Too much shade, not enough chance to shine.
In the hypothetical situation of a rejected Raymond Carver novella – What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk – a few things would spring to mind for a quick bullet-point list. Cogs and gears, the advancement of technology through unconventional yet traditional means, anthropomorphic animals – maybe, at a push. And clunkiness. Heaving old-world machinery carrying the weight of modern technological necessity on its creaky wooden shoulders, aesthetically pleasing but ultimately unable to keep up.
In this regard then, Grimshade, the newly released 90’s inspired JRPG from Talerock, is far too faithful to its source material. It is full of undeniable artistic appeal, crammed in between chunks of dull gameplay, revolutionary ideas executed in a tiresome way. Swapping genuine charm for pretentiousness at times, it was a challenge for me to invest any emotion in what could have been a captivating game.
First, the successes. Of which there are fortunately many. The gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds and smoothly rendered sprites could have been transplanted straight out of the 90s. Think Broken Sword, or the first Fallout games – easy on the eye, rounded and smoothly shaded. They are full of detail, character, and creativity. The environments you explore reward you with hidden objects, NPCs that are usually happy for a chat, and sprites that move gracefully.
Musically, I have to admit that Grimshade blew me away. I would be happy to submit my own personal plea to the developers to release an OST, as the grand drama of the story resonated far more in the score than in the character dialogue. Each track is layered, enchanting, and in keeping with the overall theme, the primary saving grace.
But the inconsistencies and bugs are, at this stage, too much to overlook. The character sprites are neat and stylish, but the pop-up portraits that sit alongside dialogue boxes are of poor quality and appear stylistically separate from the overall game. The dialogue is dry and repetitive, a real shame when the plot summary sounded so full of potential and depth. It feels like a test run, as though something about it is not quite finished.
Playing Grimshade feels more like playing the result of a creative writing class project, in which different people took different roles but didn’t confer adequately before release. Strong elements clash with crippling oversights and pseudo-deep storytelling that goes on… and on… and on. Some of the most frustrating issues involve pathing, in which characters are unable to find their own way to anything without you leading them the long way around, restricting object examination and rendering the exploration tedious at times.
The characters are useful in battle and well designed in terms of skill trees and class development, but the mix of uninspired “what ho, my old bean!” type dialogue and crammed exposition made it hard to care. Several hours in, I realised I didn’t really care what happened to this city of dry, monotonous folk, and I didn’t even really have a map. Opening the map menu rewards us with a gorgeously painted 2D, side-on map of the city – gorgeous, and absolutely useless.
Navigating the world is tricky (though not in a fun, challenging way) with the combined pathing and map issues, although the tutorial is steady and considered and at least explains battle mechanics in a way that even newcomers to the genre would understand. The combat itself is enjoyable, if repetitive, and remains one of the stronger points of the game. Had they produced a simpler, more Slay the Spire-esque narrative rather than try and introduce a pompous and unrewarding storyline, they could have been onto a winner.
Style and substance are a hard duo to balance, especially in the indie world where budget choices closely reflect which avenue held more importance for the devs, but this game skews that delicate equilibrium all too often. I still have hope for future developments, and the game may appeal to more fervent JRPG fans, but as it stands Grimshade is a little underwhelming. The stronger elements such as combat, art direction, and sound design are held back by the technical issues, odd design decisions and weak narrative, taking itself far too seriously when – if simplified – this could be a truly fun turn-based combat game.
[Reviewed on PC]