Deadly Rooms of Death (DROD as it is known) is a turn based puzzle game, somewhat like a cross between Sokoban, Bombuzal, Gauntlet and Nethack (minus the procedural generation gubbins). Now before we get much further I just have to get one thing out of the way (and I’ll keep this simple for those of you who might be playing with a few cards short of the full deck ): DROD is probably the greatest game ever written and a definite shoo-in for greatest puzzle game ever written. There. I’ve said it and I’ll wrestle anyone to the death who disagrees.
DROD has a modestly interesting history. It was initially released in 1997 and sold spectacularly badly, something that was not helped by the publisher going under. Some years later the original author re-acquired the rights to his creation and set about updating it and incrementally releasing the updated versions. Eventually this process culminated in two sequels, a whole new game engine and a complete update of the original game using the new game engine. One legacy version remains free shareware while the newer versions are paid for games which retail at a modest $20. If you spend any time playing the game you’ll quickly discover that given the amount of game on offer $20 is a bargin.
The plot of the original game, as much as there is, places you in the shoes of a Beethro Budkin a warrior type charged with the task of clearing a dungeon of all it’s critters and this frames the objective of the game’s puzzles. The game is divided into 25 levels with each level consisting of around 14 rooms. Each room represents an individual puzzle, the objective of which is to kill all the monsters and exit the room.
Rooms play out on a grid with Beethro effectively occupying 2 squares; 1 for the character himself and 1 for his sword. Beethro’s sword is capable of occupying any of the 8 cardinal and intercardinal squares around him but to switch which square requires a clockwise or anti-clockwise rotation with each rotation costing a turn to perform. Beethro is also capable of moving in any of the 8 carindal or intercardinal directions, once again each step costing a turn to perform. After Beethro has taken his turn all the monsters in the room take their’s, with each monster’s movement being governed by a specific rule set. Giant roaches always move directly toward Beethro, even if that might cause them to be stuck behind a wall. Goblins can move slightly more intelligently around obstacles and will always avoid moving into a square that Beethro’s sword could occupy in the next turn.
With these rules in place the object of most of the room’s puzzles is to manoeurve Beethro into the series of postions which will allow him to use his sword to kill each monster without any monsters being able to reach and kill him (by occupying the square Beethro is on). The true genius of the game is how these simple rules are expanded into the amazing variety and depth puzzles that are found in the game. The game and level design is second to none and the difficultly curve is exceptionally well paced. Levels commonly introduce a new feature (roaches, goblins, tar mothers, snakes etc…) or type of puzzle (having to manipulate goblins to kill snakes), then each room in that level will finesse that new feature or puzzle in a variety of different ways. As the levels progress features start to be combined to build ever more elaborate puzzles and the game quickly becomes very challenging.
The game can be very hard but because everything follows the same rules the same sequence of movements will always yield the same outcome this means, you can always return a room to a state that you’re having difficulty with. This means that very hard puzzles are slightly ameanable to a brute force, combinatorial solution should you find yourself stuck and without any ideas. An alternative to trying every possibility until you strike the right one is to search the DROD fan forum for hints. Seemingly, the community prefers not to hand out solutions, so most of what you’ll find are small hints and pokes in the right direction and, to my mind, this works rather well. The handful of times I did look up hints it was gratifying that only a gentle shove or confirmation that I was going about it in the right way was enough help me to complete the puzzle myself.
Many of the rooms are put together as a discrete series of sub-puzzles and this contributes to the game’s almost unbelievable level of addictiveness. Often you’ll realise how to complete one portion and once done it opens your eyes to how to go about the next bit. You’re always on the verge of getting to a new part of the puzzle so it always appears that it will pay off to “just to have a couple more goes” at the room you’re stuck on. This reason alone was responsible for me staying up into the wee small hours, long after sensible people have gone to bed, on many an occasion. In general though I found that a level’s worth of rooms could be completed in an evening’s play so each game represents a substantial task and time sink.
The gameplay itself has a slightly odd aspect to it. As it’s turn based the game plays at whatever pace you want but you’re unlikely to need to stop and consider every key press and unlikely to want to linger over inconsequential portions of rooms. So you’ll find you strike a balance between typing speed and the need to consider what happens next. In this way the game plays out as a strange test of both logical reasoning and your typing accuracy, a Mavis Beacon dimension of the game which is rather unexpected.
If the community forum is anything to go by, DROD seems to inspire a fair amount of love from those that play it and this greatly encouraged by it authors and the website plays host to a fairly active fansite and forum. In one of the earlier iterations of the game a level designer was included and this has given rise to a very active community of DROD players. It also means that there are almost endless extra levels to be played and a large number of the better ones have been bundled into various expansion packs. You could probably spend all the rest of your game playing years playing nothing but DROD and still not see all of the available levels people have created.
All in DROD is a spectacularly engaging game and everyone should take the time to try it. The graphics aren’t much more than functional and some of the character art is frankly awful. The music is OK, thankfully not too inane, and the audio is quite fun when it tells you the little bits of plot. What really makes this game standout is that it is an excellent idea for a game brilliantly executed. It is pure game stripped of needless additional content, which in this day and age is a rare thing.