Not So Massively: Jumping into Grim Dawn in 2019


Now that I’m helming Not So Massively, I feel a stronger compulsion to delve into games like ARPGs and shooters so that I can speak with more authority in this column. Luckily enough, Steam held a free weekend for Crate Entertainment‘s ARPG Grim Dawn a few weeks back, providing me the perfect opportunity to expand my knowledge of the ARPG genre.

Grim Dawn hadn’t really caught my eye previous to then, but I had a good enough time during the free weekend, so I decided to pick up the game and its expansions during the accompanying sale.

I was unsure how to discuss Grim Dawn, given it’s been out for a while. Should I deliver my thoughts after finishing the base game and write about the expansions separately or not at all, or finish everything and talk about it all at once?

I’ve decided to go with the former, for reasons I will explain soon. For now I’ll say that as of this writing I’ve finished the base game and gotten as far as the first quest hub in Ashes of Malmouth.

The trouble with Grim Dawn is that there’s a lot about it I really like and a lot about it I really don’t like.

The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world where humanity has been devastated by an invasion of mystical spirits known as Aetherials. By possessing key leadership figures, the Aetherials were able to bring human civilization to its knees virtually overnight, and this event became known as the Grim Dawn by those few who survived.

Grim Dawn is a great example of the difference between story and lore. On the one hand, I love the setting of Grim Dawn. It’s this great mash-up of Victorian England, light steampunk elements, traditional fantasy, and Gothic horror. None of the individual elements of the setting is that original, but the way they’re combined is very unique and richly fascinating. I’d happily read novels in this setting.

The ambiance is greatly enhanced by the occasional lore note (often very well-written and deeply disturbing), a pleasantly gritty art style, and some truly lovely music.

So Grim Dawn has great lore. The actual story, though — the plot — leaves much to be desired. It just sort of rambles from one event to the other without any particular narrative thread connecting it all, and none of the characters is terribly memorable. Most of the dialogue isn’t even voiced, and what voice acting does appear is among the worst I’ve ever heard.

The game’s build system is a similarly mixed bag. I both love and hate it.

Grim Dawn is built on the same engine as Titan Quest, and it uses exactly the same build system. You can combine two different classes, giving you access to the skill trees of both. A lot of the classes are pretty unusual or interesting on their own, and the ability to mix and match them makes for some really fun build options.

I mainly played a conjurer (shaman/occultist), which works out to a dark-themed nature class with several fairly strong pets. I tried a number of alts, but the only one I particularly liked was a purifier (inquisitor/demolitionist), a bomb-throwing gunslinger.

However, it’s one of those old school systems where you feel constantly starved for skill points. Each skill needs to be leveled up once unlocked, and most require a dozen or more skill points to max out.

Making matters worse, you also need to level up your skill tree itself to unlock new abilities, and for some incomprehensible reason skill points spent on skills don’t count towards this. You need to spend skill points to level up the tree itself. You get some stat boosts for doing so, but to say that this is unexciting is an understatement. It’s pure gating, and it really sucks the fun out of what could otherwise be a really exciting build system.

Of course, leveling gets slower as you advance through the game, and once you get past the original level cap the number of skill points you get per level starts going down, too. It’s such a drag. The low levels are very fun, but the game just starts to feel so miserly after a while.

I suppose the “correct” way to play is to only pick a very small number of skills and focus on maxing them out, but that just seems boring to me, and it really works against the depth of the build system.

As an aside, tooltips in this game are a nightmare. Every ability has about five different effects, and that’s before you start adding other passives and upgrades from elsewhere in the skill tree. On top of that, most skills also dump a full paragraph of lore on you. I’m all for flavor text, but this is extreme. It’s information overload all of the time, and it spills over to gear, too, which brings me to my next point.

Further contributing to how unrewarding the game feels is the fact that loot in Grim Dawn is awful. There are so many stats — most of them terribly dry and arcane — and no kind of bad luck protection whatsoever. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a single piece of gear in this game — past the first few levels, anyway — that didn’t have at least one totally worthless stat on it.

It’s not that useful gear doesn’t exist. It’s just that between the wealth of build options, the dizzying variety of potential gear bonuses, and the total uncontrolled randomness of drops the odds of actually getting something truly good for your build are infinitesimal. I’ve gotten lots of good gear, but very little of it good for me. I’ve got a complete set of awesome oathkeeper gear sitting in my stash, which would be great if I actually played an oathkeeper.

