It's time for another blast from the past as we take a look at a Nintendo 64 classic.
DROD: The Second Sky Review – Unwelcoming But Fun
DROD: The Second Sky is the fifth game in the core DROD series since the original game’s debut in 1997. That little fact took me by surprise considering this entry was the first time I had even heard the word “DROD” (it stands for “Deadly Rooms of Death” by the way).
But, as I soon learned, DROD has a very dedicated cult following behind it. Active forums, hints and guides for thousands of levels going back more than a decade, and user-built levels populate the Caravel Games site. DROD fans are a passionate bunch but they’re not exactly plentiful. So you might think that the goal of a brand new DROD game would be to entice new players to jump on board. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
DROD: The Second Sky isn’t a game for new players. This is the kind of game built from the ground up with the core fans in mind. From the very start, the gameplay is difficult, dropping a whole host of mechanics, elements, ideas, and enemies on you before the first level even starts. The story picks right up where the last game left off building on a surprisingly large fictional universe. The Second Sky is building off of four games of mechanics and story and it fully expects you to be up to date. So it’s a good thing that the puzzles are so solid that, for a new player, it’s worth pushing through the immediate and unrelenting challenge.
The Second Sky is a turn-based puzzle game that’s mostly centered around manipulating enemy movements. Played from a top-down perspective, every screen is a single room divided into small squares. Every time you make a move, whether it’s moving from square to square or swinging your sword, every enemy moves too. Some enemies make a beeline straight towards you with no understanding of how doors or walls work, some know how navigate barriers to get to you, and some ignore you.
The goal of each room is to kill all of the enemies, most of the time by hitting them with your sword, but that’s made complicated by doors, buttons, force arrows, bombs, trap doors, and more, that either keep you from the enemy or keep you from the exit.
All of this is steeped in a fantasy world where you play as a “smitemaster,” a professional monster slayer, though that’s basically all I know concerning the story. The game offers to explain its backstory through a “Previously on…” segment before things actually kick off and though it’s well-meaning it’s basically useless. It tries to cram so much story into so little time that most of it just sounds like nonsense. I quickly gave up on paying attention to dialogue or reading the in-lore text that appears before levels because I had already missed all the story and character information that was frontloaded beforehand.
Dumping four games’ worth information on players right at the start is essentially how gameplay is handled as well. There’s an optional tutorial new players can go through but, like the “Previously on..” story catch-up, it’s just too much information at once. When the game actually starts, all of that information has basically disappeared and you’re forced to relearn everything on the go. There’s no learning curve for dozens of the game’s central mechanics. It just assumes you’ve played the last four games and have a solid grasp on what’s happening.
Feeling like you don’t know what is doing what or for what reason or how is exacerbated by the game’s sprawling rooms. Because they’re so large with numerous enemy types, crosswired buttons and doors, blocks that only activate from certain actions and so on, it’s very easy to miss how, why, and when something happens.
One level I worked my way through step by step for almost an hour only to realize that at some point in finding the solution I had locked the only door out of the room. Because it’s easy to miss causes and effects while sussing out solutions, a lot of rooms devolve into trial-and-error marathons, where you try something, see why it doesn’t work, reset, try again, find the right solution, and move on to the next step in the puzzle.
Fortunately, these problem rooms are more the exception than the rule. Most rooms require a heavy amount of restarting but it doesn’t feel like you’re brute forcing them to get through. Most of the rooms are very strict when it comes to comprehension and mastery of the mechanics and that’s a good thing.
It’s very unlikely to stumble into a solution. Instead, you’re forced to understand how the dozens of different game elements work, assemble the solution in the right order, and execute on it. It can be pretty brutal (especially at the start) but it’s also rather satisfying. Finishing off a dozen or so rooms to complete a dungeon provides as satisfying an “Aha!” moment as the best puzzle games out there.