[This is a guest review by SirNiko. Originally posted on TIGForums.]
I finished Deadly Rooms of Death: Gunthro and the Epic Blunder and the bonus dungeon “Flood Warning”. This is a great series, but this entry is a little disappointing. I feel it’s my duty to outline it for those who haven’t played.
For those that are new to DROD, Deadly Rooms of Death is a puzzle game wherein you move the player around a grid-based world, killing monsters by carefully moving to hit them with your sword while keeping them from catching you and killing you in revenge. The result feels a little bit like chess meets the Adventures of Lolo. The game is broken into multiple levels, each of which contains roughly a dozen rooms. Slaying all the monsters in a room “clears” it, sometimes unlocking doors or allowing passage to new rooms. Clearing levels is required to advance the game. The experience is entirely cerebral.
Gunthro and the Epic Blunder is the fourth game in the main series, not counting some expansion-pack style bonus dungeons and DROD RPG, which more closely resembles Tower of the Sorcerer. The story is a prequel that takes place between DROD 1 and 2. Mechanically, the game is the easiest of the lot. This is in sharp contrast to the rapidly scaling difficulty of the previous games.
Because of the low difficulty, the game is an excellent choice if you’re a DROD beginner. Each level highlights some game mechanic (such as a particular monster or trap) and offers almost exclusively puzzles based around the various quirks of that mechanic. In addition to the mechanical themes, each level also has a unique set of graphics and a theme to the arrangement of obstacles. Bractea Town, for example, has a layout that resembles small houses with orb-controlled doors. The Swamp features wide expanses of water dotted with small structures with crumbling walls. The Whittled River is a long, straight level with puzzles that almost all feature a wide expanse of water cutting the map in half. This is a really pleasant example of how DROD explores each setting thoroughly before moving you on to something entirely new.
Unfortunately, if you are a DROD expert, Epic Blunder may disappoint. Even the most difficult of the secret rooms are unlikely to occupy you for more than a few minutes. There is an interesting ARG-like puzzle to discover a secret dungeon, but this may bring more frustration than joy if you are not particularly keen on puzzles that don’t involve spatial arrangement of obstacles.
Earlier DROD games are linear, allowing the player to pick the order of the rooms but ultimately forcing you to tackle the levels in the order they are presented. Epic Blunder is broken into three hub regions, each of which offers 4-6 levels that can be tackled in any order you choose. Sadly, the hub worlds are generally uninteresting and feature less than a dozen puzzles over them all combined. There is no fast-tracking, so the player must manually retrace their steps after they’ve completed a dungeon. The result feels amateurish, like the developers were pushing their engine to run an exploratory game it simply isn’t capable of handling.
The characters are really uninteresting, too. Unlike Beethro, whose background is detailed as a restaurant owner with a silly nephew and a strange philosophy of do first, think second, Gunthro is never really defined over the course of the game. This seems odd, since the entirety of the game is about Beethro retelling the exploits of Gunthro. The supporting cast is equally weak. Though you’ll spend half the game adventuring with the same band of a half-dozen characters, their lack of speaking lines and their total omission after you rescue them relegate them to the role of mere macguffins. They could each be replaced with keys or other inconsequential items without impacting the story at all. Perhaps this is why the final hub has you literally gathering keys instead of seeking companions again.
The worst bit, however, is the total lack of plot resolution. The game centers on a war between two kingdoms after the captain of one kills the king of the other. Unfortunately, you’re treated to heavy foreshadowing throughout the story that suggests the entire war was instigated by a third party to the point that your ultimate showdown with the king’s assassin seems pointless and cliche. After you resolve that final bit, the game rushes you off, in heavy-handed fashion, to another continent to set the stage for Beethro’s adventures. You’re never given any resolution at all to the true cause of the war, nor will you ever be. The whole thing comes across as an attempt to segue into DROD 2, but to a player who has never played DROD 2 the foreshadowing is meaningless, and to a player who has played DROD 2 it feels like a list of vague references to characters and places which have no specific tie-in to Gunthro’s adventure.
The scripted events are generally below par for the series, likely owing to the non-linear level design, which makes it difficult to account for a player who might do things out of order.
The bonus hold, Flood Warning, is an excellent piece of work that comes free if you buy Epic Blunder. While it only contains about 3 and a half levels (a typical “full” hold contains 25), each room is chock full of scripted events and dialogue to keep you amused. The hold features all puzzles based around “shallow water”, one of the new mechanics introduced in DROD 4. The level of difficulty is on par with the late game in The City Beneath, and is suitable for a DROD expert. The voice acting is also excellent.
Flood Warning also showcases two elements of puzzle design I really adore. The first is when the player is confronted by two slightly different versions of a puzzle. For example, the player might have to cross a pool of water with mirrors, but rereft of his sword. The next puzzle, with the exact same layout, gives the player the use of his sword but a few fewer mirrors. Despite their similarity, both puzzles play out much differently, and require a different path. The second element is a puzzle that can be solved more efficiently by choice. In one level, you must use mirrors to reach skipper nests to clear the room. If you use 4 mirrors, Beethro will chide himself that he could have gotten by with fewer mirrors. If you finish the room with only 2 mirrors (the minimum) a triumphant Beethro will congratulate himself on his efficiency. It’s a wonderful little bonus for a player willing to go the extra mile to perfect a puzzle.
If you’ve never played a DROD game before, you may find Epic Blunder to be a great point to start. Not only does it ease you into the mechanics, but the story is written such that you won’t feel lost for jumping into the middle. You’ll also be able to play all player-made holds made with the previous versions of the game, which means you’ll instantly have access to several year’s worth of player-made content. The lack of story is easily overlooked if you’re marveling at the versatility of the monsters and mechanics.
If you’re a long-time fan of DROD, sadly, you should give this a pass. It really adds nothing to the story, and the game is much too easy to provide much of a challenge. You’ll likely master both the main hold and Flood Warning within ten hours. The few new elements are clever, but not worth the purchase of the game if you still have Smitemaster Selections or player-made holds from 3.0 and earlier left to play.