Of course half the problem is that it’s so hard to figure out what gear is useful in the first place. Which is better: a direct increase to bleed damage, an increase to a core stat that buffs many things including bleed damage, or an increase to the skill that’s applying the bleed in the first place? There’s no practical way for the average player to figure that out short of just looking up a guide, and any time you need a guide just to figure out basic things like whether a drop is an upgrade or not, it’s a failure of game design.

So between the bad drops and the lack of skill points, Grim Dawn feels like a tremendously unrewarding game, and without a strong narrative to keep me going, I feel my interest starting to stall. I’m not really sure if I want to finish the expansions or not.

One last thing I want to note is how hard Grim Dawn makes it to play multiplayer with friends. If you own any expansion, you can’t play with anyone who doesn’t also own that expansion. If you own one expansion and your friend owns both, you still can’t play together. I was considering trying to sell a gamer friend on Grim Dawn so we could play together, but I’m not asking her to buy two expansions off the bat just to play with me. This seems like an unnecessarily large barrier to entry.

On the upside, I did have a lot of fun already — Steam shows around 40 hours played, and most of that time was a good ride. It’s just a shame there’s so many rough edges to deal with.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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“any time you need a guide just to figure out basic things like whether a drop is an upgrade or not, it’s a failure of game design.”

Maybe to you but some of us love this stuff, give me giant, twisting talent trees! Give me items with reams of ludicrous, semi-incomprehensible stats! If I can look at a talent tree and a set of items and decide the best ones for me in only a few minutes or even seconds then I’m already bored… :p


Seeing as my last comment got deleted, I’m just going to write a better comment here as the community really appreciated my points, especially on how to play with friends who do not have the expansion. My intention was not to attack Tyler, but point out counter arguments to his points, and provide useful information for those looking to jump into the game (it has mods, and there is a way to play with friends who do not have the expansions).

This review came at a really poor time, literally days before a massive Quality of Life patch.

I feel like Tyler should play through the entire game before making judgments on an ARPG, for most of them, most ‘builds’ you can make don’t really come “alive” until mid-late game, which for Grim Dawn starts at level 50-60, and you don’t really see if it’s effective until you get gear and get to late game, effectively level 90+.

Grim Dawn’s story is crafted in the way traditional ARPGs have done it in the past, but it has the added bonus of little lore notes that tie everything together. Once you pay attention to the story once, doing it again in an ARPG doesn’t really make sense as it slows down your progression. In Grim Dawn you’re not some powerful being born of the gods awakened to your powers, your a common person who happened to be swept up in the “Grim Dawn” for which the game is titled. Magic and such is common in this world, so having abilities make sense.

Regarding classes/skill trees, the system was inspired by the one used in Diablo 2, in which the skills were gated by character levels, as well as having a point in the previous skill. In Grim Dawn, the system implemented bypasses this requirement by adding class levels, you choose what you invest points into, and can literally rush certain abilities, completely skipping unnecessary skills. For “modifier” skills (skills that modify a main skill, you do not need a point in the prior modifier skill, and can just dedicate points into what matters. Regarding the point that the “correct” way to play is to choose a few and invest in them, A few winds up being at least 10-14 skills, some of which can be passives. Keep in mind Diablo 3 limits you to 6 skills, and Path of Exile skills are tied to what you can put in your weapons, thus limited by how many skills you can socket. Grim Dawn gives you 2 whole bars to play with that you can swap between, in addition to a left click and right click option. This means you can put all your passives and consumables other than health and energy potions on one bar, and all your active skills on the other, which means you have access to way more skills all at once. There is just so much depth here compared to other games.

Regarding tooltips/gear stats, there are item text mods that alleviate the stress of having to skim through the text to see if the gear is good for you. I personally use a rainbow text mod that gives a text color to each element in the game, and I can see at a glance if the gear I’m looking at could be a potential upgrade, or if I shouldn’t bother with it at all.

Regarding the loot system, its actually far more forgiving than other games. What good ARPG that wants its players to replay the game actually has “bad luck protection” throughout the game? Grim Dawn does have a small amount of it in what the developers call “One Shot Chests” that can be opened once per difficulty, per character, which guarantees at least an Epic (blue) item. Coming from Diablo 3, I can see how one might have gotten used to gear that drops for your character is only good for your character, but that just is not how it is with most ARPGs. Instead of min-maxing tiny amounts of stats of guaranteed gear, you can get a huge upgrade sometimes because the gear seems to be specifically for your build, instead of for your class, which is far more important. With the latest expansion, a system called transmuting was added, which allows you to exchange a set item for another random set item of the set it was in, which is useful if you get duplicates, or exchange a set item for a random set item of similar level. This system can help you fill out your gear needs.

