Archive for August, 2017

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.