DROD stands for Deadly Rooms of Death, although it is almost universally referred to by its acronym. I’ve actually mentioned it on this blog before, as part of my post about games without stories. In that post I was hopeful that I’d continue to play through Dustforce and DROD alongside whatever else I was playing, but DROD is the only one I stuck with. Now that I’ve finally finished it, it’s time to write about it.
The DROD games have always intrigued me, because the basic design concept is so clever. Players take control of Beethro Budkin (or sometimes, in later entries, different characters), a Dungeon Exterminator and member of the Smitemasters’ Guild. These skilled laborers specialize in clearing out all of the vermin that infest the needlessly complicated dungeons that kings and their Architects are so fond of building. At first glance, clearing out a dungeon looks a lot like a roguelike, as Beethro explores various tile-based rooms in a turn-based manner, killing huge swarms of monsters. But the DROD games are actually puzzle games, stemming from a deceptively simple idea: Beethro’s Really Big Sword occupies its own tile in front of him, and each turn he can either wait, move, or turn his sword 45 degrees. The challenge is about correctly positioning both Beethro and his sword, in order to protect his own life while exterminating every monster in the room and still being able to escape.
It sounds simple, and at first it is, as Beethro faces off against simple dungeon roaches which make a beeline towards his position. But soon he faces many different monster types and a slew of environmental hazards, including force arrows that limit movement in certain directions, trap doors that collapse after being trod upon, systems of doors and the orbs that open and/or close them, and much, much more. I’d made a few attempts to play the DROD games in the past, enjoying early levels before giving up in frustration later on as I faced what seemed to be impossibly complex puzzles.
My first mistake, however, was not starting with the first game in the series. I first heard about DROD around 2005, when the second game, DROD: Journey To Rooted Hold, was released. Since it looked like a big improvement in terms of graphics and interface (although the graphics were definitely still functional rather than flashy) I decided to start there. But it’s really designed for veterans who had already conquered its predecessor, and I soon found myself overwhelmed. I should have started with the original, which Erik Hermansen designed and released way back in 1996 under publisher Webfoot Technologies. That version is no longer available; a commercial failure, Webfoot stopped distribution around 1999. But Hermansen acquired rights to the game in 2000, and founded Caravel Games to re-release it as open source in 2002.
The game became something of a niche hit, and a rare case of an indie success years before indie games would invade the mainstream following the release of Braid and World of Goo in 2008. This was a year before Steam even launched, let alone became a go-to digital distribution platform that guarantees exposure to a huge customer base. So Caravel Games had to release DROD themselves, as a digital download from their website. It followed the traditional shareware model, with a sizable demo and the ability to unlock the full game by purchasing a code. Like other independent developers at that time, Caravel found a business model that worked for them and stuck to it, probably for longer than was necessary. Surviving on a small but dedicated customer base, their games had higher price points than most indie games today, and the sequels catered to the truly dedicated fans by becoming even more difficult. Looking at their site today, I can see that the original King Dugan’s Dungeon has a difficulty rating of two roaches, whereas its sequel (and the first entry I attempted) has a rating of three. Later games are even harder.
Caravel also has an active online community via their website, and even offers a special subscription service known as CaravelNet that lets players collaborate on tough puzzles, share solutions, and download user-made levels. Oh right, I almost forgot about user-made stuff! In 2003, King Dugan’s Dungeon was updated to the Architect’s Edition (v1.6, for those keeping track) which included a level editor. There are now a huge range of user-made “holds” to conquer for the dedicated DROD fan.
The downside to all this, of course, is that it became harder and harder to bring in new players. With each new release being tougher than the last, and a high price point for entry, I doubt I’m the only one to bounce off the series. Recently, however, it seems Caravel have been trying to modernize their approach a bit and introduce new players to their games. The fourth game in the DROD series, 2012’s Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, is a prequel that’s rated as being easier than the original King Dugan’s Dungeon, and is intended to provide a new starting point for inexperienced DROD players who are intrigued by the series. Also, at some point, King Dugan’s Dungeon was remade yet again in its sequel’s engine, bringing the current version up to v2.0. This is then included in a bundle with its two sequels at a discounted price and, perhaps most importantly, is now available from popular digital distribution services like GOG. It is not a coincidence that this release is what actually motivated me to try the series again, this time starting with King Dugan’s Dungeon v2.0.
This version of the game contains all of the original rooms in the huge 25-level dungeon, plus a few more secrets to find, and some extra bits to tie the story into the later games in the series. But, as discussed in my Games Without Stories post, it is still largely story-less. Beethro has a contract to clear out the dungeon, so he gets to work. That’s basically it. I do appreciate the newer engine, however, which keeps the easy readability of each room while still managing to offer nice visual variety and occasional cosmetic detail. Sounds are simple and functional, but can occasionally get annoying (the gong sound from hitting an orb to control a door stands out in this regard). Apparently I am the only person in the world who actually likes the voice acting, however. It’s hammy and often veers into “so bad it’s good” territory, but I liked Beethro’s workmanlike attitude and enjoyed the silly exchanges and comments he’d spout on occasion. The writing also struck the right level of silliness without becoming too ridiculous.
