The next time you miss a deadline, take comfort in the fact that you're almost certainly doing better than Cleveland Mark Blakemore. His RPG Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar was first supposed to hit shelves in 1997, but for two decades Blakemore missed deadline after deadline. To put that in perspective, George R.R. Martin first published A Game of Thrones in 1996. But the wait is over. Grimoire is here.
So much time has passed that Grimoire now looks like a relic—something not unlike 1992's Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. (In fact, Grimoire started life as a cancelled Wizardry sequel.) The good news for Blakemore is that this means it's free to cash in on nostalgia, and it wastes no time doing so. The very first screen proclaims that the gaming experience Blakemore's it offers is "As good as you remember except better!"
But is it? Superficially Grimoire looks the part, but if we really want to talk about what 90s survivors like me remember, it offers an incomplete experience. The rift between digital and physical media wasn't so wide in those days, and thus many games (and RPGs in particular) put their tutorials not in the game itself but in physical manuals that sometimes stretched out for 100 pages.
And Grimoire currently doesn't have one. It's strange that a game that takes its title from a type of book that's essentially a manual includes no form of manual at all. My first quarter hour with it passed in a fog of befuddled questions. How do I attack the monsters? Do I click on them? How do I set the attack order for the eight-person party composed of a sage, warrior, barbarian, wizard, berserker, ranger, cleric, and thief? For that matter, how do I know the attributes of each of those classes? Hell, how do I get back to a menu where I can quit this darn thing?
Blakemore claims a manual is in the works, but he's quick to heap a bit of scorn on anyone who struggles with figuring out how to play: "A lack of understanding of the user interface and game mechanics has not prevented the majority of players from concluding they may be looking at one of the best computer roleplaying games ever written. The smartest ones intuit it, they don't need a press rep to give them a bag of promotional goodies for them to guess it."
It certainly gets the feel of the old 90s RPGs down pat—because, well, it is a 90s RPG. In a nutshell, that means it does some cool things with exploration, but it's also friggin' hard and its obtuse UI makes gameplay feel a bit like trying to sign your name with a hammer and chisel.
So what does "the greatest roleplaying game of them all" play like? Here's how the first battle goes. My party of eight drops down into the wilderness on their quest to find the failing "Metronome Mysterium," a magic clock that keeps the world ticking. There are some mountains, a forest, and what's this? A band of four "Rude Chaps" wanders up. They're the first people I see in this world and they want to fight. How utterly rude.
"Fighting" means clicking through the icons of all eight party members, deciding if I want to do things like "hack" or "thrust" at the chaps. I could toss a spell at them, too, but I've got no clue how that works at first. So after three or so minutes of this, I press "Battle" and wait to see how the turn-based action pans out. Not so well, it seems.
Messages like "?RUDE CHAP? HIT! NO PENETRATION!" flood the little combat screen. But, oh, how they penetrate me. They penetrate me until my entire party lies dead. Game over.
There's much more of this. Around 600 hours, in fact, if Blakemore's to be believed, and after two decades, why not? It's not all so awkward. The dungeons you encounter once you get the hang of the combat are actually rather fun, filled as they are with puzzles that required enough thought to have me reaching for a pencil and paper.
Grimoire's Steam forums were full of complaints about crashes and similar performance issues shortly after launch, but Blakemore quickly cleared them up with a couple of patches. Not all of them, though. I switched to the windowed mode at one point, and every time I started Grimoire thereafter I'd get nothing more than a blank, black screen and nothing else besides the tinny midi music. Eventually I just had to uninstall the thing to play it properly again. The horror. After all, it only takes up 85MB.
All this, and for the low, low price of $40. That's a little steep. What's more, Blakemore claims we'll never see a price drop for it, aside from the current 10 percent drop for its Steam launch. "The current discount will run until August 12th," he said in a Steam update. "After that it is likely Grimoire will not change in price again for many years. I hope the biggest fans of the game got the discount price at launch."
We'll see how that pans out. There's little doubt that Grimoire fills a niche that hasn't been filled in a while, and I know I'm part of the demographic he's aiming for. In my old age, though, I've realized I don't have time for this kind of punishment anymore. "Greatest RPG of them all?" Eh, I'll stick with The Witcher 3.