After perusing the Steam Christmas sale I found a game that met my strict game-buying criteria: cheap and interesting. Thus I fell off the internet and into the post-apocalyptic world of Grim Dawn.

Grim Dawn is an arpg (action role playing game) ala Diablo 1-2-3, Torchlight 1-2, and Titan Quest/Immortal Throne. In fact, the same folks who gave us Titan Quest are doing this game. It is currently in early release.

The setting is the zombie apocalypse with a bit of a steampunk vibe. The world is grim, dark, messy and pegs the “beautifully horrifying” scale. This was a little surprising to me, because I’m a mystery/suspense fan, not a horror fan. It certainly isn’t for your tween, though, even if you turn off the “gore” setting.

I have not completed the entire story yet, but so far it doesn’t reveal how the zombie apocalypse came about. I’m assuming it involved a ouija board and the internet, the way it usually does. I’ll rate the story “above average” through act 3; in reading ahead, however, it seems like most players are disappointed with the resolution in the last act. Just so you know, I consider most computer role-playing game storylines to be poor.

Grim Dawn is a world filled with creatures that will kill you, including mutant wasps, mosquitoes, mutated beaver things, over-sized cockroaches, terrifying red-eyed cows, electric frogs, snake-medusa hybrids, evil cultists of various stripes, and, of course, zombies. I was disappointed that they didn’t have potato cannibals, but it will ship with a mod kit, so maybe I’ll do a Tempest in a Teardrop mod. Hunting Torlings would be a hoot.

The game unapologetically throws you into a Hobbesian world governed by the concept of kill-or-be-killed. Since most of the creatures are already dead, you have the most to lose. Don’t spend time angsting over everything. The zombies may have been formerly human, but no longer. They are mindless horrors set on converting you to their own sorry state: the college students of their era, if you will.

Fortunately, Grim Dawn provides a ton of options when it comes to equipment. Swords, guns, maces, rifles, books: that’s just the beginning of the list of things you can use to bash, well, anything that moves. Each item also has extra attributes in addition to the starting statistics. White items are basic. They came from Wal Mart before the meltdown. Yellow items come with one extra attribute, green come with two. Then there are special “epic” blue items. When you see a blue item drop after picking off a particularly troubling boss, you feel as though you’ve accomplished something.

I don’t know why that is, exactly. There is probably something wrong with me.

Of course, you collect a lot of junk, too. Fortunately, merchants survive the day of undeath and currency returns to the basic Iron Bit, which isn’t worth much but is still more valuable than the US dollar, even if you can’t use them for wiping things. You can also collect Scrap. Scrap is used to create new items and fix things like buildings and bridges. It is also invaluable for making in-game puns: I really beat the scrap out of that monster!

Readers in the prepping community may want to diversify into iron bits and scrap now. The internet doesn’t survive, and bitcoins will be useless. There are other zombie apocalypse scenarios, however, so bottlecaps may be more to your liking. I can see the smoke from the conflagration on that discussion all the way from my corner of the internet.

Why should that be? It seems as though ‘caps could easily be converted to iron bits, you ask.

Fair enough, I reply, This is your first time on the internet, right?

You also collect items that can be crafted into extra powers that you add to your equipment. For example: “Searing Embers” will add fire to your weapon. Combine enough to make a more powerful attack, or use them as ingredients in “Enchanted Flint,” which not only adds fire damage but an extra monster-crisping ability.

My current character blows things up with electricity. I mean that literally. Creatures either evaporate into charcoal, fly away into cinders, or launch into the air and waft back down like those float-y lantern-things in Tangled. I like to think that the wafting zombies are contemplating the choices in their lives that led to their undeath. Once it’s safe to look around, you’ll notice that the monsters were probably guarding a nondescript rock or tree stump. If you search them, you’ll find their bits or scrap. Take them. Otherwise you’ll have offed the poor monsters for no other reason than to live another day.

Electricity is powerful, leaping from bad guy to bad guy, sometimes frying entire groups like bowling pins. Thor would be jealous. Some creatures drop “vital essence,” which the player can consume. I’m not going to lie: draining vital essence was one of the items on my bucket list.

Eating is necessary for weird game-design mechanic reasons. Rather than bore you with the issues, we’ll discuss what eating options exist. First, the generic “food” will drop after re-killing something, but you can also come upon “untouched meals.”

I have to admit that if I were wandering around during the zombie apocalypse, and came across some ready-to-eat food just sitting around, I’d be hesitant. I’m untrusting that way. On the other hand, it beats a random body part prepared according to the Frying with Electricity: 100 Meals you Might Survive cookbook. You’ve just got to pick your poison. And hope it is digestible.

I choose to be an adventurer in the post-apocalyptic world. I may not be the hero the world needs, but I’m the hero the world has, and I only solve problems for Iron Bits and Scrap. A more sane choice would be opening a post-apocalyptic restaurant. You’d better know your spices, however, and pick the right name. The Untouched Meal is going to do much better than, say, Meat??? on a Stick.

Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience recommend Grim Dawn. For one thing, it is still in the Early Access phase. This means beta, basically. It’s true that all the dungeons, monsters, cities, NPCs, quests, and story are in place. The art is great. The story is above average. Even so, the balance is off, quite a lot in some places. This takes away a lot of choices that should be there, but aren’t, and if you don’t make optimal choices your toon will not be fun to play.

Worse, the character class system is screwy. Basically, there are a handful of powers that are good and a bunch that are not. You won’t know this, however, because you won’t know about all your character building options for a long, long time. This is because some powers are more easily enhanced with equipment, synergize better with hidden in-game powers, or more easily enhanced with crafted items, including some very rare ones.

Titan Quest itself was a little rough but with the Immortal Throne add-on the game became fabulously awesome. I’m hopeful that Grim Dawn will take the same route, so keep an eye out for the next sale and reviews for how the final balance ended up. Potential release date is the middle of February. Meanwhile, if you just have to scratch your arpg itch, Steam sells Torchlight 2 for $5 and Titan Quest/Immortal Throne is regularly on sale for under $5. If character-building experiments are your thing, both of those games will deliver in spades.