Archive for December, 2017

The Second Sky: Weapons

We do of course get a steady diet of new monsters and terrain features as the game goes on. Notable additions include spike traps that spring up and kill things every ten turns, temporal beacons that let you deliberately return rooms to their unsolved state to enable elaborate Room Clear/Level Clear gate shenanigans, and Fluff, a sort of aerial tarstuff with enough novel properties to fill a blog post of its own. But there’s one addition that has me particularly interested, because it’s a completely new category of thing for the designers to experiment with: weapons.

In a sense, this isn’t entirely new. The City Beneath gave us one other alternate weapon, that being the null weapon, the state of being weaponless. Also, the idea was played with a bit in Wonderquest, the one game I know of that outright imitates DROD‘s mechanics. Wonderquest had this notion that you were playing as a party of multiple characters with different abilities, and some of those characters had different weapons; I remember in particular one that had a staff that extended in two opposite directions. You only had one character in play at a time, though, and switched among them by stepping on tokens on the floor. It mainly used this to limit access to characters, making the ones you needed difficult to access.

DROD‘s weapon-switching is also based around stepping on tokens, but so far, it’s mainly used this to force you to switch to weapons you don’t want, ones that are less powerful than the default Really Big Sword. The first alternative you get is a mere wooden stick, incapable of killing anything directly. Hitting something with a stick briefly stuns it, and pushes it to an adjacent space if there’s room. Mind you, this can be enough to kill things. Just push it off a cliff, or into a hazard like a spike trap. And the ability to push monsters around isn’t nothing. There are loads of puzzles throughout the DROD series about getting monsters to go where they’re useful to you, and previously, the only way to do this was to make them chase you there.

The second weapon you get is a spear. This is capable of killing things, but only with poking movements. Hit a monster with the side and it just acts like a stick. In a way, this seems like the best of both worlds, because you can both kill and push with it. But so much of my monster-slaying technique relies on swings and side-steps and back-swipes that you can only do with the sword. Killing with a spear is just a great deal less efficient. If you want to stand your ground, you have to keep backing up to do it.

That’s all I’ve found. I expect there will be more, maybe even the long-anticipated ray gun. That’s an old in-joke from the Caravel forums — the ray gun is the canonical example of a player’s request for a feature that would ruin the game by making it too easy. But I trust that the designers would find ways of making a ray gun into a liability.

After all, they’ve found ways to make the obviously inferior weapons better than your sword.

It all comes down to the immense variety of game elements and how they interact. Some monsters, like Gentryii or Wubbas, are invulnerable to damage. If you hit them with your sword, it just does nothing. If you hit them with a stick, it pushes them just like it pushes anything else. So the stick is a better choice than the sword against them. And as for the spear, I’ve recently discovered that it has a secret virtue: it can damage tarstuff at any point, without regard to edge or corner. These things aren’t inferior. They’re specialized.

The Second Sky: The People of the Empire

The intro level to DROD: The Second Sky makes First Chemist seem like an important character, but he disappears after that. Presumably he has chemist business to attend back at the vats while Beethro ventures out looking for more answers. He’s replaced by an array of minor characters, the sort of whimsical and eccentric cast that’s become one of DROD’s trademarks. There are the Truth Vessels, occasionally catching up to report on their findings in their technical-sounding gibberish. There’s a Critic, who just shows up to make disappointed comments about your puzzle-solving — she’s kind of like the watchers from Journey to Rooted Hold, except that her complaints are ones you can’t act on: “Your sword is too big”, for example. (Perhaps a reaction to discussion threads?) On one level, a woman repeatedly pops in to inform you that you’ll never be able to steal her precious diamond doily. Beethro protests that he has no intention of even trying, although eventually her accusations arouse his curiosity about it. The Pit Thing is still around, as pit-thingy as ever.

