Other History Lessons posts can be found here. In this case, you should read the History Lesson posts about DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon and DROD: Journey To Rooted Hold in particular before proceeding. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
DROD: The City Beneath is the game I thought I was getting when I first played Journey To Rooted Hold. Back then I expected a story-driven puzzle game, only to be confounded by its rigid 25-floor structure, in which every room of every floor must be cleared even if it had nothing to do with protagonist Beethro Budkin’s mission. It wasn’t until I started the DROD series from the beginning that it finally clicked, and I completed Journey To Rooted Hold — even its crushingly difficult later levels — eager to see what came next.
The City Beneath, released in 2007 as a direct sequel to Journey To Rooted Hold, finally breaks from the prescribed dungeon structure of its predecessors, resulting in a game that makes a lot more sense. It was easy to see through the artifice in Journey to Rooted Hold, which was functionally not a journey but just another big dungeon to clear. But now that Beethro has reached his destination, he’s able to explore this subterranean world more logically, as he tries to piece together what’s going on. The titular City facilitates this design, acting as a peaceful hub area from which Beethro can travel to a different places of interest as he follows leads. These locales are wonderfully varied, as Beethro explores the breadth of the underworld and beyond, so there are constantly new things to see and discover. While each area ultimately plays out in a similar fashion to the dungeon floors of the previous game, the simple fact that Beethro is heading to new places for reasons relevant to the story makes a world of difference.
There’s also a lot more of that story. The cast of characters has been expanded significantly, and those returning from the last game given larger roles. The voice acting will, as ever, be divisive. It certainly has an amateur quality to it, and I’ve often heard complaints about it, but I happen to like it. Beethro is gruff as ever, but his stubbornness slowly erodes as he deals with a series of revelations. Other major characters are acted to a similar level, but incidental bit parts veer into “silly voice” territory. I find them endearing, but you may not. If you are bothered by the voices, know that there are a lot of conversations to get through, and even some full-blown cutscenes to watch (a first for the series). On a few occasions, players even get the chance to control other characters for brief interludes. Cognizant that veteran players may prefer straightforward puzzling to sitting through the unfolding drama, developers Caravel Games made cutscenes fully skippable, and re-watchable later if you realize you need to know what happened. Dialogue is all subtitled as well, so you can disable the voices if you like.
While we’re discussing audio, the soundtrack in The City Beneath is a big step up from Journey To Rooted Hold. Composed by Jon Sonnenberg of Travelogue, the relaxing synth-driven music is the perfect accompaniment for pondering a tricky puzzle, and there’s plenty of variety across its 90 minute playtime. Even when tracks inevitably repeat, I found I did not tire of them, and they helped keep me calm when working through particularly difficult puzzles. Looking into the soundtrack for this post, I learned that it’s available digitally from iTunes and Bandcamp, and that Travelogue also composed soundtracks for the later entries in the DROD series. I look forward to hearing those when I continue the series, and may just pick up the City Beneath soundtrack in the meantime.
The art has also been improved. Some tweaks to the engine allow for new lighting effects that do wonders for different areas in the game. Couple this with new tilesets that allow for a more natural and less blocky look, and some locales are downright beautiful, which is something I could never say of the functional graphics in the earlier games. Shadows pool in corners, and different colored lamps spread soft light across the room, bathing Beethro and critters alike in their glow. I got used to the new graphics so quickly that it was jarring when the tilesets from the previous game — which don’t work with the new lighting — eventually reappear. It did at least make sense in terms of the story though.
Capping off all of this is an improved set of tutorials. These take the form of optional excursions built directly into levels at appropriate points, which run through several playable examples of puzzle elements from the earlier games. As with every level in the game, they are replayable at any time, so players can practice dealing with certain monsters or room features whenever they feel they need. Taken together, these tutorials are far more comprehensive than anything in the earlier games.
It all adds up to a package that should be much more welcoming to new players. It’s unfortunate, then, that The City Beneath is absolutely the wrong place to start. As the third game in the series, and the second to feature strong story elements, new players would be completely confused as to who Beethro is, why he’s traveled to the City Beneath, and who the rest of the cast are. And while the new tutorials are admirable, they are no substitute for having worked through the extensive puzzles of the first two games. The tutorials will teach you how a simple dungeon roach behaves, but players who have completed DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon will be masters of the roach, having faced them in every conceivable situation, able to dispatch hordes of them while barely needing to think. The tutorials may explain the basics of how the dreaded tar and mud work, but they cannot convey the myriad subtleties of these horrible substances. Veterans, on the other hand, will know how to spot the bottlenecks that will become impassible if tar is allowed to expand there, estimate at a glance how much time they have to stop it, and execute multiple strategies to efficiently clear tar (or mud) before the deadline. The first two games introduced so many different puzzle elements that it’s impossible to teach them all in a few tutorials, no matter how nicely designed they are. They act instead as reminders for rusty veterans to help get them back into the DROD groove.