Regarding deciding what gear is best between different things that affect the same type of damage, try them all out and see what increases your damage! The Damage Per Second stat on your stat sheet is calculated based on your left click ability, and I believe you can force it to use your right click ability by making the left click force move. Generally if your damage goes up, its an upgrade, if your damage goes down, its a downgrade. There’s more to it than that for some abilities, but I just felt that people looking to try out Grim Dawn might want to know that it really isn’t all that difficult.

Regarding multiplayer, on Steam, if one person owns the expansion(s) and the other does not, the person with the expansion has a simple way to play with their friend, but it will force them to only play on the base game. In Steam you right click Grim Dawn, click Set Launch Options, and add the command parameter “/nogdx1 /nogdx2” (without the quotes). This disables the expansions until you remove the parameter. I would avoid tampering with your shared stash, or set aside a shared stash tab specifically for your base game character to avoid item glitches.

Mods are a pretty good thing to explore, maybe check them out too, most ARPG’s don’t have them.

Lastly, I wanted to thank you for your time in writing this article about Grim Dawn. I certainly hope you revisit the game after you’ve played through more of it and gotten used to the systems in the game.

Loyal Patron
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Thanks for this article! It sounds like this isn’t the game for me but I enjoyed reading your impressions.

Loyal Patron
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Ahh, Grim Dawn, yes yes. I’m not a great ARPG connoisseur myself — I missed the original Diablos and was unimpressed by Diablo 3 (the Torchlight series remains my main squeeze in this field). But! I do have to say that Grim Dawn absolutely blew me away. I love, love love me some GD.

I do agree about the skill point allocation being frustrating, but overall, I find the whole thing adds up to massive fun. I’m 70 hours in to the original campaign, but haven’t played in a long, long time. Still, when Malmouth and Gods came out, I bought them on day one anyway, knowing it was money very well spent! :D

gp pg

I have 4.3k hours and I still discover new things. Grim Dawn is the best ARPG hands down.


I’ve been on the fence regarding jumping back in, just rolled a new alt and I’m following a Grim Death Knight build I found leveling up Necro first as opposed to Soldier; enjoying blowing crap up with Bone Harvest this morning.

Regarding the story I like the fact that you aren’t some all powerful savior, everything is based on survival for the dregs of Humanity while carving out little enclaves for pockets of people to survive in the moment; no neat conclusions, no gaurentees of a happy ending, not all your questions will be answered.


Use your first playthrough on Normal/Veteran for the story and lore and read letters and stuff. From then on you can ignore the lore and concentrate on the game. There is a reason for the A in ARPG. L is not part of the abreviation.

I’ve got 7 characters now, all of which play totally different. Melee, Caster, Ranged, Pet classes, hybrids, it is all there. The major benefit of GD is the variance in mastery layouts and combinations and the absolutely smooth combat experience, which in my book puts the game on top of the ARPG competition and I tried some of these.

Currently enjoy my Eye of Reckoning Templar and my double-pistol sorcerer most. So fun to play.

Dug From The Earth

The lore you find is supposed to make up and tell a good part of the story.

Similar to how they do it in the division.

They even give you xp per lore you read to help motivate you to go out and find/read it.

Castagere Shaikura

I have to disagree with most of this article. Grim is one of the best ARPGs I’ve played. The gear thing is to make you think about how your build will be. There is no hand-holding here. People call POE complex well grim is also in its own way. There is a great site called Grim Tools that every player should bookmark. I have a level 65 Druid that is a Primal strike build that is all about lightning damage and with the right gear and resistances using a two-hand Axe and Rifle I destroy groups of mobs and its a blast.

The gear is there you just have to pick the right stuff for your build. I don’t get how anyone could complain about drops in this game. That’s just crazy to me. The first big mistake new players do in Grim is putting all their points in a bunch of different skills. You should be leveling up your class masteries first You can pick a couple of skills here and there but its all about the masteries in grim. Each point in masteries boosts your main attributes and power. You can fix this later buy visiting a spirt guide NPC.


“The gear thing is to make you think about how your build will be.”

That’s a problem because I want my build to be dictated by what I want to play not by RNG.

Joseph Meyer

You didn’t mention it (or I didn’t catch the reference) in your write up, so I wonder if you generally enjoy (old-school) ARPGs? Most of the main points you described (secondary emphasis of the story, [punitive] choice-driven builds, tons of [potentially confusing] stats, lots of [useless] drops) are pretty static features of the genre. More specifically, many of these features (story aside) are in direct response to D3. However, that title, as I’m sure you know, has a complicated place in the heart of ARPGers.