And there’s a recurring antagonist, the first we’ve seen since the Slayer in Journey to Rooted Hold. In behavior, however, he’s less like the Slayer and more like the final bosses in all the other DROD games: instead of engaging you in combat directly, he keeps his distance, opening and closing doors to force you into traps. He’s the one who sends Beethro into the Gentryii dungeon. His name: First Archivist, leader of the faction that unleashed the Aumtlichs on the surface-dwellers back in The City Beneath.

He’s not the one who ordered that attack, however. He was Second Archivist back then. The previous First Archivist, the one who sent the Aumtlichs to war, is still around, but powerless and nameless. I haven’t yet learned exactly how or why he was deposed. Presumably it has to do with his failed attempt at genocide, but which is the factor that led to his downfall: the genocide or the failure?

At this point, I’m thinking the former, because the more we learn about the Empire, the more it turns out that they’re mostly not bad people, just weird and secretive and sometimes under the sway of Mothingness. Previous First Archivist’s attitudes may well be atypical; indeed, Halph’s big project for the Empire turns out to be a plan to save the surface-dwellers from an imminent cataclysm called “the Turning”. Beethro got off on the wrong foot with everyone with the whole “leave or we’ll send the Slayer after you” thing, but even he’s starting to mellow towards them. He cooperates with First Chemist without making snarky comments about it. Back in TCB, when Beethro briefly returns to Dugandy and discovers that his associate Bombus Gadhan is collaborating with the Empire, he flies into a rage, accuses Bombus of treason, and winds up fighting and then escaping from the Dugandy royal guard. When he returns to Dugandy again in TSS, it’s to sit down and talk to Bombus, and pool their knowledge about what’s going on.

So if the people of the Empire aren’t just automatically evil, we have to ask: why is New First Archivist trying to kill Beethro? If I understand correctly, the sole reason is that when they first meet, Beethro automatically assumes that he’s an enemy just like Previous First Archivist, and as a result is rude to him, then refuses to apologize. And while First Archivist’s response to this is wildly disproportional, it has to be said that Beethro could have spared himself a great deal of effort and grief (and deprived the player of some wicked puzzles) by just apologizing. Beethro has a talent for making trouble for himself. I kind of suspect that his slapdash efforts at saving the surfacers are going to collide with Halph’s at some point, leaving them both in ruins, like Guybrush and Elaine. But even if so, not all the blame will lie on Beethro. What we have, in both this hypothetical and in the plot generally, is a failure to communicate. And Beethro is at least making an effort in that department, what with learning a new language.

DROD: The Second Sky

It’s been nearly a year since I decided to give the first four DROD games a quick play-through in preparation for tackling the fifth. Let’s get on with it, shall we? Forth into the unknown!

But not into the expected unknown. Given the title The Second Sky, I thought that we’d be exploring the world that Beethro finds past Lowest Point at the end of The City Beneath, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we get a time skip of at least a month. Beethro is a wanted criminal in the Empire now, but has formed an alliance with a previously-unseen character named First Chemist. Together, they have a plan to save the surface-dwellers that involves “Truth Vessels”, vat-grown people who are incapable of saying anything false — although they can only speak and understand a goofy-sounding language called “true speech”. Beethro has learned this language. So, quite a lot has happened offscreen, and it’s revealed to the player as part of the “story so far” summary, in exactly the same format as the familiar stuff from the previous games: a series of brief cutscene fragments with expository voice-overs between them, like clips in a trailer, with no division between the old stuff and the new.

To be honest, I suspect that the unfamiliar portions come from the “Smitemaster’s Selection” expansions, which I haven’t (yet) played. If so, this is the first time the Selections have had crucial relevance to the main titles. But I kind of like the the idea of a fake “Previously On” sequence that mixes in items that weren’t actually previously on.

I’m only a few levels into the game proper at this point. We start with a whirlwind reintroduction to the basic game elements. Just as I observed when playing Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, what exactly constitutes the basics varies from game to game. Things that were unfamiliar to Beethro a couple of games ago, such as adders and pressure plates, he now treats as common knowledge. He does comment on not yet being used to the idea of force arrows that can be turned on and off, but that’s because that’s something new to this game.

