Ascwords & Ascorcery. The pen is mightier than the sword, but the keyboard trumps both.
Adventure takes many forms; books, film, comics, and, of course, video games. Something doesn’t have to sport incredible graphics or sweeping narrative to pull people in. Books accomplish their goal with simple words on a page, and text-bsaed adventure games of old worked along that selfsame principle. It feels oddly dull at this point to be one of those voices saying that games don’t need AAA production value to be worthwhile, an argument that has gained steam for years with the rise of the indie game. However, SanctuaryRPG serves as a great reminder, using a niche category of game long gone by the wayside.
SanctuaryRPG immediately stands out via its simplicity. Made entirely in ascii, the games visuals will either immediately charm you or instantly grate on you like a back scratcher made of shark teeth. Even if you fall into the latter category, as I admittedly did at first, worry not, for you will get used to it. Sorry about the lacerations. Everything from landscapes to characters are rendered in the text-based program, with events and scenes spelled out via simple text.
The game is an interesting blend of text adventure, RPG and roguelike. You begin by choosing a character class, from choices like barbarian and assassin. You can choose a gender, or even go gender neutral, as I chose to with one of mine. Between all these things and your character’s race, a lot of variables go into building your hero from the get-go, including some fun randomly-generated text telling various things about your backstory. These range from “your parents were murdered by bandits” to “this morning you tried to fornicate with a pumpkin to little success.” With that done, it’s time to begin your quest.
SanctuaryRPG is, in some ways, neither a kind game nor a generous one. The aforementioned roguelike side to the experience come from two big factors; randomized items, and permadeath. The latter is optional, but you will be strongly encouraged to take the mortality-enabling classic mode when making your choice. The weapon variable, though, is inevitable. Your first weapon could be anything; my assassin character started out their journey with a hand axe, and my sorcerer with a longbow. The blacksmith shop which soon becomes available will offer more items, but only three at a time. Even then, if you look at one item and decide not to buy it, there’s no going back, as the blacksmith will scrap the item as soon as you turn your head away. That’s no way to run a business.
Interacting with the world around you all comes down to the keyboard. A text entry box invites you to enter commands, almost always assigned to a single number or letter, and shows up everywhere from conversation options to choices in battle. When exploring the world, some visuals will show certain characters highlighted in green, indicating their interactivity. If you’re exploring a basement and come across a hallway full of numbered rooms, you can take a break from your normal exploration by typing the number of a room and seeing what’s inside. This keeps exploration fun, and the players eyes open at all times.
On the subject of interface, navigation is facilitated by a list of locations and their corresponding numbers. Some are “dungeons”, all with level ranges and infinite replayability. In these you can find items and fight monsters, and grind to your hearts content. Exploring areas, whether for a quest or to grind, requires players to enter their corresponding number each time. This gives you ample opportunities to pop in to the blacksmith, tavern, or wherever else you might need to stop in between bouts with skeletons and absurdly large dragonflies.
Learning the lethal tango with foes in SanctuaryRPG can be a challenge at first; challenging enough that even explaining it is hard. Attacks are chained, and come in a few types. When starting a chain, you will have three starter attacks to choose from, each with a different effect. One might drain some HP or MP, or even give you some back, or have some other status effect. Once a starter move is used, the next turn will change your movepool to a new set of options; one higher-strength “linker” move to continue the chain, and two moves filled by the “reposition” command, good for recovering MP. After a couple linkers, you will unlock a finisher, with which to lay some serious smackdown all over the place. Continuing to pull off four-attack chains will maintain a cycle of switching between two completely different sets of starter moves, which can be quite confusing early on. Every move has some kind of effect on either you or your opponent, so keeping an eye on your choices is no easy task. Once you fight the system into submission and things begin to come naturally, though, the strategy of combat is sickeningly fun, and never grows dull for even a single turn.
Combat is turn-based, and displayed in a simple fashion. Life bar readouts tell of your and your opponents’ current health situations, while text will tell whats going on. The display is a bit confusing in its order, as text describing the players action is followed not by your own health bar, but rather that of your opponent. That is then followed by their own action, and then your own readout. A couple times early on, I found myself judging things by the wrong readout, with less-than-great results. But again, at the risk of ultimate redundancy, it’s something you will get used to. Meter readouts will show up on certain enemies to indicate progress leading up to a rush attack or lock-on strike, and you get your own to monitor the build-up to your own ultimate attack.
Level-up progression offers a lot more customization to your character. Each level provides you with skill points to distribute into one of five places (usually one has a huge advantage from the start), as well as improvements to assets like armor or HP. There is also a full spread of weapon proficiencies to keep track of. How you will manage these all depends on whether you want to stay versatile, or stick to a particular weapon type. It would be a misfortune of epic proportions to stumble upon the most powerful sword in the game, but to have logged no points whatsoever into your sword proficiency. On the other hand, though, maybe you’ve found a crossbow you really like, and know you plan to stick with. This crossbow and you, you’re in it for the long run. You’re going steady. You love your crossbow, and you want to commit to using it. Caution versus commitment is a fun headgame that SaunctuaryRPG delights in playing. The sheer number of choices you can make for your characetr’s outcome adds a really great sense of personalization that will attach you to your characters. I wept when my gender-neutral assassin died, for I knew that I had lost a friend. Then I started a wizard character and got over myself, bu the point is made.
SanctuaryRPG has a really excellent sense of narrative, in that it understands exactly how to work with the space it has. Its story has just enough going on that those invested in it will be able to enjoy some fun worldbuilding, but is light enough that less attentive players don’t really miss much. What cannot possibly be missed, though, is dialogue. SanctuaryRPG is a bitingly funny game at all the right times and in a lot of great ways, and never ceases to entertain. Story progression is conveyed through dialogue and second-person narrative, the latter meaning a lot of “you walk into the tavern and piss on your shoes” and the like (and that’s only a slight alteration of an actual action choice a couple times in the game).
It’s also worth emphasizing that SanctuaryRPG‘s soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous. There are plenty of games that still work with simpler, chiptune-centered music, and even musicians who use that style as the crux of their entire line of work, but the music of SanctuaryRPG stands out beautifully. Everything has the perfect blend of melodies and atmosphere, the latter being an especially surprising feat given what the game is working with.
SanctuaryRPG feels like something started as a weird project for a college class, except that the creator sort of just forgot to stop. At first glance, one could call the game simple and not worth ones time, but sitting down with it reveals something more. SanctuaryRPG does a ton with what it has, from quirky and impressive visual design choices to a complex, albeit daunting, combat system. Cleverness and charm bleed from the pixels, and you will find yourself going from impotent rage to something much better once the game has had a bit of time to sink its randomized weapons into your flesh. I give it four randomly-generated ascii character faces out of five.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Black Shell Media; Developer: Black Shell Media; Players: 1; Released: February 13th, 2015 ; MSRP: $7.99
This review was based on review code for a retail copy of SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition supplied by the game’s developer.