Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

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Pigs are strapping on their wings. The devil is enjoying a snow cone. Despite all common sense and reason, one of the legendary unfinished games of the RPG world has finally been released. Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is a game long in the making, with twenty-plus years of hype and development behind it. It now comes time to examine how this quasi-mythical game came to be, what the finished product ended up playing like, and how players of this long-awaited game have received the game.

The History of Grimoire

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is a game that, by rights, should not exist. If you look at its history, you’ll actually have to pull back the curtain by decades. It’s a story that’s at least as interesting as that of the game itself, and one that shows just how much one person can do given the right time and resources.

Grimoire is an enigma. It’s not like the typical game that goes missing these days, full of half-promises and vanished money. It’s is one of those pieces of vaporware that became a byword for broken promises. Figuring out the story of the game means piecing together tiny bits of data in order to get a better idea of what really happened.

So, what’s the history of Grimoire? Well, you have to go back to the era in which the game was conceived. Way back in 1995, Golden Era Games (which is largely, and perhaps entirely, Cleveland Blakemore) announced the development of Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar. The game was a CRPG in line with past greats like Wizardry, one that would help to reinvigorate a genre that was slowly starting to die out in favor of new RPG paradigms.

The game’s 1997 release date came and went, with little fanfare. Two years wasn’t much in the development world, so there wasn’t much worry – yet. New games came into the spotlight, but devoted followers would keep looking for news of Grimoire. They’d have to wait, though – because news wouldn’t be forthcoming.

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Grimoire goes more or less dark between 1997 and 2011, at least for those who weren’t following Blakemoore’s progress. The game became a byword for vaporware among many gamers, sort of a Half-Life 3 before that game was ever really conceived.

By 2011, though, Blakemoore began to post about the game on his blog. The development was slow going, the kind of indie project that could and would be derailed by things like a laptop that refused to power back on. The game itself didn’t seem to be something that had evolved significantly since 2005, embracing a retro aesthetic and play style. By the time of the game’s release in 2017, it would be safe to say that the average recipient of the news had no idea what the game was – and those who did were incredulous that this piece of gaming history was actually released.

There was no fanfare that accompanied the release. In fact, those who weren’t following Blakemoore’s blog probably had no idea that the game managed to hit Steam in the early hours of the morning in North America. It seems that it took some time for players across the world to figure out that the game was real, that it was released in a playable state, and that they could buy it from one of the largest retailers in the online gaming space.

Game Overview

If you want a good idea of how Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar works, you should boot up an old computer and take a look at your role playing games. This is a game in the vein of Wizardry, one that harkens back to the oldest days of computer RPGs. As such, it’s a good idea to throw out most of the development you’ve seen in the genre since Baldur’s Gate – even the way you move around is going to be far different than what you’ve seen in recent years.

First and foremost, it’s a good idea to look at your party. Everything here is customizable, which is nice because you’ll be working with a huge group of eight characters. Again, this is a throwback to Wizardry and the Gold Box games, so you’ll be putting together something that’s very similar in tone to an old D&D party. That means classes that tank, classes that do magical damage, and somewhat more esoteric classes like pirates will be the heart of your game experience. You’ll also have a lot of classic fantasy races, so be prepared for something that’s a little more diverse than your average role playing game.

In terms of play, you’re going back to the familiar old layout of the eight party member panels surrounding a central first person window. You’ll be dungeon crawling here in the old school manner, so expect to see a lot of repeating tile sets that just serve as the backgrounds for some truly impressive villains. Combat’s a straightforward use of weapons and skill, with a little bit of tactical consideration added for flavor. You’ll fight, you’ll level up, and you’ll probably die because this game doesn’t hold back when it comes to punishing the player.

There is no tutorial in this game, nor is there any manual. This isn’t an oversight – the developer thinks that game mechanics should be discovered while the players plays the game. As such, it’s possible to get deep into the game by sheer luck and ignoring base mechanics. At the same time, it’s also hard for new players to start. It’s not necessarily a great feeling to grasp in the dark for what to do next, but it’s something that should feel familiar to players of older CRPGs. With a little trial and error, though, most can figure out how the game works.

All in all, the game feels like you’re taking a new computer into a 1990s time warp. The game doesn’t feel like it started development in 1997 – it feels like it started several years earlier, when Wizardry and Ultima still ruled the roost. That’s not a knock on its design, but rather an explanation of what you should expect when booting up the game. This is an old-school, hardcore RPG for people who started playing before autosaves and strong PC character arcs. It is a very specific type of RPG that was already dying before this game entered development.

