Sit down, kids, for I want to tell you a story. A story of a simpler time, with none of those fancy video cards or SLI or Crossfire or multicores nonsense. A time when the games were simple and let your imagination to fill the gaps. A time when if a game wanted to tell you that in a certain spot there was a dog, it just wrote “dog” on your screen. You didn’t need to know the color of the dog, or how big it was or how much hairy his tail was. All you needed to know is that there was a dog in that specific place and your mind was able to fill the rest. Despite hardware limitations, we enjoyed those games and enjoyed them a lot.
Then of course a time came when consoles and computers could display forms and polygons and a wide range of colors and special effects. And don’t get me wrong, that’s cool as Mr. Freeze’s scrotum. Still some of us remember with nostalgia those times where your actions came out as words on the screen and all the images you could see were created by arranging letters and symbols to look like a weapon or a person or a skeleton you have to fight. Some of those people grew up to become game developers. Black Shell games is one of those game developers and they want to give us a taste of those years with their ASCII based dungeon crawling game “Sanctuary RPG”.
Don’t be fooled by its (lack of) graphics and the appeal to nostalgia. Sanctuary RPG is a complex game with a lot of depth. You can understand this since the character creation screen. When the game starts and you decide to create you character, you’ll have to pick one of the 6 available classes (Barbarian, Paladin, Assassin, Mage, Druid and Ranger). After that you will be able to select your origin region and, finally, your race. Every single one of those decisions will affect your gameplay. A Human barbarian from Northern Ariat, for example, will have very different strengths and weaknesses than a Silean barbarian from Cetral Tyrial. Before your journey starts, you’ll be able to choose some other trivial things, like your name and gender as well as your augmentations. Those are little initial bonuses that you can unlock during the game for your future characters.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of the character customization of the game. With every level up, you’ll get some STAT points to distribute, one passive skill point and some mastery points. The way you distribute these points will radically change the way you’ll play the game. For example, pumping all your attribute points in “blunt weapon mastery”, will make you little effective with a bow as powerful as it could be. At certain level and after certain events, you’ll unlock more skills and, sometimes, will be prompted to choose between different perks, discarding forever the ones you don’t choose. This makes vital for you to know beforehand what kind of character you’re going to build, making you invest a lot in your fictional fighter of choice.
It’s a complex system but you’ll hardly be overwhelmed by it. It’s well designed to grant you the time you need to learn the nuances of your characters and use them at your advantage. Still, especially in your first playthroughs, you’ll learn that this game can be challenging and unforgiving. Enemies will have a set of randomized traits, whose number depends on their level. Some combination of these will put you in a really bad spot.
The combat takes heavy influence from JRPGs. It’s turn based and combo-oriented. It requires you to type the key corresponding to the action you want to perform, while linking a series of attacks to build your combo meter so you can perform one of your final moves. Sounds pretty complicated and, by a certain extent, it can be. Still, the combat text (and the rest of the game too, actually) is very well color-coded. Often you will not need to read the text and can take quick decisions just taking a glance at the screen. You see a yellow word in the enemy’s action text? Better reposition, he’s gonna charge. A red word beside my HPs? I better patch up that blood loss. And so on. You’ll have to make the best decisions both during combat and when encountering the tons of random events if you want to survive. Death in Sanctuary RPG is a big deal.
There are 3 different game modes. In classic mode you’ll have the typical roguelike experience, where death is permanent, but you have the max drop rate available. Plus, augmentations can only be unlocked In this mode. In Softcore mode you’ll suffer a 20% penalty on loot drops, but death will “only” cause you to lose your current gold and experience. Survival mode is just an endless series of fights to see how long of a victory streak you can obtain.
Of course it’s not all fighting. Well, it’s the most of it but should not be a surprise. Still, between dungeon exploring and monster killing, you’ll have some time to roam the base camp and interact with the NPCs. Many of these, mock the many stereotypes of the genre. There’s the big blacksmith that doesn’t talk much, the mysterious hooded woman that runs the shop and so on. The humor that the NPCs show, as well of the humor that permeates all the game, will really make you crack a smile once and again. At some points it feels a bit forced, but it’s overall really enjoyable.
There’s a good number of things you can do in the camp. You’ll be able to take quests, shop for some better equip, mess with the crafting system and even run your own tavern. Probably the most interesting place in the camp is the Colosseum. Here, indeed, you’ll be able to fight in the arena, in order to achieve an high rank for great rewards. You’ll also be able to enter in optional (and really hard) dungeons in the hope of finding rare loot. Finally, you can change the monster power level. Needless to say, stronger monsters will reward more exp and better equip.
The soundtrack is one of the things that stand out the most. It’s middle ground between old midi and the modern approach to background music. It’s very fitting of the context and both well written and performed. There are a couple of tunes that will be stuck in your head for hours after you’re done playing.
All of this, is wrapped around a very amusing story. It revolves around the classic “the hero who will save the world from the evil mastermind” tale, but with a lot of interesting variations. For example, the setting is not a purely fantasy one. Indeed, very early in the game we’ll fight a computer terminal that wants to kill us because of reasons. The story evolves from there and many things happen that go in a range from funny to macabre.
Sanctuary RPG is an all-around great videogame. It’s funny, it’s challenghing and it’s a pleasure to play. It reminds us that pretty graphics are only skin deep and that what’s under them matters way more.
You can download it for free on the game’s official site but I suggest to throw a couple of bucks to the general direction of the developers so they’ll keep making awesome games like this one.
Now get off my lawn!
Sanctuary RPG shows the world that pretty graphics are only skin-deep and a game doesn't need to be visually impressive to be impressive anyway.