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GatEB: End of the Story

With every official hold, it seems, the creators of DROD felt a need to outdo the previous hold’s post-victory component. Gunthro and the Epic Blunder has the familiar locked-until-you-beat-all-the-secret-rooms area, with concept art and bonus puzzles, most of which are harder variations on rooms seen earlier. Some of these rooms aren’t content with just being the most difficult in the game, and add Challenge scrolls on top of that — indeed, there’s one room with two contradictory Challenges, one requiring you to clear the room without using bombs, the other to clear it using only bombs. But the Mastery area isn’t the end of it. The Mastery area contains a scroll (accessible only after solving a couple of tough puzzles) that gives a hint about finding a larger puzzle spread throughout the main game, like the metapuzzle in a puzzle hunt.

Solve this, and you can visit the Spider Cave, an entire additional level of the game. And unlike the kitbashed stuff in the Mastery area, it’s a proper level, with a uniting theme and style. Indeed, it’s more unified than most levels, because in some rooms it pulls the same stunt as level 6 of King Dugan’s Dungeon, repeating room layouts with just enough details changed to make the solutions completely different. Other than that, its main theme is the combination of spiders and shallow water. Spiders are invisible unless you’re close to them or they’re moving, and shallow water makes Gunthro invisible to monsters, so putting the two of them together has the peculiar effect that sometimes neither Gunthro nor the monsters can see each other. I imagine this was probably designed as an introduction to spiders much like the introductions to wraithwings and serpents and so forth, but then cut. As it is, we don’t get a real spider-introduction level, and it would be impossible to just slot this one in, because spiders get used before shallow water becomes available.

Anyway, I’m done with Gunthro, except for the last few Challenges in the Mastery area. Overall impressions: Yes, this is probably the one to start with if you’ve never played DROD. It’s shorter and easier than earlier episodes, but still gets satisfyingly tough towards the end. And I think the puzzles are just better-designed. It doesn’t lean on tactical fiddliness so much, preferring the big “Aha!” moments. This is a big part of why it’s so short: it has less of the filler where you’re battling roaches as fast as they spawn. As a side effect, I think the puzzles here are more memorable — at least, I feel like I recognized more of the rooms, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I played it a few years more recently.

GatEB doesn’t add a lot to the DROD toolkit, though — certainly nowhere near as much as The City Beneath did. In fact, it leaves a fair amount of the essentials out. There are no goblins here; soldiers take their place as the thing that’s a little smarter than roaches. There are no potions of any sort. Instead of mimic and clone potions, we have the horns that summon friendly soldiers and squaddies from offscreen, and instead of invisibility potions, we have the shallow water effect — all of which make things just a little bit more complicated than their potion versions. Most strikingly (and it took me a while to notice this), there is no tarstuff. No tar, no mud, no gel. That’s a pretty big deal, considering how those substances dominated portions of the previous games. And that domination of the experience is why it was probably a good idea to leave them out.

I guess the biggest thing it lacks is resolution. Gunthro and Beethro end their story no closer to the truth than where they started. There’s a boss battle of sorts, where Gunthro pursues the Tuenan captain through another Neather-style dungeon, but it’s a bit like the final boss fight in Metal Gear Solid 2: a phony conflict that the player knows is just a distraction from what’s really going on. And anyway, the Captain just doesn’t have the emotional oomph of a good villain. Even the original Neather, who was barely a character, earned some good villain points by being in control, and then inadvertently giving you an opportunity to wrest that control away from him. The Captain doesn’t have that. He’s as hapless as you.

GatEB: Introductions

Despite being fourth in publication order, Gunthro and the Epic Blunder is meant as an introduction to DROD. And it does a whole lot of introducing — the first sequence of rooms takes care to introduce all the basics, one by one, down to the level of key bindings, even though there’s a separate gameplay tutorial that covers the same things. Then it pretty much follows the DROD model, introducing one new element per level, tutorializing all its behaviors and uses. And, of course, most of the elements it’s introducing are things that the experienced DROD player has seen before.

