of creatures. However, they appear usually packaged in the same configurations. For example, in the city of Waterport, among the enemies thrown at you are Highwaymen, Mutineers, Naga scavangers, and Vanguard marines. But they will always be presented in their respective groups and with little difference in numbers. If the encounter table could have mixed up these combinations, such as facing scavengers and highwaymen together, there would be more of an element of unpredictability. Even better, the game could have pulled from the wider palette of monsters available. In Castle Skulheim, among the undead, confronting wraiths that are encountered from other maps should not be out of place. Another preference in combat is to see a greater concentration of enemy forces. I recall in Wizardry 7, nuking 29 floaters or using death wish on 25 ratkin in a battle. The fights in Grimoire never approach those kinds of numbers. Then again, with the speed at which combat situations tend to be resolved, perhaps it is the reason fewer is better.
Make no mistake, the gameplay in Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is methodical and ponderous to an extent. Combat can be sped up by holding down the Enter key, but to me this ruined the enjoyment of watching a battle play out, and it might be more likely to cause the game to freeze. Rather, a brisker passing of combat feedback messages would serve well, especially after special effects, to avoid consideration to "fast forward" the turns of a cluster of six dark faeries, which takes a long time.
I don't mind automapping in general, but it is always more appreciated if tied to a cartography skill, the way it was in Crusaders of the Dark Savant. That game also featured a journey map kit the player needed to obtain to even bring up the automap. With all of Grimoire's itemization, something similar would be a nice addition. I also prefer individual character inventories instead of the pooled bar to access items, so this system definitely has room for improvement.
Accumulation of gold is never going to be an issue because the amount awarded to the party after an encounter is equivalent to one third of the experience points gained. So a battle that is worth 900 XP, will add 300 gold to the party. When you are fighting a lot, and at higher levels, this turns into a mountain of coin pretty fast. There are plenty of opportunities to spend money, including bribery, but it just seems there is never any pressure put on the party’s financial resources. Earlier I mentioned NPCs who might try to extort the characters. We could have easily managed to pay the amount demanded, but decided to beat the hell out of them as a matter of principle.
Finally, the restrictions on class changing are understandable, but more freedom in that area is something enjoyable to me. The ability to dip into one profession, and then switch back again. I wish our party's Thief could have been switched into a Ranger to pick up the lethal blow skill, but thieves are not allowed to become rangers. And some of the most elite professions must take a lot of dedication and save/reloading for those six bonus points when leveling, to have any hope of reaching the attribute threshold.
The adventuring landscape of Grimoire is vast, and a large swath of time will be spent in the hunting of cuneiform tablets that are pieces necessary to the central quest. Often these are only found locked away in deep dungeons, and claimed by conquering some tyrannical guardian. As I looked back at the culmination of our party’s progress in the game, I realized it was not just about traveling from one dungeon to the other, but rather the fashion in which these locations are rooted in Hyperborea and attached to surrounding environments, which created a sense of separate modular adventures. Taken together, these episodes form a much broader campaign, with individual tales like streams that feed a river’s current pressing toward an unforgettable crescendo. More than any other role-playing game in a long time, Grimoire kept me in suspense all the way up to its multiple endings.
For what it’s worth, the story of the Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is a heroic romance, filled with tragedy and flawed characters as well as a realistic desire to set things right again. To return the world to what it once was. The party of characters thus answer the call to do the deed at hand, whatever the cost.
While the writing in the game is humorous and can at times be as fourth wall breaking as the Might & Magic series, nevertheless it touches upon serious subjects such as war, the nature of totalitarian state, and marketing media corruption. One of the lasting themes of the narrative is the transcendent power of music.
Computer role-playing games of this style and magnitude are not being produced in our present age. Not like Wizardry 6, not like Wizardry 7, or the classic party and turned-based dungeon crawlers of yesteryear. But the independent developer of Grimoire took it upon himself to craft such a title. For good or bad, like it or not, Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar stands as a once in a generation contribution to the hobby.