One That Got Away: The Desolate Room

Several weeks ago I saw a post on the IndieGames.com blog about The Desolate Hope, a new freeware game from ScottGames. My first thought was, “is this a sequel to The Desolate Room?” And indeed it is.

The Desolate Room is a very odd freeware role-playing game that I heard about several years ago. With a cool art style and a coffeepot robot protagonist who delves into the memory chips of the other wrecked robots on his tiny island, it certainly seemed intriguing. But I didn’t get far before giving up in frustration. Lots of little aspects of the design combined to stifle my enjoyment, and the game simply never clicked with me.

I did, however, remain intrigued by it. It was one of those games that I wanted to like, just because it’s so different and peculiar, so it stuck in my memory despite the problems I had with it. With the sequel garnering no small praise from a few critics, I decided perhaps it was time to revisit The Desolate Room, to see if I was right to put it down or if there’s a gem somewhere in there after all. So I gave it another go, and this time I managed to stick it out.

The Desolate Room has three parts to it. First, there’s the small coffeepot robot named Coffee, who wanders his little island in a top-down view. The main purpose of this section is to establish the story, as several wrecked robots are soon discovered on the island. What happened to them? Coffee decides to find out. To do so, he dives into their memory chips, leading into the second part of the game. Here the player moves through a digital maze not unlike the dungeon levels from the original Legend of Zelda, eliminating small enemies by shooting at them. The larger enemies are harder to destroy in this manner, and instead switch into a full-fledged turn-based battle in the style of Japanese RPGs.

These battles constitute the third and most meaty part of the game, and their design is rather unique. The player has a party of four robots, but they don’t level up in the usual fashion. Instead, each of them has ten abilities they can use in battle, and the player can choose to level up the individual abilities deemed most useful. Each ability requires a certain amount of energy depending on how far down the list it is; the first ability only requires 1 unit of energy but the tenth requires a full bar of 10 units. If a robot doesn’t have enough energy to use the ability it wants to use that turn, it can instead elect to spend a turn charging its energy bar. This means the more powerful abilities can’t be used as often as the weaker ones, so picking abilities in battle is something of a tradeoff.

So, four robots with a total of 40 abilities to choose from, and they’re all available (albeit with each at level 1) from the start of the game. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, especially because there’s no description of what the abilities do in any documentation for the game. I was only able to read up on the different abilities while in battle, and even then I could only read the ones my robot had enough energy to use; if I wanted to see what the highest-cost ability did, I had to charge up until my energy was full. It’s only possible to upgrade abilities after a battle is won, and even then there are no description given for the different abilities, so I had to remember what they did from what I read during battle. This all makes the battling very confusing at the beginning, but fortunately the enemies aren’t too tough and I was able to mess around and experiment with a few different combinations. Until I hit the first boss.

The boss battles are clearly the main draw in the game. They are very tough, and require careful planning in determining an effective combination of abilities to use to win the fight. Once beaten, the player is rewarded with the next bit of the story, slowly learning what happened to these robots so long ago, and for the most part the story is executed well and provides a good incentive. But the boss battles themselves can be a real headache. At first, it seems that nothing can even put a dent in a boss’ huge health bar, while it methodically wipes out the whole robot team in a pathetically short time. Here is where I gave up the first time. But this time I was determined to get through, so I forced myself to keep playing.

The trick is finding a set of abilities that combine well with one another. Each robot has a few possible uses; while one is clearly tuned towards healing and another towards buffs and debuffs, they can all perform a variety of roles depending on which abilities the player chooses to upgrade. While I struggled with the first boss I looked around online a little and learned some strategies that others used, and I was surprised at the variety. Some choose to apply a special attack which puts a timer on the enemy; survive until the timer runs out and you win. In this case one must make sure this special attack lands, and then hunker down and play defense. I actually used this method to defeat the first boss, although I later abandoned it. Other players combined several damage-boosting skills in order to buff a single, hugely powerful attack that has a decent chance of killing the boss instantly. I tried this but was never able to time it correctly; the damage buffs would always run out before I could land the super strike. Still others didn’t use any attack abilities at all, instead playing defense while one of the robots used a special ability to lower the enemy’s level, and therefore total hit points. Once dropped all the way to level one, even the tough bosses could be beaten with weak attacks. In the end, though, I settled on a strategy of my own: I used the damage-boosting abilities but combined them with damage-over-time attacks, such that even if the buffs were applied after the attack, the damage would still get a big boost. Once I got this strategy working well, I finally understood the appeal of The Desolate Room. There’s a great satisfaction when my strategic thinking and adaptability actually pays off against challenges that once seemed insurmountable.

Unfortunately, the game makes forming and modifying these strategies really annoying. I already mentioned how confusing it all is in the beginning, which leads to uneducated choices of abilities that don’t work well. But the only way to fix this is to go grind through more random battles in order to bump up some different abilities. That’s not the worst part, though — the worst part is the way the game handles the robots’ charge and time bars at the beginning of battle. You see, against the really tough bosses, you want to start the battle fully charged so your robots can fire off their powerful abilities in combination before the boss has a chance to take anyone out. To do so, you have to collect small tokens that drop after shooting the little enemies in the maze sections, which slowly fill your time and charge bar. But if you ever run into an enemy that triggers a turn-based battle, you automatically use whatever charge and time bonus you’ve collected, and you’re re-set to zero. This makes preparations for boss fights maddening, as you wander around slowly collecting tokens only to get caught by a random battle when you’re almost full, and have to start all over again. Of course, you could alternatively log off of the terminal and take Coffee for a spin around his island looking for eggs, which also provide charge and time boosts, and are risk-free. But these are scattered so far apart that it takes ages to find any, as you trudge slowly around the island over and over again. Supposedly Coffee gets better at finding eggs each time you find one, but I couldn’t be bothered to try for very long.

The thing is, all of these things feel like they’re preventing me from playing the fun part of the game, which is testing out my battle plans against a really tough boss, and getting rewarded with the next part of the story. Even simply losing to bosses is really aggravating, because it takes you back to the beginning of the maze, forcing you to make your way through to the boss room all over again. And once you arrive you need to wander around nearby collecting tokens before you can take another shot at the boss. Sometimes I’d only barely lose because I’d made a single error, an error I immediately identified, but then I’d have to spend fifteen minutes getting back to the boss and powering up before I could try again. And to top it all off, the game’s ending, served after the toughest battle of all, is a big letdown. The story is only partially concluded and several threads of the mystery are simply dropped, unresolved, in the abrupt finale.

All in all, I can’t really recommend The Desolate Room. It simply has too many issues that spoil the fun. But I am glad I got through it, because I now know that there is some genuine enjoyment buried in its core. There’s a lot of potential in the combat design — enough that I’m actually looking forward to trying the sequel, which also looks to be much more polished. And writing this post reminded me that ScottGames have made several other games as well, including Iffermoon, which I remember received a lot of praise. All these games can be found on their website. I’ve only tried The Desolate Room so far, but they all look to have great art and a lot of imagination, and they’re all free. I’ll be trying more of them eventually, but until then you might be interested to try a few yourself.

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