History Lessons: DROD: Journey To Rooted Hold

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. In this case, you may want to read the History Lesson post about DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon in particular before proceeding. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

DROD: Journey To Rooted Hold is the second game in the DROD series, and a direct sequel to DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon, which was the subject of its own History Lessons post on this blog. But Journey To Rooted Hold is actually the first game in the series I tried. I made two attempts to play it, eventually giving up both times. I feared that the DROD series simply wasn’t for me, until I took a crack at the first game and it finally clicked. After completing King Dugan’s Dungeon, I felt I was ready to tackle Journey To Rooted Hold (originally released in 2005) again.

In case you’ve ignored by many not-so-subtle hints to read my History Lessons post about King Dugan’s Dungeon, I’ll give a brief recap about the series here. The DROD games are puzzle games cleverly disguised as fantasy dungeon crawlers, as players guide dungeon exterminator extraordinaire Beethro Budkin on his jobs to clean out nasty vermin. Controlled similarly to a traditional roguelike, players move Beethro one step at a time through tile-based rooms from a top-down viewpoint, with enemies moving every time Beethro does. The series’ genius bit of design is that Beethro holds his Really Big Sword out in front of him, occupying its own tile. Instead of moving, he can choose to rotate his sword 45 degrees in either direction, which also takes up a turn. So players must position both Beethro and his sword, avoiding being overwhelmed by dungeon roaches or worse, and managing to clean out every room. This soon gets quite complicated, due to a slew of other elements like collapsing trapdoors, force arrows that limit movement, systems of doors and the orbs that control them, and a menagerie of critters with their own behaviors. While Beethro is ostensibly engaging in combat with these creatures, each room is actually a logic puzzle, where players must discern the sequence of moves that will clear the room and still allow Beethro to escape.

The first game, King Dugan’s Dungeon, is up-front about this. The premise is that Beethro accepts a contract to clean out the dungeon, meaning he must exterminate everything in every room through twenty-five floors of increasing difficulty. The sequel, Journey To Rooted Hold, adds some more story to the mix, which made it the more attractive game to me when I first learned about the series. After completing the contract for King Dugan’s Dungeon, Beethro is semi-retired, running a restaurant that serves up roach burgers made from all the roach meat he picked up along the way. That is, until he’s accused of “seeding” King Dugan’s Dungeon — a serious crime whereby an exterminator leaves some vermin alive so they will spread again, and he will be able to get more work clearing them out. It’s all nonsense, of course; Beethro is a consummate professional. He suspects something else is going on, perhaps related to that one door in the dungeon that he was never able to open. He decides to investigate, and his sister insists he bring his nephew Halph along. It seems Halph has gotten it into his head that he wants to be a dungeon exterminator too, and she’s hoping that a trip to a real dungeon will promptly disabuse him of the notion.

When I first played it, I wanted to see what mysteries Beethro and Halph would uncover, but I often found myself facing puzzles with no connection to the narrative. I did not understand why Beethro insisted on clearing every room he encountered, when he should have been looking for answers. Or why Halph seemed to be wandering around on his own, showing up seemingly at random. How was he getting around, and why didn’t Beethro seem to care much about his whereabouts? My confusion only grew as the puzzles themselves became very difficult, to the point that I gave up.

This is just to say that Journey To Rooted Hold is not the best starting point for the series. King Dugan’s Dungeon was a far better introduction, establishing the focus on puzzling and Beethro’s steadfast dedication to clearing out each and every room. Playing King Dugan’s Dungeon, I recognized many of the obstacles I’d faced in Journey To Rooted Hold, but they were introduced gradually and I had a chance to really learn their intricacies. By the end, I felt I’d improved considerably, and was actually excited about playing Journey To Rooted Hold again.

