Review by Spark0

Reviewed: 06/01/09

What is lower than Lowest Point?

I don't like to give 10s. Though in my younger years I had a tendency to do so (just look at the reviews I wrote for this site), but when I write the reviews I post on the Caravel forum, I don't give scores and instead talk frankly about the game, but if there is any game that deserves a 10, it would be the games in the Deadly Rooms of Death series. Just with the demo you get hundreds of user created levels, many of which represent the very best puzzle gaming has to offer, and for $20 more you get a fantastic set of over 400 levels placed in the context of a wonderfully imaginative world and strung together with a surprisingly complex story. Not only that, but the series offers up a gaming experience you just don't find anywhere else. Even though it hasn't evolved beyond added features, it works because no one else does it.

The City Beneath is the third full release in the DROD series, and although a number of expansion packs were released for Journey to Rooted Hold, this is the first truly incredible DROD game since Perfection, the first of the releases. In Journey to Rooted Hold, retired smitemaster (think a glorified, large-scale exterminator) Beethro Budkin took his nephew back to the dungeon that made him famous in order to tie up some loose ends. Soon he found that a conspiracy was brewing, and he was the only one who could stop it. After his nephew is apparently kidnapped, Beethro finally reaches the final leg of his journey.

Unfortunately, that final leg turned out to take a year to traverse, and after many months of walking, daydreaming and complaining, Beethro has finally reached Rooted Hold. Instead of the linear dungeons of past games, Rooted Hold is a bustling, yet somehow inhuman city. Other than a few gossipers (which is implied to actually be their jobs), the citizens simply shuffle about the city, seemingly content but doing nothing that the mysterious hubs don't tell them to do. The city only seems at first to be a significant change in structure: progression is still strictly linear, you simply need to traverse the city rather than simply walking down a staircase. However, what this does do is give Beethro more motivation than just going down. Though through most of the game Beethro is attempting to reach a place called Lowest Point, the story has a number of twists and turns and Beethro actually returns to the surface once or twice (his visit to his old home town really needs to be experienced to be believed, whether it is in terms of quality or creativity). I found that for the first time I was actually engaged in the story, rather than treating it is as an amusing detail to a game otherwise focused on the puzzles, and I consider the ending to be one of the greatest, most awe-inspiring ever put into a game. You'll even occasionally control other characters, but they are essentially a reskinned, Swordless Beethro

But DROD, as always, is still about the puzzles. A majority of the game involves Beethro attempting to kill every monster in the level in order to open a blue door which usually leads to a staircase that goes to the next area. DROD's gameplay is easy to understand, but difficult to explain. Every turn you have 11 options, move in one of eight directions, rotate your sword 45 degrees to the left or right or do nothing. After you make your decision, Beethro moves and every other element moves immediately after, with Beethro always moving first but the difference in time imperceptible to the player. Instead of possessing an AI, every monster reacts in one specific, predictable way to Beethro and the level around them. The amount may seem daunting at first, but the game introduces them at an acceptable pace.

The trick is, however, that individual rooms rarely focus purely on combat (there are exceptions in the level designing community, but they are frowned upon and generally pretty rare). Beethro has a very limited amount of ways to defeat his enemies, and more often than not the room is designed specifically to make this task difficult. One wrong move may render the room unsolvable (though thankfully TCB uses Caravel DROD's checkpoint addition), and most rely on linchpins. Solve the puzzle, execute the solution and move on. It's a simple concept, but the possibilities are endless.

That's even more true with the new game elements added to TCB, there is a new kind of serpent (the adder, which can eat most enemies and certain obstacles and has a vulnerable head), a new kind of tarstuff (gel, which can only broken on inside corners), three kinds of pressure plates, cracked orbs (that break after one use and can then be shattered), Aumtlichs that shoot out paralyzing beams (though you can still rotate and even reflect the beam back at them with your sword or a mirror) Slayers that must be killed in order to end the room, tokens that rotate arrows, a number of elements that cause Beethro to sheathe his sword (in which case he will always turn towards the direction he moves even if the angle is more than 45 degrees), clone potions (which allow Beethro to place another one of himself in the room, any amount of clones can be controlled at will and only one must leave the room, though none can die), mirrors, that can be used to press switches and reflect Aumtlich beams and evil eye vision paths, speed potions that allow Beethro to move twice per turn, Stalwarts that act as allies that fight alongside you and briars, a deadly plant that grows as long it is connected to its root.

DROD still has the best level editor in the business, and scripting is easier than ever. Now, instead of just new levels, players can make new monsters and obstacles. The easy to use editor has resulted in hundreds of levels, and levels made for both the original game and Journey to Rooted Hold are compatible with TCB. This all works with the demo, though since it only has two styles, you won't be able to always see the hold as it was made, gameplay is unaffected. For $20 more you get the "The City Beneath" hold, which does a great job of introducing the multitude to new elements (and even includes tutorials on older ones) and includes well over 400 levels. The main architect is Mike Rimer, and the hold includes some of the most creative, challenging puzzles in the series. It took me a little over 60 hours to beat TCB, which is more than most RPGs. When all that time is spent solving unique puzzles as opposed to generic battles, that's very impressive, and I only found 10% of the secrets. The included hold alone can last over 70 hours, and that's not even considering the strong building community, some of which are just as good as the official stuff.

Four times a year or so, Caravel releases a booster pack which includes one or two holds which is selected by trusted employees, polished and expanded, then modified to include a continuation of the official story, dubbed Smitemaster's Selections. JtRH, since it ended with an uneventful path usually featured simple detours in the SMS, but the new ones continue the story in a meaningful way. Beethro has a new voice actor now (forum veteran Daniel Mellman, known on the forum as Snacko), but otherwise these expansions are genuine mini-sequels. DROD has also started a spin-off series, Tendry's Tale, but that is full price and differs in gameplay.

DROD is possibly the greatest puzzle game ever made, and TCB feels like the realization of a decade old legacy. For $20 it's a steal, and even if you don't want to pay you get most of the content for free.

The demo can be downloaded (and the game can be purchased) at www.caravelgames.com and this week only the game is half off. With the Second Sky on the horizon, there has never been a better time to get into DROD.

Rating: 10

Product Release: Deadly Rooms of Death: The City Beneath (US, 03/31/07)

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