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Review: American McGee's Grimm: The Master Thief

In video games, episodic content is often weighed down by its own parameters. Each episode is in fact an episode, a separate installment that is not precisely a new game, but an extension of one that came before; in essence, it carries the same definition as an expansion pack. Because of this definition, most gamers who play episodic content do not expect completely new settings or gameplay mechanics, but instead much of what has come before, which may or may not have been dolled up with a fresh coat of paint.

The Master Thief, the first episode of the second season of American McGee's Grimm, adheres to this definition to a degree, but largely extends its boundaries. These extensions have resulted in a subtle re-imagining of the series that is worthy of the hardcore gamer's attention, as well as that of the casual gamer for whom Grimm was originally created.

Any gamer who has played at least one episode of Grimm will have no trouble jumping into season two. The objective, to darken fairy tales environments so that their settings and morals are grittier than they are fluffy. While the mean-spirited Grimm controls the same way as before, more depth has been applied to the series' formula so that each entry can still be finished in under 30 minutes, but those who wish to invest more time in the game will feel that it's worth their while to do so.

The foremost example of this change is in the light and dark theaters -- shown before and after the game, respectively -- as well as the in-game manifestation of Grimm's corruptive nature. With all season one entries, the dark theater was quite similar to its lighter version, but with more gore, scrubby NPCs, and much cackling from Grimm. Now, the two theaters tell different tales, each of which retains the core values of the episode's particular fable.

Playing an episode is now all about setting up the dark theater. This gives players a great deal of motivation to play the game, as they're no longer following what feels like a connect-the-dots puzzle that has already had its dots connected. The light theater is now simply a foundation for setting up the dark theater; you are in charge of connecting all of the dots. The Master Thief's premise serves as a contextual example. Upon returning home after years spent becoming an affluent thief, the Master Thief's parents don't even recognize their rags-to-riches prodigal son. The Thief goes to the count of the county and confesses his profession, and is then instructed by the count to steal three items.

That's the tale relayed in the light theater. In-game, the count is revealed to be a monster, and the thief a monster hunter. The hunter is still charged with capturing three items, but how he goes about attaining them is different than in the light theater. For example, the second item he must capture is the count's wife's wedding ring, as well as her bedsheets. In the light theater, the thief dresses a corpse in his clothing and tricks the count into shooting it. Feeling remorseful, the count orders his wife to turn over her sheets and wedding ring to be buried with the thief, who gave his life in an attempt to attain them.

During the game, Grimm works to open several mausoleums out of which come several undead, who all head straight for the count. A short cutscene shows the count -- as a monster -- battle the undead, dispatching some with savage kicks to the head, while exterminating others with this pistol. While distracted, the monster hunter slips into the wife's chambers and snatches the items. So, the core element and challenge of stealing the items remains, but the circumstances are different, and more compelling than simply repeating what was already shown in the light theater.

Other primary mechanics, such as the secret coins hidden throughout each level, have received tightening. Each retrieved coin deducts time from the running timer in each level. Gamers interested in achieving the fastest possible time will certainly be on the lookout for each coin. Because of this, the coins are now significantly more difficult to find, so you'll really have to poke around each level if you want them.

The stages themselves are much bigger and require attention on behalf of the player than simply holding the left mouse button to make Grimm run around. NPCs are spaced out liberally, and will often be able to "lighten" their darkened brethren if the player doesn't squish any darkened NPCs with the revamped buttstomp, another mechanic new to season two. In addition, some levels are quite larger than those found in season one, and offer a greater range of backdrops to enjoy.

If The Master Thief is an example of what players can expect from the new season of American McGee's Grimm, then this is a series that should be enjoyed by both the casual and hardcore crowds. Each episode can still be finished in a reasonable amount of time, and best of all, they're still free for 24 hours upon release. Play it; you shouldn't be disappointed.

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