At first, Journey To Rooted Hold seemed nearly identical to King Dugan’s Dungeon, but this is misleading. The version of King Dugan’s Dungeon that I played was actually a remake, using the engine from Journey To Rooted Hold, and released after the series’ second entry. So, graphically, it appears identical, but Journey To Rooted Hold was actually a big step forward on release. Graphics are still simple, but they are colorful and clear, with enough variety to make locations seem fresh rather than just rehashes of earlier areas. Journey To Rooted Hold was also the first entry in the series to include voice acting; some voices were later added to King Dugan’s Dungeon 2.0, but there are more characters and more dialogue in Journey To Rooted Hold. Many players deride the voice acting, which is clearly not done by professionals and often veers heavily into “silly voice” territory, but I actually like it. Beethro is a gruff, direct man who is very proud of his work, and his voice captures that perfectly. Other characters are less remarkable, and in the case of goblins I can understand the criticisms (although I certainly found great satisfaction in finally smiting those annoying jerks), but I have a special soft spot for Halph’s voice. Beethro’s nephew is voiced by an actor even younger than the character is, lending authenticity to Halph’s childlike wonder and excitement at everything he finds, and his willful disregard for Beethro’s warnings and reprimands. I particularly like Halph’s indignant “Hey! I died!” when Beethro accidentally (cough cough) stabs him with his sword (leading to a restart from the last checkpoint, in case you were wondering; Halph-murdering is not tolerated).

Journey To Rooted Hold was also the first game to include secret rooms (later added to King Dugan’s Dungeon 2.0 as well), and the musical soundtrack which is shared verbatim with King Dugan’s Dungeon 2.0. I had, therefore, heard it before, but while I had eventually switched it off in favor of my own music when playing the first game, this time I decided to leave it on. It can get repetitive, but it’s calming, which is important when dealing with a particularly tough puzzle. Journey To Rooted Hold also features direct integration with the developers’ CaravelNet online system, which helps with getting hints and sharing solutions with other players. I did not actually activate this, but instead consulted existing hints threads in the Caravel Games forums when necessary, using their excellent room-by-room search function, much as I did for King Dugan’s Dungeon. Of course, I benefit from years of discussions and hints. If I’d been playing on release, the CaravelNet feature would have been very useful.

But while I recognized all these advances, Journey To Rooted Hold inevitably felt familiar, having played an updated King Dugan’s Dungeon which shared all the new features. The game structure is similar as well, offering another 25 floors of puzzling for Beethro to solve, although there is a memorable section that sees Beethro moving back and forth between floors. And while there are sections where the story and the puzzles work together seamlessly, there are also many places (as mentioned above) that have little to do with unfolding events. The focus remains on clearing every room, and Beethro insists on doing so as a matter of principle, no matter what else is going on.

I’m pleased to say, however, that clearing those rooms manages to stay interesting due to a huge array of new puzzle elements. King Dugan’s Dungeon already contained a lot of variety, to the point that I wasn’t sure what else Journey To Rooted Hold could provide. I remembered the early sections of Journey To Rooted Hold as rehashes of elements already seen in King Dugan’s Dungeon, with new things only introduced later on, but I was surprised to find my memory was faulty. Journey To Rooted Hold showcases new elements from the very beginning, and continues to do so for the majority of its playing time. The first twist is the presence of other characters, starting with Beethro’s nephew Halph. Halph isn’t merely tagging along, he can actively help Beethro by opening doors, and Beethro can instruct him to stand in certain spots to help solve a room. Add in some tunnels which effectively teleport Beethro to other parts of the room, and even the early floors in which Beethro faces off against simple dungeon roaches feel quite different to anything in King Dugan’s Dungeon.

The most interesting new character, however, is an antagonist, the 39th Slayer. Just as adept with his hook as Beethro is with his sword, the Slayer is unassailable (as he is fond of reminding Beethro), but possesses a weakness that Beethro can exploit in order to evade (and sometimes manipulate) him. The Slayer is a recurring threat that completely changes the feel of many rooms and floors, adding a sense of adventure as he pursues Beethro. I also loved his comedy-villain voice as he taunts and brags, and especially his dismay at realizing he’s been outwitted once again.