Really, though, it’s all about the puzzling. I found the pacing of the puzzles to be much more manageable than what I’d played of the sequel. New concepts are introduced gradually, often giving each its own dedicated level to shine, and while many of these are mixed together towards the end, this didn’t happen nearly as quickly as it did in the sequel. I had time to learn the ropes, and actually felt myself improving significantly over the course of the dungeon. The game definitely gets really hard, but I surprised myself by managing to conquer most of it on my own. I was definitely stumped at times, especially towards the end, but fortunately could rely on the excellent hint system available on the Caravel website. This organizes forum posts from their Hints subforum and lets players search it by specific room (complete with visual maps) to find the hints they need. Most hints are actually that, hints to gently prod players in the right direction, and often this was enough to help me finish a troublesome room. Sometimes, however, I needed an actual full spoiler for a solution, and the forums provide that too. In one particularly troublesome case, I even used a “demo”, a downloadable file that let me watch another player’s solution play out like a video (which I could pause, and advance and rewind one move at a time). The interface for these demos isn’t the best, requiring me to press F6 while in a room, then manually import the file from the resulting menu, but it’s a nice option. Unfortunately the whole hints system is more fiddly for King Dugan’s Dungeon than for other games, because it had so many versions. Often I had to seek solutions for the original Caravel release from 2002, rather than the v2.0 remake, and demos recorded from different versions won’t work.
King Dugan’s Dungeon features a huge variety of puzzle types. There are puzzles about manipulating the movement of beasties in order to smite them, timing puzzles, even straight labyrinths. Some puzzles can be solved in multiple ways, others have a single solution that will not tolerate a single misstep. There are many different monsters to face, each of which moves in different ways and responds differently to Beethro’s actions. Sometimes Beethro must use mimic potions to spawn exact copies of himself that copy all of his movements in order to solve a room. There are even weirder elements, like the tar. Oh my, the tar. This stuff is a royal pain, and is also kind of tricky to describe. It’s a big mass of sludge that Beethro can cut through with his sword, but he can only cut into it on straight edges. Curved corners are immune to his sword. That means it’s easy for Beethro to get himself trapped in a narrow corridor if he makes the wrong cuts, unable to hack his way out. Fortunately, clearing out all the tar isn’t necessary, but unfortunately it tends to spawn little “tar babies” when sliced that chase after Beethro like roaches. These must be killed in order to clear a room. Add in some “tar mothers” which cause the tar to expand (and often spawn more babies) every 30 moves, and Beethro can easily find himself mired in a tedious slog through a tar-smothered room.
With all these puzzle types, it’s inevitable that some start to grate. In most cases, I could look over a room, experiment with it a little, and then intuit what was needed to solve it and execute that solution. These rooms were great. Even the tough tar slogs usually ended up in this category. But other puzzles just felt like chores. Complicated systems of doors, with no way to discern which orbs control which doors except by trial and error, quickly frustrated me. It seems many players solve these by taking notes, determining which orbs activate which doors, and then carefully plotting out a plan, but that’s too tedious for my tastes. Other sources of frustration came from rooms that required Beethro to step on every trapdoor in order to exit, meaning he had to carefully plan out a route in advance. One particular room mixed just such a trapdoor challenge with a set of doors and orbs, and proved frustrating enough that I needed a full walkthrough from the hints forum to finish it.
These occasional frustrations are compounded by a few punishing design decisions. Players can undo their last move with the backspace key, but only a single move. If the mistake occurred two moves ago (or more), they must restart the entire room. When so many rooms require significant planning and perfect execution, this feels needlessly punishing, and I found myself repeating complicated sections over and over just because I was having trouble figuring out the last section of a room. The designers likely felt that the ability to undo more moves would ruin the challenge, but I think a little more leeway would have helped. Very often I realized only one move too late that I’d made a mistake, especially when doing repetitive actions that require more than one move (like swinging my sword back and forth to dispatch roaches).
Still, I was somewhat surprised to find that I’d persevered despite these frustrations. King Dugan’s Dungeon is a hard game, but it taught me well through its escalating challenges. For me, frequent breaks helped, although as I neared the end I got more excited about forging ahead and spent more time playing. I found it’s a great game to play while listening to music (the included soundtrack is nice, but gets repetitive quickly so I muted it), and before I knew it I was getting more confident in my smiting. I actually feel prepared to face the rest of the series now. I also appreciated the extra epilogue (unlocked after conquering the dungeon and each of its secret rooms) included in v2.0 that sets the stage for the more story-focused sequel. The later games apparently flesh out a lot more of the world (known as The Eighth), and I’m actually excited to dig into them myself. I already own the next two games as part of the 3-pack I purchased, so I may even get to them sooner rather than later, although I’ll take a short break to recover a bit first. Beethro definitely earned it.
If you are interested in the DROD series, the big demos are still available for each of the games from the Caravel Games website (the demo for King Dugan’s Dungeon can be found here), but if you decide to buy, the 3-pack from GOG is a better deal than purchasing direct. Later games in the series are also available on both GOG and Steam. Good luck!
You’ll need it.