Not everything, mind you. There are a few new concepts, like horns that you can use to summon allies, either squaddies who you control or Rasarun soldiers who you don’t control but who fight monsters alongside you. But even there, the things that the horns summon aren’t new. Squaddies are just like the clones produced by clone potions in The City Beneath, and Rasarun soldiers are just a color-swap of the Tuenan stalwarts from the same title. (Yes, the Tuenans are allies there, and enemies here.) GatEM gets more mileage out of them, though. As a story about a war, it features soldiers much more. Here, enemy soldiers of the sort introduced in the final level of Journey to Rooted Hold are nearly as common a puzzle element as roaches.

The previous games also introduced elements one by one, of course. The weird thing about GatEB is that it introduces elements in a very different order than the previous games did. It’s not until the third major hub-and-wheel area that Gunthro starts encountering most of the monster types from the first game, such as wraithwings, evil eyes, and serpents. This stuff used to be the very basics of the game, and now it’s being put off until after we’ve seen exotic variants from later episodes like stone golems, rafts, bombs, and the aforementioned soldiers. And I didn’t even notice that they were missing until their return. I have to say, they’re introduced a lot better here than in King Dugan’s Dungeon. Each monster type gets its own mini-dungeon, with at least one room showing how the monster is affected by brains. In previous titles, the brain tutorials were all lumped together when brains are introduced, but here, brains are one of the first monster types you encounter. Basically what’s happening here is that the designers are letting go of the idea that they’re making “King Dugan’s Dungeon, only better” and rethinking how things should be introduced. Possibly it’s the influence of the frogs-and-mice stage of the project.

DROD: Gunthro and the Epic Blunder

In the ending credits of DROD: The City Beneath, Caravel Games announced that they were going to take a break from DROD before starting on the final episode that wraps up the story. Their next game was going to use DROD-like mechanics, but in a different setting. It was to be a story for children, concerning a war between the kingdoms of Frogs and Mice. But at some point they changed their minds and turned the Frogs and Mice game back into a full-on DROD. Thus was Gunthro and the Epic Blunder born.

It fits peculiarly into the canon. It’s not the final episode they had planned — that’s The Second Sky. It’s a story about Beethro’s grandfather Gunthro, as told by Beethro to his nephews, during his retirement following the first game, before he decided to go back underground. Every once in a while, we get Beethro’s narrative voice-over, or an interrupting nephew asking questions. Thus, the game can employ unreliable-narrator metanarrative trickery, much like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. At one point, Gunthro suddenly gains the ability to swim stealthily through shallow water, just because Beethro’s audience thinks it would be cool. And once you get this narrator-granted power, you can go back to previously-visited locations to cross water that was previously impassible.

At another point, there’s a sequence of rooms where you can switch control between Gunthro and some soldiers under his command — it’s essentially the “clone potion” mechanic from TCB but without the potion. One such room can only be solved by locking Gunthro in the room and leaving as one of the squaddies. The game itself doesn’t care which avatar you’re controlling, and doesn’t distinguish them graphically, but one of the nephews notices the inconsistency and complains. Beethro just shrugs it off: “Maybe I got confused”. If I’m not mistaken, TCB also had rooms like this, where you had to leave Beethro’s original body behind and take off with a clone. (And even if it never made this necessary, it definitely made it possible.) But here, there’s this extra layer of fictionality to shield us from the disquieting implications.

Presenting it all as a story told to children also provides cover for any tonal inconsistency resulting from the fact that it was originally designed as a story for children. If such inconsistency exists, that is, which I’m not really sure of. The overall feel of the thing seems pretty storybook-like to me, sort of like Chicken Little with added violence, all very stylized and structurally repetitive. But the world of DROD isn’t a terribly realistic one to begin with, so the only thing that’s really different about this story is that it’s a little less grotesque and nihilistic.

