PC. Caravel Games, 2002-07
We need to talk about DROD.
I confess to having picked up the commercial release of this title, known to acronym-haters as Deadly Rooms Of Death, and its four sequels for one American dollar each in a winter sale on an obscure digital retailer, where it was surrounded by dreggish pre-boom indie titles and horrible-looking games simulating boring jobs. It’s half a decade since I played the freeware version, which is still available and has most of the content in a less pretty engine. This version adds improved graphics and just enough voice acting to tantalise.
It’s a pretty venerable game now, having been knocking around in various guises since Menswear had a record deal. For many years, the free version was one of the top-rated games on legendary site Home Of The Underdogs. Nowadays there are fewer signposts to it, although it is also available on Gamer’s Gate and most importantly, direct from the developer.
In this turn-based puzzle game with roguelike looks, you control the laconic, psoriatic Beethro Budkin, a little man with a big sword. He’s no fantasy hero, but rather a working joe, a Smitemaster contracted to eliminate all the creatures on each of the game’s 25 levels. Each type of creature acts predictably and according to a series of simple rules, making it possible to predict with some accuracy what they will do next, a skill which increases in utility as your foes become progressively more intelligent, numerous and awkwardly placed.
The roaches can’t find their way around the wall, but as soon as I pass it they’re going to rush me from both sides.
As simple and predictable rules interact, complex and chaotic situations emerge. You will execute a seemingly perfect ballet of swordsmanship, only to have a gigantic cockroach creep up behind you and eat you. Repeatedly. Until finally you realise if you make this slight movement to the right 300 turns earlier at the start of the level, you can prevent the little bastard from ever being born, leading you to clear the screen with relative ease and feel like a genius right until the moment you realise how long it took you and how many times you banged your stupid head against the same brick wall. That’s the kind of game it is. Remember when Deus Ex came out and emergence was the big thing?
It’s not long before things start getting quite a bit more complicated.
Some Stallone-esque voice work really sells Beethro’s down-to-earth credentials, while a selection of other voiced characters leave the player in doubt about the ethics of killing some of the more intelligent creatures.
If anyone, be they critic or consumer, has ever played DROD and failed to conclude it was one of the finest games of all time, they haven’t bothered to say so. And yet it doesn’t seem to have secured a place in the canon of must-play titles. It’s never been in a PC Gamer Top 100, for example. Rock Paper Shotgun have never put it on any of their lists. And couple of the sequels are languishing unloved in Steam Greenlight at the time of writing. Although VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanagh’s forthcoming title, Halting Problem, is reported to be DROD-influenced, so there could be a revival of interest in the next year or so. Catch up with it now is my advice. That way you’ll know what all the hip people are talking about when they start.