In true DROD fashion, The City Beneath adds yet another huge array of new elements to the puzzling. The first appears as soon as Beethro enters the City itself: as a peaceful locale, he must sheath his Really Big Sword, no matter how much he protests. Some puzzles then feature a sword-less Beethro at certain points, which turns out to have a lot of subtle consequences beyond the obvious. Then come the pressure plates. No longer are doors controlled solely by orbs that must be struck with Beethro’s sword. Now, they can be operated by stepping on different types of pressure plates. Which means that enemies can control them too. The possibilities opened by this are endless: puzzles where enemies must be carefully herded such that they open or close doors at appropriate times, puzzles where tar or mud must be pruned to grow over certain pressure plates but not others, and so many more. And that’s just the beginning. Each area in the game introduces some new mechanic, including new enemies, terrain types, and environmental hazards, all mixed in with returning elements from the first two games.
That all adds up to a very tough game. Developers Caravel Games rate The City Beneath as even harder than Journey To Rooted Hold, which was already very hard. But I didn’t feel like it was more difficult. Part of that may simply be that I’ve improved at DROD, having emerged from Journey To Rooted Hold as a much more skilled Smitemaster. Part of it is that the new puzzle elements were easier for me to get my head around, and with all the new pieces there was less time spent with those that chronically gave me trouble, like tar and trap doors. In fact, one of the new elements in The City Beneath is a means to see underneath tar, which makes tar-based puzzles much less annoying. Still, new players are advised to start the series at the beginning. While the first two entries are simpler affairs, they’re chock full of tough puzzles and will teach many advanced techniques that are needed again in this third, more polished installment.
While I think The City Beneath is the best in the series so far, it does have some weaknesses. Playing through the first two games taught me to “read” a room, noting which pieces connect to which others, and often work out what I needed to accomplish before I’d taken a single step. In the City Beneath, the same updated graphics that make it so much more pleasant to look at can sometimes obscure things, and there were several rooms that left me at a loss as how to proceed, as they seemed to be impossible. In each case, it turned out that I didn’t recognize an element of the room for what it was. This can be circumvented by right-clicking on various tiles in the room, which reveals all terrain types and other details, but by the time I needed that function I’d forgotten it existed. So I ended up consulting the (excellent) searchable hint database on the Caravel forums more often than should have been necessary. Fortunately, since hints are given out gradually, I was able to correct my mistake and usually work out the rest of the room myself. That’s not to say there weren’t puzzles that legitimately stumped me for a while even once I had them parsed properly, and I consulted the hint database for those too. But I rarely needed full solutions. Often just a nudge in the right direction was enough.
The nonlinear navigation in The City Beneath can be a hindrance too. While the City hub is nice to visit, it’s not that efficient to travel through, especially when certain sections are used as puzzles of their own. It also confuses the game’s “restore” feature, which lets players return to any previous point in the game (useful for finding secret rooms after completing the game). It’s tempting to simply restore back to a different part of the City, but this will undo story progress and cause areas to get blocked off. Since the earlier games simply progressed floor-by-floor, they did not have this issue. The best way to avoid it is to simply walk everywhere in the City, even if it’s laborious.
But these are minor annoyances. The only real problem with The City Beneath is that, to get to it, you need to play the earlier games first. And that’s not really a problem — they’re both great puzzle games — I just wish new players could experience the extra polish and narrative confidence of The City Beneath right from the start. It seems that Caravel Games felt this way too, as the next entry in the series, Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, takes a break from Beethro’s story to tell a different tale about his grandfather. According to their website, it’s “designed as an entry-level offering to the DROD world, with both new players and veterans in mind”, and is rated as even easier than the original King Dugan’s Dungeon. I’m interested to see how it actually works out, as I’m not sure Caravel Games can resist using all of the pieces that were introduced over the first three games, which might mean players get only cursory introductions to each. But I admire the sentiment. The City Beneath is a game that could appeal to a wider audience if it didn’t require all the preparation beforehand. Maybe Gunthro’s story is exactly what new players need to get started. I plan to play it as my next DROD game, and I’ll be sure to write about it here.
As it is, The City Beneath is an excellent game for DROD series veterans, and may hopefully motivate others to try out the series. If you’re curious, check out my posts about King Dugan’s Dungeon and Journey To Rooted Hold for more details on the earlier entries. All three games can be purchased directly from Caravel Games, but the bundle packs on Steam or GOG are a better deal (I got the trilogy from GOG). I think the Steam version also supports some of the free level packs that were released between entries (which I have not played). It’s a hard road, but with hard work and perseverance, you too can become a Smitemaster.