The story up to the point I’m at right now: In the very beginning, Gunthro witnesses the murder of his king, the king of Rasarus, at the hands of a captain from Tueno. (Both Rasarus and Tueno figured into parts of TCB.) He goes to rally the Rasarans to avenge this aggression, which means finding and in some cases rescuing a bunch of leaders and heroes who will be necessary for the offensive, each of whom is in the depths of a different level. This enables a nicely nonlinear hub-and-wheel design that should help beginners to not get stuck. Once you finish with that, you spend a level getting to Tueno, only to find that all the NPCs you had gathered previously have gotten lost in various caves and things, and need to be rescued again, a second hub-and-wheel. That’s as far as I’ve gotten this time around, but I remember that the whole casus belli eventually turns out to be a mistake on Gunthro’s part, and that this epic blunder results in his exile from Rasarus.

Also, it all links up with the Rooted Empire at some point, which is curious. Beethro doesn’t yet know about the Empire at the point when he’s telling the story. But I don’t think the game is really any more concerned with consistency around the story that within it. It’s a mixture of Beethro’s off-the-cuff embellishments with things that really happened, some of which Beethro may not know about.

TCB: The Undercity

Finishing The City Beneath means being repeatedly told “Oh, you thought you were done, did you?” When you reach the end, there’s still the secret rooms. When you’ve beaten all of those, it opens up the Master area, The Undercity, which has its own suite of twelve puzzles. The previous episodes also had their own playable bits in the epilogue, but not in quite the same way — in King Dugan’s Dungeon, it was just some repeats of rooms you had already solved, as Beethro describes them to his nephews, while in Journey to Rooted Hold, it was a display of some rejected rooms that you could try if you wanted to. In TCB, it’s more rejected rooms, mostly variants on things that were in the game but got changed because they were too hard. But they’re presented as a level, something you’re really expected to solve. The UI pointedly keeps track of how many you’ve cleared, in a way that it doesn’t even do in the main part of the game. Doing them all gives you one final Challenge/Achievement.

Or perhaps not final! I still had one more Challenge to go back and find in the regular game — one of those unscrolled ones, designating an optional cutscene. I actually though for a while I had more than one of those, because Steam had Achievements described as “(TCB) TU: Clear all 12 puzzle rooms (then visit 1W)” and “(TCB) TU:3N – Win a game of ‘Mastermind’ on the first visit to the room”. This was confusing because “TU” is ambiguous: in addition to “The Undercity”, it’s short for “The Uncturage”, one of the earlier levels, which doesn’t even have rooms at 1W or 3N.

One of the Master puzzles is an earlier and less-complicated version on the baffling puzzle I described previously. This was rejected for being too hard, presumably because you have to clear the gel personally and single-handedly, but I honestly found it easier than what wound up in the main dungeon. Another is a version of the five-Slayers-at-once room, but without the decoy potion that lets you just blow everyone up. Instead, it has a whole bunch of bombs and internal walls scattered around, to create more situations where you can exploit Slayer AI. This was rejected when the designers realized that they hadn’t ever taught the player how to kill Slayers. The techniques were well-known on the DROD forums, and reasonable fodder for Challenges, but not for a crit-path puzzle. Indeed, this is the only puzzle that’s considered to be too hard even for the Undercity, and isn’t included in the twelve you’re expected to solve. I personally had of course already done the canon version of the room the hard way for the sake of the Challenge, but I found the Undercity version difficult, not just despite the extra bombs, but because of them. I really know only a few tricks for killing Slayers, and the most versatile one — the one I used in JtRH L7:1E — requires an amount of empty space that’s hard to come by with all those bombs around.

At any rate, that’s basically it for my second tour of The City Beneath, and if I didn’t have as much to say about it as I did the first time, maybe that’s just a sign that I shouldn’t blog games twice. I’ll be going on to Gunthro and the Epic Blunder soon, which shouldn’t take long to complete. I recall finishing it in a single weekend the first time.