Release

After more than two decades of development, Grimoire was released with relatively little fanfare. There was no big announcement – if you weren’t already following the game, you probably wouldn’t know it released at all. At that moment, though, one of the longest-gestating games in PC history finally hit Steam. Players began to make their purchases slowly but surely, with every hour bringing a surge of new players. By the end of the day, it had become apparent that Grimoire was not only real, but that players would absolutely be drawn to the game.

The release wasn’t without its problems, of course. The game was a bit on the buggy side, though most of the bugs were quashed within hours of development. Quite a few opinions were made in the opening moments, even as the developer warned players that the game itself was very deep. Most of the reception, though, was that of awe – the game not only managed to get a release, but it also managed to live up to most of its promises in a way with which even AAA games have a problem accomplishing.

By the end of the first day, a narrative was already being established about Grimoire. It was proof positive that even games long in development could eventually be released, even if doing so meant pushing out a project that might need a little bit of tweaking to stay stable. It was also clear that it was possible to keep a project like this largely under wraps, without a great deal of hype or any major announcements. The fact that the game seemingly snuck in under the radar might its success much more impressive than most would have imagined.

The release of the game was, more than anything else, a paradigm shift for many who have followed games long in development. Now, it seems that a dedicated creator can make his or her dream project even if it takes longer that most would assume. After Grimoire was released, many began to speculate about the fate of other long-rumored projects. If this game could manage to find its way to Steam and be successful after two decades, there’s absolutely no telling what else might show up next. Grimoire has opened the gates to an entirely new set of assumptions about how long it takes to make a great game.

Reception

After twenty-odd years of development, it’s fair to say that Grimoire faced a fairly hard road ahead when it came to critical reception. Twenty-plus years is an eternity in the world of gaming, and it only takes a few years for players to give up on franchises. Even today, there are players who have completely skipped out on genres or games that are only a few years old, finding them outdated or simply forgotten in the crush of new releases.

On one hand, Grimoire faced a group of gamers who built up their expectations over the course of development. Even if Grimoire’s development was rather low-key compared to some other long-gestating products, it’s almost impossible to stop one’s imagination from running away when a game is promised for that long.

On the other hand, the game also flew under the radar of many gamers. Those who knew of its existence assumed that it would never really come out, while those who didn’t would probably never hear a word of the game that was already ancient in gaming terms.

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Fortunately, the release of Grimoire was incredibly kind to the game. Both critics and players had a great deal to say, but the majority of what was said was very positive.

Critical

Critically, Grimoire’s been treated very kindly. There’s absolutely a feeling of wonder in most of the reviews out there simply because the game actually managed to get released after so much development. Remember, this is an era when a schedule slip of a few months can indicate that a game will be cancelled, so reviewers were rightfully surprised to find that the game managed to come out in a playable state after a few decades.

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Most of the professionals who reviewed the game have a fairly decent handle on old-school RPGs, so they had a good idea about where Grimore was coming from. Most of the reviews were positive, praising the artwork and the design. There were a few minor complaints about bugs, but even those complaints tended to note that such bugs were par for the course when it came to the games that Grimore emulates.

It’s still early in the game’s life cycle, so there’s not quite a consensus on how well the game is going to do compared to other RPGs. Judging from what most critics have written, though, it seems that Grimoire will at least earn its place among the more interesting releases of 2017.

Players

Players usually have a different set of criteria on which they judge games. They want their games to be fun, playable, and to be worth the price of admission. As such, players have looked at Grimoire in a slightly different light. All told, though, the game has had mostly positive player reviews.

There’s a huge divide among players that has to do with Grimoire’s design structure. If the player was a fan of old school games like Wizardry, that player almost certainly loved Grimoire. If the player had never played those old school RPGs, though, they can find the game incredibly obtuse. In fact, most of the things that players complain about are precisely the things that others are praising in the game.

All in all, players have tended to look fondly upon this throwback. There are a few who aren’t satisfied with the difficulty, but most do admit that the game is a really great example of how RPGs used to be made. There’s no going backwards to the old days, of course, but players who want to try out something incredibly old school on a modern gaming rig can do a lot worse than Grimoire.

Conclusion

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is more than a game at this point. It’s proof that anything can be released, as long as someone is actually interested in working on it. It’s far from a perfect game, but it is a game that successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do. If you’re a fan of true old-school CRPGs, this is a game that you absolutely must try. While this game probably won’t usher in an era of vapor ware finally becoming real games, the fact that it has made it to modern machines is nothing short of amazing. No matter what you think of the final product, this is one release that deserves to be celebrated.

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