["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment revisits an earlier topic with the release of Deadly Rooms of Death: The City Beneath.]

A cutscene battle between aumtliches and stalwarts, two new puzzle elements in DROD 3.0

I didn't want this to happen. It was only a few months ago that I first wrote about Deadly Rooms of Death, and I didn't think I'd be writing about it again for at least a few months. My plan last weekend was to get The 7th Guest running again, so I could write about that today. But instead, in an oddly phrased announcement, Erik Hermansen and Caravel Games released DROD 3.0, or The City Beneath. And that's when my time disappeared.

The game was released on April 1 (which somewhat accounts for the logic-puzzle phrasing of the announcement), exactly two years after DROD 2.0, Journey to Rooted Hold. The downloadable game can be purchased for $20, with a CD version promised in the future. As with JtRH, there is also a demo which can be used to create and solve level sets (called holds). Caravel Games has not yet set up a page with links to the demo, so we'll link them here: Windows demo, Mac demo, and Linux demo.

A Kinder, Gentler DROD

A swordless Beethro enters The City Beneath and talks with some of its residents

The most one of the biggest changes in The City Beneath comes shortly into the game, when Beethro reaches the Gate of Sheathing. Past this point, he is told, he will have to put away his Really Big Sword. And when he does, he enters into the titular underground city. It's bright, filled with people, looking vaguely like any town in a generic RPG. This sprawling level is a hub for the story. And though there's little smiting to be done, there's plenty of scripted events and cutscenes to discover while finding your way to the next dungeon level. But though the levels are more spread out geographically, the plot remains linear, and you won't be able to move to the next puzzle level until you've completed the one you're in.

DROD 3.0 aims to give a higher level of polish with alpha-layer effects, like weather and dynamic lighting. These deliberately have no effect on the puzzles of the game, but definitely make it a sight prettier. The scripting has also been revamped, and it allows you to create levels where the player is a character other than Beethro (The City Beneath includes a level where you play one of the NPCs that first appeared in Journey to Rooted Hold). And the game now allows honest-to-goodness cutscenes. In previous games, story events could be ignored as desired, but The City Beneath wrests control from the player to choreograph detailed non-interactive cutscenes. It's used well in the game, but it still feels inelegant compared to the control offered to the player in previous games.

On the other hand, the voice acting for these cutscenes is excellent, perhaps surprisingly so, given their origin. Late last year, Caravel Games held a contest where forum members were asked to record themselves reading lines for specific characters. From the winners and runners up of this "Grand Audition," Caravel pulled together a diverse cast of characters to supplement the already-established roles.

A Dastadlier, Deviouser DROD

An early room with mirrors, the left half is done sokoban-style, the right half requires DROD-specific block movementAside from the cosmetic and story-driven changes, the newest version of DROD adds a staggering number of game elements. For some reason, the best list of new elements is currently at Wikipedia. I'd love to go over them all here, but there are just too many of them, and all of them are hard to describe without examples. Every puzzle level introduces a new aspect of the game, and nearly all of the rooms of that level are dedicated to puzzles that rely on that monster or object. When you meet adders (a new type of snake), you can expect to kill several of them on that level. When you see your first speed potion (which lets you take two moves for the monsters' one), expect to be doing a lot of running.

And the elements have been well chosen to fill a number of interesting puzzle functions; take mirrors, introduced realtively early in the game. These can be pushed around by Beethro's body, but they can also be pushed around with his sword. And if you're not carefull, you can attack the mirror with your sword so that you break it completely. Further, it can be used to reflect the line of sight of creatures like evil eyes, who only attack after they see Beethro. Caravel could have easily made a simple block that is only moved in sokoban-esque formations (and, indeed, there is already a sokoban hold in progress, using room designs by David W. Skinner), but in The City Beneath, the mirror puzzles still manage to avoid simplified block pushing. Similarly, though the new platforms often have to be moved like a sliding-block puzzle, because Beethro always has to stay on top of the moving platofrm, the blocks can't be moved in the obvious ways.

But what's been most maddening about The City Beneath is its difficulty. It's hard, of course, but because the elements of the puzzle keep changing, it doesn't rise up to the same level of insanity as many of the later levels in Rooted Hold, which used a more reserved set of puzzle parts. As a result, the entire game is pitched at the level of frustration that keeps you hacking away at the problem instead of turning away and taking a break. You can sit down for a few before eating lunch, and when you check the time, you'll see that you've been playing so long you've skipped lunch and dinner.

Start Delving

A difficult early room featuring the new deadly briars The demo linked above includes several story portions of the game, but only two levels of puzzles. The game starts slowly, showcasing scripting and effects. Veterans of DROD may find it rather unsatisfying, the game doesn't reach its groove of difficulty until a few levels after the demo ends. Presumably that's just a ploy to get the devoted to actually buy the game. If you haven't got the funds, I'm sure that there will be some user-made holds with 3.0 elements soon, but the y'll take some time to come down the pipeline. On the other hand, newcomers to DROD will probably find the demo levels rather inviting. The game includes some on-the-spot tutorials to get newbies up to speed with the developments of the game (the behavior and strategies for basic monsters like roaches and goblins), but the game still gets complicated. I would still recommend that newcomers to the series start with King Dugan's Dungeon or Journey to Rooted Hold, or even the recent "Smitemaster's Selection" Smitemastery 101.

According to the CaravelNet statistics (which can be a bit unreliable), I'm about four-fifths through the game, and I've encountered all of the new elements I've seen in the level editor. But despite spending every spare moment this week (and a few moments that I really couldn't spare) I'm still not finished. Even writing this article is difficult because I just know that I have a way to beat the new level of rock giants (a huge new monster that takes up four spaces). Hopefully, the end is in sight, because I don't know how many more sleepless nights I can afford to lose.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. Other than his work as the copy chief for The Gamer's Quarter, he finds his job unsatisfying and is open to career-change suggestions.]