TCB: Story Challenges

Once again, I’m going for Mastery: finding and beating all the secret rooms and unlocking the Master Gate and its hidden concept art gallery. Usually I manage this in a single manic session, sometimes the same session where I complete the game. But somehow, it’s been taking me longer this time around, despite having done it once already, years ago. Maybe I was better about locating secrets on the way down, back then, so that I had fewer to handle afterward. As I write this, I have four secret rooms remaining. Two of them, I’ve found but not solved. The other two I haven’t even found.

In addition, there are still several Challenges in the in-game Challenge list (and a Steam Achievement with each one). I’ve been taking care to do the Challenge scrolls as I find them, but this game has, for the first time in the series, Challenges that don’t have scrolls. Yes, even the “Kill the Slayer earlier than you’re supposed to” challenge in Journey to Rooted Hold had a scroll, locked away behind a Master gate on the level where the Slayer first appeared. But here in The City Beneath, there are Challenges of a different sort: ones linked to story content rather than puzzles. Whenever there’s an optional cutscene that plays only when you do something special, like going back and talking to someone in the city after a plot event relevant to that person happens, there’s a Challenge for doing it. I intend to do all of these Challenges, but some of them are time-consuming. One requires you to kill the Guide that the Negotiator assigns to you in the beginning, then play until you get a cutscene where two people discuss the Guide’s murder. To get this, I had to play through two entire levels a second time, just to get from the murder opportunity to the cutscene. I guess the game hints at this when Beethro says he’s tempted to kill the Guide, but as a player, I wasn’t tempted at all. I liked the Guide. She gave Beethro sass.

TCB: Halph

Looking over my ten-year-old posts on The City Beneath, I’m surprised at some things I didn’t describe. I suppose I was avoiding spoilers at the time. Well, there’s less point in avoiding spoilers when the final revelation of this episode is given away by a subsequent episode’s title and cover art. So let’s talk about Halph.

I’ve mentioned how Journey to Rooted Hold hints at Halph becoming like the Neather. In TCB, this gets even more pointed. In the year between episodes that Beethro spent journeying beneath, Halph fell in with the Dungeon Architects. He’s happily assimilated into the Empire, and regards Beethro as his enemy, with all the fervor of a rebellious adolescent who’s found new friends that his family doesn’t like. And so he appears as the end boss of TCB, in a cycle of rooms organized much like the Neather’s lair, overseeing the puzzles from control chambers that you can’t reach until you’ve solved it all. The one big difference is that instead of just opening and closing doors to control the flow of monsters, Halph commands an army of Builders, who alter the contents of the dungeon at his command, erecting or tearing down walls, bridging chasms, removing the supports from bridges, and so forth. The puzzles here are about trying to control the Builders yourself — for example, by blocking off certain construction areas with monsters, forcing the Builders to work on something else. I feel like there’s a lot of potential that the level only begins to explore. More importantly, though, it puts Halph into the role of game designer even more clearly than the Neather ever was. The Neather had a role in executing puzzles, but Halph is involved in actually constructing them. And, as with the Neather, defeating Halph means breaking into his dev-only area, behind his freshly-built walls.

Not because you want to kill Halph, though. Beethro would be fine without this conflict. He just wants to get to the bottom of things, by literally getting to the bottom of things. But Halph is in his way, refusing to let him see what’s at Lowest Point. Why? Not because Halph knows what Beethro will find, but specifically because he does not. He doesn’t want to learn anything that might challenge his new-found faith. Beethro, for his part, freely calls him out on this, annoying him no end. It’s a lovely dynamic for a boss fight: villain as petulant child, hero as irritating uncle who knows how to push his buttons.

TCB: A Puzzling Puzzle

I reached the end of The City Beneath over the weekend — it’s definitely a much easier game than Journey to Rooted Hold. But before talking about that, I’d like to describe a room in the final descent that left me baffled, even after solving it: Abyssian Fortress, 2S.

