June 17th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
Thanks to Terry Cavanagh over at freeindiegam.es for pointing this one out.
Burly, sword-swinging barbarians and mind-crushing logic puzzles tend not to be a common mix, but they’re the core elements of Caravel Games’ classic Deadly Rooms of Death series. In this long-running franchise, you work your way through a tiled dungeon in turn-based form, clearing out monsters, pushing blocks (edit: as mentioned in the comments below, there’s no true Sokoban-style crate shoving, just manipulation of a variety of block types) and avoiding death at every step. The art is simple, and quite deliberately ugly (Smitemeisters aren’t exactly known to be the most beautiful of people), but effective and charming, and the silly sounds (especially on death) are effective, but these really aren’t games about polished aesthetics. Beneath the silly portraits and the classic dungeon aesthetic lies something that will make your head spin.
It’s deceptively simple-looking at first, with movement being just your digital numpad, and the only control beyond that being two keys to rotate your facing (and sword) around you. And then you end up stuck on a single room for two hours. The level design is absolutely fiendish, and the behavior of the enemies and various devices scattered around adds layer upon layer of depth. You’re never doing anything more complex than moving and turning, but the level design is what has kept these games selling for years. There’s a huge difference between fighting a swarm of simple Roach enemies (which just move one square closer to you each turn, although will be stopped by a pointed sword) and a room full of Living Tar (which can trap you and render a room un-winnable if you don’t plan your every step.
There’s a stern challenge here, and it had put a few people off in the past. It seems that in order to drum up fresh interest in the franchise and open it up to new customers, Caravel are rolling out a Flash-based freeware re-launch of DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon. Interestingly (and probably due in part to the fact that this is a massive game), they’re releasing it in episodic format, with the first three episodes being available to play via the official site and third-party Flash hubs such as Newgrounds now. They’ve added some modern upgrades along the way, such as achievement tracking, which includes some interesting goals and alternate ways to play such as completing the entire first floor without rotating your sword.
Each of the three currently available episodes is 4 floors long, which is surprisingly lengthy, although it sounds fairly terse on paper. To get through the three episodes currently available will take you some time, although probably not until the planned release of the next episode sometime close to Christmas, apparently. I suppose this version of the game could be considered an extended demo of sorts, but it should grow into a full release in time. In the meantime, there’s a full five games, plus a ridiculous 7 expansions to date, as well as a ton of fan-made content. King Dugan’s Dungeon was just the first outing for professional Smitemeister Beethro Budkin. The whole franchise would actually cost a quite impressive amount of moolah if you tried to consume it all at once, but that would just be silly. None of these games are even approaching easy, and there’s a lot of gameplay to be found in each core game and expansion. For the time being, see if you can’t chip the tip off this iceberg. Give DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon a spin. The first one, as they say, is free.