I’ve gotten just far enough to see the first really major new game element: the Gentryii. These are essentially droddified versions of the Chain Chomps from Mario: indestructible animated metal balls with sharp teeth, products of hubris in a bygone age, chained to the walls of a dungeon and sealed away when they couldn’t be killed. The chains snake around from tile to tile in a way that makes them seem at first like a new variety of Serpent, but they’re really very different from serpents mechanically. Serpents move at right angles, trailing their bodies behind them, like in the classic Snake game. Gentryii chains can lie diagonally, and they’re (usually) fixed at one end, so that the tension of the Gentryii pulling at the other end can straighten out convolutions. This makes it difficult to get them usefully stuck. Yes, you can avoid getting killed by a Gentryii by just staying beyond the chain’s reach, but sometimes they’re positioned right where you need to go, like guard dogs, with the chain preventing them from leaving their post. Part of the trick here is that the chain itself acts as an obstacle. Beethro can’t cross it, but neither can the Gentryii.

In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the Gentryii chain is the only sort of obstacle I’ve seen that can’t be crossed diagonally. Usually, if two diagonally adjacent tiles are both empty, you can move from one to the other, even if the two tiles neighboring them are solid walls. Even the gaze of an Evil Eye or an Aumtlich can be crossed without triggering when it’s on a slant. But a Gentryii chain is impermeable. You can still stab monsters through it, though.

More tomorrow. I’ll probably have something to say about the characters.


I was recently looking over some old browser tabs. One that I’ve apparently been hanging onto since 2015 was a Flash-based room escape game called Elements, the still-latest such work by an artist named Neutral. And I’m glad that I found and played it, because it’s a peculiar example of the room-escape genre. It basically morphs into a small mystlike.

Room escapes aren’t far removed from mystlikes to begin with, of course. Their basic dynamic is the same: clicking around, exploring, looking for ways to unlock stuff. The chief difference is that mystlikes mainly have you explore outward, journeying to new places, while in room escapes, you explore inward, unlocking drawers and peering behind sofas, gaining access to ever greater layers of detail. The moment you’re able to journey to a new place, the game is over. This is a superficial distinction, really. There’s no mechanical difference between clicking a hotspot to walk down a pathway and clicking a hotspot to take a closer look at a bookshelf. But it’s a difference that’s important enough to the feel of the thing to have genres built around it.

Now, I’ve seen room escapes with more than one location, but usually anything beyond the initial room is a mere mere annex to it. Neutral’s previous game Vision, for example, has a mechanism that unlocks a door onto a small balcony where a needed item is housed. Once you’re on the balcony, the door closes behind you, turning the balcony into a small room escape of its own, a sub-escape where you try to get back to the main room you’re trying to escape from. Elements takes things considerably farther than that, with a chain of four additional rooms that are the initial room’s equal, including one that’s a spiral staircase that you walk up and down, looking for clues. Sometimes you’re locked into a room, sometimes you have the run of all the rooms you’ve found. Eventually you loop back to the initial room and open up the obvious front door, and there’s another room past that one.

The initial room has standard room-escape decor: easily-modeled modernist furniture. This creates an impression of genre convention, so that later rooms can break it by putting you in an unfinished cave or an indoor garden. These settings aren’t notable for a mystlike or an adventure game. It’s just the initial false impression that you’re in an ordinary room escape that makes them stand out.

The thing that really gets my attention, though, is the extent to which it’s concerned with building systems of symbols and glyphs, with simple patterns feeding forward into less-specified ones. This is the chief reason it keeps letting you go back to previous rooms: so you can recognize something you’ve seen before, then go back and look at the original with new understanding. Interpreting vague and mysterious symbols is a staple of the room escape genre, but it’s only in a larger game that the system can go several levels deep like that. Not all mystlikes try it, but I wish more would, because it’s one of my favorite things in a game.

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