The basis of this room is that there are these nine 4×4 cells of tarstuff, three of each of the three varieties (tar, mud, and gel). The only monsters in the room are the Mothers in each cell, visible as a pair of eyes, that make the tarstuff expand every 30 turns, although the way they’re penned in here keeps them from expanding. Access out of the room is controlled by force arrows and a black gate, which only opens when all the tarstuff in the room has been cleared. And most of the floor is missing, so you have to get around by means of a 4×4 raft. So far, so straightforward. This much makes it a solid but not-too-difficult tar-clearing puzzle. The only tricky part is the gel. Gel is only vulnerable at its interior corners, but the cells here don’t have any. To get started, you have to create some by letting the gel expand onto your raft, which immobilizes the raft until it’s cleared. But even that’s just low-level tactics.

The difficulties come in with some things you have to step on to get started. First of all, there’s a disarm token, which takes away your sword. Stepping on a disarm token again restores your sword, but the force arrows around the token here prevent you from doing that. Then there’s a mimic potion, which lets you place a mimic on any clear spot on the floor. Mimics imitate your movements, and are armed with swords, so you can use that to clear the tar even when disarmed. But the circumstances suggested another possibility: what happens when a mimic steps on a disarm token? I knew that there exist things that mimics trigger just as if you had stepped on them. So I tried this, and sure enough, I got my sword back. Unfortunately, that left me in a difficult position for the next obstacle: the bridge.

Bridges are another new concept in TCB. They act kind of like level 2 of Donkey Kong: you can remove the supports by walking on them. (In fact, the game reuses the familiar trap door tiles to represent the supports.) Once the supports are all gone, the whole thing collapses, killing anything on it, including Beethro if you’re foolish enough to step back onto the bridge from the last support. In this room, there’s a bridge that’s blocking the raft from moving, and the trap door to collapse it is on the opposite end of the bridge from the raft. Getting a mimic from the disarm token all the way to the other side of the bridge without going there yourself seems impossible — the only way to enlarge the distance between yourself and a mimic is to move in a way the mimic can’t, typically by pulling it against a wall, and there are no suitably-positioned walls in that part of the room. Doing it the opposite way, collapsing the bridge personally and leaving the mimic on the raft, is feasible, but leaves you stranded on a little 2×2 platform, without enough movement room to make the mimic navigate the raft over to you. No, the easier approach, I decided, was to create the mimic on the 2×2 platform where it could free the raft, and remain swordless while it fought the tar for me.

At first, I tried just standing on the raft with the mimic while it fought the tar, but it proved difficult to protect my defenseless body this way. Eventually I got a bright idea: There’s another raft over on the right side. If I got that free, the mimic could take one raft into the fighting zones while I stand on the other, a comfortable distance away. This worked, and I cleared the level through, in effect, remote telepresence. But there were still things about the puzzle that I didn’t understand. For starters, there’s a red gate over on the right side, enclosing the platform corresponding to the one I didn’t want to get stuck on in the previous paragraph. Why is that there? It controls access to an empty space. I cleared the room without opening it. It could be a mere red herring, but DROD doesn’t usually go in for that. Or when it does, it does it with things that give you the wrong idea about a puzzle and cause you to attempt it the wrong way, not with confusing elements that don’t suggest a solution at all.

And then, after you solve the room, there’s a Challenge scroll. The challenge: Clear the room without moving the mimic over the disarm token. In other words, the thing that I had decided was impossible is apparently the normal solution. I feel like I still haven’t solved this room, despite having solved it the hard way. And I have no idea which way I solved it the first time through.

TCB: Mothingness

While I’m semi-stuck in the later, more difficult levels of The City Beneath, let’s take a moment to talk a little about the one recurring character I haven’t said much about: the Pit Thing. This is a booming voice that occasionally speaks to Beethro from the depths of the vast chasms you occasionally find while exploring. Sometimes there are a few eyes on pillars in the middle of the pit, using the same sprite as Evil Eyes but not flagged as monsters. I suppose the implication is that they’re part of the Pit Thing, part of how it learns what’s going on in the world. It definitely has some source of information, because it knows a great deal about Beethro.

