Not Exactly Rock Solid

HIGH The visuals.

LOW The visuals.

WTF The visuals.

One could look at a few screenshots of Grime and believe that it’s something of a fever dream, or a trip through the surreal. It’s got some of the wildest character designs in recent memory, often taking parts of the anatomy that we’re familiar with and arranging them in an illogical order, creating things that have no reason to be. And in a few choice moments that look stunning on the Steam page, Grime has the dazzling environments to match.

But when I think back on my time with Grime, all I see is a grey blur. It’s both a failure of the art direction to capitalize on its best ideas, and a failure of the rest of the project to match the creativity of whoever designed its monsters. For as bizarre as developer Clover Bite wants me to believe their work is, it feels identical to a hundred other releases I’ve played.

Grime is yet another side-scrolling action-platformer that borrows the most popular characteristics of the metroidvania and soulslike genres – namely the map design of the former and the combat of the latter. Copyright laws being what they are, Souls fans will need to spend a few moments familiarizing themselves with all of the new terminology for the same old mechanics. The regenerating stamina meter is “force,” souls are “mass,” bonfires are “surrogates,” and so on.

In a rush to raise the challenge level and earn the respect of the git gud crowd, Clover Bite has landed in the same spot that many other developers of recent soulslikes (including From Software itself) have landed, in that countering is a near-mandatory component of the combat. A successful parry, or “absorb,” will instantly kill smaller enemies and badly injure stronger ones.

Beyond damage, there are two major benefits to countering. The first is that Grime’s equivalent of an Estus flask (i.e. the player’s main healing item) can only hold one charge at a time, and can only be refilled by absorbing foes, so there’s a risk-and-reward rhythm whenever players are down on health.

The other benefit is that repeatedly absorbing the same enemies will eventually allow us to inherit their traits. It’s a bit like the soul-collecting mechanic from those two Castlevania games (as well as the more recent Bloodstained), albeit less exciting because (A) the traits we absorb are passive in nature and (B) they can only be unlocked using special skill points earned by defeating bosses and mini-bosses that don’t respawn. So, for all of Grime’s talk about absorption being its defining feature, it largely manifests as a run-of-the-mill upgrade tree.

The only other relatively unique idea is “ardor,” which is essentially an experience multiplier that rises when players defeat opponents and falls when they take damage. Players keep all of their acquired experience when they die, but their ardor resets to zero unless they can return to their bloodstain – sorry, “lost vessel” – and reclaim their spot.

And that’s about all that Grime has going for it – a counter system that’s tied to both health and upgrades, and an experience multiplier that incentivizes taking as little damage as possible. While I take no issue with the way Grime handles – and in fact I appreciate the generous parry window given how central that mechanic is – the truth is that there isn’t enough innovation here to distinguish this title from the countless others just like it.

The few good Dark Souls copycats in existence have recognized that atmosphere and interesting spaces are as core a component of the formula as the mechanics themselves, but while Grime does offer an occasional breathtaking outdoor vista or odd encounter with a quirky NPC, much of the running time is spent exploring nondescript caves and the like, nearly all of which pull from the same hopelessly washed-out, mostly-grey color palette.

Not only is this unappetizing to look at, but the samey visuals hamper navigation. While there is a map, it doesn’t start autofilling until we locate a beacon in each region. Before we do that, we’re steering blind. Developers, please don’t start thinking this is a good idea just because Hollow Knight got great reviews. It sucked there and it sucks here. Without a map, we need distinctive visual landmarks to maintain our bearings — something Grime is sorely lacking.

There is some intrigue to the lore, though “intrigue” is as far as it goes. Nearly everyone in this universe is made of stone, and many of the characters intentionally look like children’s drawings of Easter Island heads, all crooked and misshapen. Our muscular, symmetrical protagonist is one of the few genuinely good-looking specimens, and the other characters either admire him for it – calling him “chiseled one” – or seem to resent him.

And that’s pretty much all I can say about Grime’s plot with any degree of confidence, because Clover Bite favors the same vague, piecemeal storytelling style that we’ve just accepted as standard for this genre. I’m okay with FromSoft continuing to do this because they’ve got a community able to collectively piece it together and regulate a wiki, but the moment a small indie game asks me to figure all of this out for myself is the moment I stop paying attention to the story altogether. This approach is no longer charming to me. It just feels like I’m being given homework.

Grime is a game of gaping contradictions. It is one of the most visually striking releases of the year… and also one of the ugliest. It’s one of the most imaginative games in some time… and also one of the most generic. For all of Grime’s talk about chiseled stone, the experience feels like a half-finished sculpture – occasional details reveal tantalizing glimpses of the creators’ vision, but it’s largely an indistinct blob.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Clover Bite and published by Akupara Games.It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately ten hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Fantasy Violence and Animated Blood. There are some occasional spooky monster designs, but otherwise it’s pretty harmless.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue is limited entirely to text, which cannot be altered or resized. Audio cues are never vital to play – I spent much of the game without sound on and had no problem. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Mike Suskie
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