For the last week my gaming time has pretty much been devoted to Legend of Grimrock.
Combat is straightforward; you click on a character to cast a spell or swing a weapon, and you get two readied options to choose from, one for each hand. Spells require extra button presses to use the right combination of runes (order doesn't matter, just total combination), although you can have a readied spell if you want. Anyone can use any weapon, but in order to be effective in the later part of the game, your character's class needs to support that weapon type. Anyone can wear damage-absorbing armor, too, but without skill in that class of armor (light or heavy), you'll take a heavy hit to your evasion characteristic, which lets you avoid damage altogether.
Unlike Dungeon Master, you MUST click in order to attack, rather than using attack hotkeys. I suppose this simulates the fumbling and coordination needed to attack in real life somewhat, the spells even more so, although it does have the effect of focusing your attention on the corner of the screen where the attack buttons are, rather than at the beautifully rendered enemies. Also unlike Dungeon Master, classes are absolute. In DM, you could have a character with different specializations of priest spells, assassin skills, wizard spells, or warrior abilities. Here, your route is a bit more restricted, although within those roles you may branch out in several ways, having one fighter specialize in armor and swords, with another just in maces or unarmed combat, or a party of wizards each specializing in a single element.
That said, the game owes a lot to Dungeon Master and its cousins. Combat is real time, but because the game is set on a grid (and movement and attacks have cooldowns), you're able to maneuver to avoid attackers who would simply swarm you in a fully 2D/3D game, and you can avoid attacks a bit easier because they follow straight lines, although things are fast enough that this is still tough. Maneuvering is done through keyboard commands, and facing is vitally important. Your team is always in a box formation, with two in the front and two in the back. If you're outflanked, the guys/gals/things in the back can get poked. Since you usually put the wimpy ones in back this may result in some messy fights, but that added tactical level is damned charming if you ask me.
Character creation allows preset party members, but I made my own group. There are different races with favored classes and statistics, and you're allowed to pick a few traits that are locked-in once character creation is complete that can give you special resistances, skill points, or other advantages. Classes allow you to focus on certain abilities right from the start, and it's smart to start specializing early, especially with spellcasters because they CANNOT cast spells until at least one of the "spell: ???" slots is unlocked. I focused on spellcraft for my only mage, and after some experimentation in unlocking a few spells I realized that the spells I had unlocked were not really pertinent to combat. Took me a while but eventually I built up a competent ice mage. Each point in a category makes them more effective, and there are tiers in those categories that give your only statistical boosts (other than from your equipment), but some abilities are simply not possible until a minimum tier has been reached.
What makes this game fun for me, though, is that it has plenty of puzzles, including tougher ones that are optional, and that they feel perfectly integrated into the environment. I have never, ever felt as much fun as I have with some of these puzzles, and they all stem from the grid-based, trigger-based design of the game. It encourages you to experiment, and you are frequently rewarded for perserverence. There are also times when attacking the problem from a different angle, or even momentarily giving up, can actually yield solutions. The balance in this regard fits my particular tolerance levels quite well. I'm not sure if I'll be able to find every secret in the game, but I feel like I earn every one I find. In a way, too, combat is like an action-based puzzle, which helps you get over the fact that enemy AI is often not as brutal as it could be (although different enemy behavior can lead to some nasty surprises).
As with games that are a bit tougher, it pays to save. Resurrection and healing is a lot less painful in this game than in DM, and once you realize the purpose hunger serves you'll be eating less and treating the regeneration that healing gives you as a bonus rather than starving being a penalty. As you become accustomed to the interface you'll get to look up more at your enemies, combat will become a deadly dance rather than a roller coaster of pain, and you'll breeze through dungeon areas that you've previously explored. There's always a chance you'll miss some tiny item, or pass by a clue, but the game is patient, the levels are NOT so expansive that it's too exhausting to backtrack if necessary, and overall I'd say that while the game does bring back some under-utilized elements from older games, it doesn't have that peculiar level of acute cruelty you'd often find in really old games. It takes good ideas and runs with them, current trends be damned.
That's probably why it's one of my new favorite games.
If you have any questions about Legend of Grimrock, please ask them in the comments below.