The Pit Thing first made itself known back in Journey to Rooted Hold, where it didn’t show much of a sign of personality or motivation. Its dialogue was a mixture of taunts, gibberish, and fruitless attempts to talk Beethro into jumping into the pit. That last theme continues somewhat in TCB, with the Pit Thing pointing out that if Beethro really wants to reach Lowest Point, straight down is the fastest route. Given DROD’s sense of irony, I half-suspect that we’ll eventually learn that the pit has an anti-gravity field or an enormous trampoline or something at the bottom, and that Beethro could have saved himself a lot of trouble by just following the Pit Thing’s advice.

For the most part, though, the Pit Thing seems less insane this time around, and at least a little concerned with guiding Beethro towards discovering the secrets of the underground. At one point, progress is contingent on the Pit Thing’s help, when Beethro gets access to the imperial library but doesn’t know what topic to look up. The Pit Thing guides him to the one part of the Library that’s in the process of being destroyed by briars. It does this, it claims, to teach us a lesson about Mothingness.

“Mothingness” was mentioned in JtRH, but I had frankly forgotten about it by the time TCB came out, and only noticed it this time around because I was watching for it. It just didn’t seem important there, just another nonsense word, or, more likely, a typo. But in TCB, it’s the central concept of the Pit Thing’s message. Mothingness is essential to the actions of the Empire. The citizens don’t know about the mothingness, but it’s “soaked into their flesh”, invisible and unavoidable. What is it? The Pit Thing prefers to teach by example, much to Beethro’s annoyance, so we don’t have a definition. The clearest statement we get comes when the Pit Thing is talking about the Archivist faction: “The Archivists have two jobs. One that was given to them, and one they gave themselves. They were told to collect information, but when they listened more deeply to the mothingness, the mothingness told them to collect all information.” We see the result shortly afterward: a war of extermination on the surface-dwellers, because only when they’re all dead can the Archivists’ records be permanently complete.

What is mothingness? Based on these two examples, I’d describe it as something like “things not going as planned”. Mothingness is entropy, code decay, perverse incentives. It’s the system’s inherent problems building up until things reach a crisis point, and then the system continuing anyway, a parody of its former self, its original purpose lost. Mothingness now rules the Empire, which has become a Recorded Information Maximizer, in the same sense as Paperclip Maximizer.

The Pit Thing sees the sparks that fly when Beethro comes into contact with mothingness, and is amused, and encourages further contact. And so the husk of an empire begins to fall.

TCB: Swordlessness

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s impressing me anew: in comparison to other DRODs, it’s striking how much of The City Beneath is spent without using your sword. It’s not just the time you take exploring the city proper, where you’re forced to keep your sword in its sheath lest it be devoured by oremites. It’s also the way that the new game elements provide other things for the puzzles to be about. Take the rafts and floating platforms, which are really the same thing in two different contexts. A raft or floating platform is a contiguous group of floor tiles that move under your control when you’re on them, provided that there’s nothing in the way. 1That’s a bit of a simplification, but I’ll spare you the details. Once that’s in the level designer’s toolkit, they can use it to make polyomino assembly puzzles that you solve from the inside. You don’t need a sword for that.

In a weird way, it reminds me of Portal 2. There was reportedly a point in the development of Portal 2 when the developers were seriously contemplating leaving the portal gun out, because they had a number of other novel mechanisms to replace it with, such as magic paint. But they wound up including the portal gun as the means by which you interact with the other novel mechanisms. TCB sort of does it the other way around: using your sword is the goal, the thing that the other puzzle-solving is done in service of. But then, the game also introduces new ways to kill things without using your sword, such as leading them onto hot tiles, or knocking out the supports of a bridge, or letting them step on your raft and then pulling it out from under them.

I mentioned oremites. When you first learn about the city’s oremite infestation, it seems like they’re nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek in-game excuse for the narrative decision to keep Beethro from killing important NPCs. But fairly late in the game, there’s a level called “Oremite Breeding Grounds”. Here, most of the floor is covered with oremite nests, except for a few tiles — and consequently, those are the only tiles where you can draw your sword. The puzzles are thus all about getting monsters over to the places where you can kill them, with enough time to turn to face the right way once you get there. I just love how it turns what seemed like a throwaway joke into a mechanic that produces puzzles, and I especially love how long it waits between introducing the concept of oremites and paying it off in this way.