And there’s plenty more new things besides characters. Bombs with fuses appear, and are used in all sorts of nefarious ways, including mazes full of bombs that force Beethro to be very careful where he points his sword. New enemies attempt to confound Beethro, including golems who leave impassable rubble behind when killed, wubbas who pose no direct threat but block movement, and even mud, a new twist on the horrible tar from King Dugan’s Dungeon (and tar appears here too, of course). These elements and more combine with returning threats from King Dugan’s Dungeon to create fresh challenges throughout, culminating in some truly tough puzzles.

Journey To Rooted Hold manages, somehow, to be even harder than King Dugan’s Dungeon. For the later floors, I was regularly visiting the Caravel Games forums for hints. Crucially, however, hints were often enough to get me to the solution, and I only needed full walkthroughs on rare occasions. I was surprised to see how many rooms I remembered from my first attempts to play; I got much farther than I thought I did back then, but this time had a much easier time of it. I’m now much better at “reading” a room than I was before, recognizing that that element over there is acting as a timer, and Beethro needs to get to that corner before it runs out, which means he’ll have to get through that section, but he won’t have time to clear it all… difficult as it was, I was slowly learning the logic needed to intuit solutions, and a few hints to get me started were often enough. In the later floors, I was often working on a single puzzle for a long time, and every room conquered was a major triumph. But I could feel myself improving, the tasks before me no longer impossible. I still have trouble with some puzzle types, especially those that tasked me with dropping trapdoors in order to herd enemies into manageable groups, or those that require maximum efficiency of movement, but I can tell I’m getting better at them. Even the toughest rooms eventually made sense, and were immensely satisfying to solve. I even started to recognize the occasional red herring, learning to recognize when a particularly difficult task may not actually be necessary.

Basically, King Dugan’s Dungeon offers a perfect learning curve for new players, and Journey To Rooted Hold captures it again for those who’ve completed King Dugan’s Dungeon. I feel I’ve made another step towards DROD mastery, the process rewarding rather than frustrating as it was when I first played. Which makes Journey To Rooted Hold an ideal sequel, all told. Just don’t try to start with it or you’ll be in over your head.

Before I finish, I wanted to share some features I didn’t learn about until partway through. While Beethro is controlled entirely with the keyboard, the mouse is a very useful tool. Click on a orb and it will reveal which doors it controls with a simple color code: green doors will be opened, red doors closed, orange doors toggled. This is not documented anywhere as far as I can tell, and would have been really useful information for King Dugan’s Dungeon too; I complained about a complicated door puzzle at the end of that game, which would have at least felt solvable if I’d known about this feature. Similarly, you can also click on bombs to highlight their blast radius, which is useful for those pesky puzzles where you have to lure enemies into blast range in order to eliminate them.

Journey To Rooted Hold has plenty of puzzling, so I’m taking a break to play some other games now, but I’m surprised by how excited I am to try the third game, The City Beneath. Fortunately, it’s included in the three-pack I bought from GOG, so I may just try it out sooner rather than later. It’s rated as being even harder than Journey To Rooted Hold, but I feel ready for it. And I’m curious to see what Beethro will uncover next.

If you’re interested in the DROD series, there are free demos for each game available from developers Caravel Games. The full games can be purchased directly as well, but the three-pack from GOG is a better deal. The games are also available from other online retailers such as Steam. Just remember to keep Beethro’s sword between him and the monsters and you’ll be fine. Probably.

Note: I’ve only just learned that, apparently, the first three DROD games (King Dugan’s Dungeon, Journey To Rooted Hold, and The City Beneath) are also available as DLC for the fourth entry, the prequel Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, on Steam. This means they’re updated with an even newer version of the engine than what’s available in the GOG three-pack. Also, Gunthro and the Epic Blunder is intended as another starting point for new players, so some may prefer to go that route instead. Up to you; I wanted to experience the games in release order, but then again I am fascinated by the history of games.

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