I mentioned the sequence where you play as the Negotiator, who doesn’t even have a weapon, and has to kill monsters by controlling Fegundos. There’s a second such interlude where you control a goblin, who doesn’t have a sword, but who’s capable of killing things anyway (as we know from the puzzles where Beethro fights goblins). This is the sequence that introduces Aumtliches, the Empire’s latest vat-grown weapon of war. An Aumtlich’s eyes emit glowing, sparking beams that paralyze you if they touch you, leaving you able to turn in place but not able to flee. There’s a sense of powerlessness there that’s worse than simply being killed outright, and the player learns to fear the sound effect that accompanies getting stuck in the beams. And it all leads up to the moment when you get Beethro back, and have a sword again. To emphasize the importance of this, Beethro has to surrender his sword to be allowed into a military encampment just before the goblin sequence, and it’s only returned after that’s over. It’s important because, as we soon discover, your sword can block Aumtlich beams, or even reflect them back. You can still get stuck without recourse, but only if you stand in a place where two beams cross, so that you can’t block them both at once. Even so, being able to block them at all feels like a superpower after experiencing helplessness as a goblin. At first, I took care to orient my sword correctly before stepping into a beam, just to avoid the scary noise it would trigger otherwise. But the game gradually makes this impossible, and after a while, you learn to not let it bother you.

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1. That’s a bit of a simplification, but I’ll spare you the details.

The City Beneath: Gate of Namedness

I’m managing to replay The City Beneath at a pretty good clip — I haven’t gotten to the harder levels yet, but I’m pretty sure that the game is overall much easier than Journey to Rooted Hold, even with the Challenges. The central organizing structure of the game is that your progress through the city is blocked by sundry obstacles requiring subquests. You explore more or less freely for a while, triggering plot events as you go, and then, when you can’t do that any more, you go off and solve a series of puzzle-rooms, then come back and resume exploring. The most significant of these obstacles is a series of three great gates. I’ve just passed the second one. This doesn’t mean I’m two-thirds of the way through the game; the first gate comes at the very beginning, and only requires that you sheathe your sword to pass. Also, I recall there’s a significant number of levels after the third gate. Still, it’s good progress.

The second gate is called the Gate of Namedness. The only people allowed through are citizens with names, which is to say, jobs, those two concepts being synonymous in the Empire. As an above-grounder, Beethro is automatically ineligible for this status, until the Negotiator moves heaven and earth to get the law changed. Really, Beethro severely underappreciates that woman. He remains as hostile towards her as he was when they first met, just as he remains belligerent towards everything in the Empire, even the people who are trying to help him. Nonetheless, getting deeper into the city requires him to integrate himself into the Empire’s systems, at least nominally.

I described the process of obtaining a name during my first pass through the game. Beethro applies for the post of Slayer. There are five other applicants for the position, and they all compete for the job with a fight to the death, in which everyone else naturally agrees to target the above-grounder first. Now, the room contains an obvious mechanism for beating them, involving a bomb and a decoy potion. But this time around, there’s a Challenge scroll, which predictably asks you to do without these aids.

I am of course an expert Slayer-killer by now, thanks to the Challenges in JtRH. What once seemed impossible is now child’s play. But there’s a particular difficulty with taking on five at once, and oddly enough, it’s exactly what made the same fight so surprisingly easy back in 2007: the tendency of the Slayers to bunch up. When you’re trying to get them to cluster together around a bomb, that’s helpful. When you’re trying to manually pick them off one by one, not so much. You want them isolated. The act of getting past a Slayer’s guard with nothing but a sword and a wall is a delicate dance, with precise timing, and easily ruined by another Slayer barging in from the wings. The first kill I managed was almost entirely accidental. Somehow, an interloper wound up in a position I could take advantage of. I have no idea how that happened, but it was a big help. Each enemy you take down makes the rest that much easier.

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