A blast from the past, Sanctuary RPG is a retro rogue-like adventure with ASCII graphics and a whole lot of attitude. This is certainly not one for the faint-hearted.
I have to admit, when I initially loaded up the ASCII menu screen, I was apprehensive. I haven’t played a text-based game since I was about seven years old, when the only entertainment my parents could afford were dodgy black-screened adventures for our prehistoric computer that required frustratingly precise <commands> to open door after door in some boring castle. The phrase “Nothing happens” still haunts me…
This game, however, is a completely different story. From the moment you begin you’re dropped into a narrative which swings bathetically from the serious, dramatic calling of a stereotypical quest to frankly silly comedy and completely random character exchanges. And I’m not using “random” arbitrarily here. Some of the storyline for your character is actually generated randomly; my assassin’s “biggest regret”, for example, is “being impaled by a frozen fudge banana.” Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
And it’s not just the plot that is a bit mind-boggling to start with. After choosing one of six classes, one of three class-dependent races and your gender, you’re faced with reams of stream-lined stats that would be enough to intimidate even the most seasoned of RPG players. However, I was feeling ballsy, and when I was faced with the dreaded decision between Casual and Classic modes, I went Classic – death would be permanent.
So it’s fair to say I was a bit nervous going into battle. I get attached to characters you see, even the ones constructed out of little dashy lines, and as a result I practically took notes when the tutorial guided me through the first enemy fight. This turned out to be completely unnecessary; the turn-based system is clear and easy to access, becoming progressively more challenging as a range of skills and abilities become available through levelling-up and events. Executing combo-chains in battle unlocks your special Ultimate ability, but this has to be balanced against repositioning in fights to dodge enemy attacks or break down their defences, in addition to using turns to heal or break free of traps. It’s a delightfully detailed system that, at first, appears disarmingly simple: in my first play-through I got cocky and was tapping happily away at my keyboard until I realised I hadn’t noticed an enemy charging.
One hit and I was dead. I tried not to cry over my Level 9 heroine.
I’m happy to report that my Level 31 assassin is still alive and going strong, in all of her ASCII glory. The graphics are surprisingly detailed, cleverly designed and often humorous – my glamorous female assassin, for example (whose arsenal of weapons included “hairspray” and “style” in the description) seems to be sporting a fairly large bra and narrowed eyes. As she traversed different levels, the scenery stretching into the distance changed to reflect the settings, and the enemies you face are pleasingly varied in style and type. They’re also really mean, often initiating battles by slapping you in the face or kicking you in the shin.
Still, you certainly need your imagination to fill in the gaps, but Sanctuary RPG helps you with this. Most screens are accompanied by enhancing sound effects, like a rattled breath and crunch of bones when a skeleton appears, or the dying moan of a foe you totally just obliterated. The original 8-bit soundtrack is also rich and diverse, not to mention surprisingly epic for its electronic tones; boss fights trigger a rousing tune accompanied by choral voices, and upon entering the arena you are greeted with a memorably stirring and triumphant melody not unlike what you might remember from the stadiums and gyms in Pokemon games.
Yep. There’s an arena. With ranked match-making. And don’t forget the tavern you take over (depending on whether you scare off the bartender or inject her with a lethal syringe), the forge in which you can craft items through a tricky mini-game, and a shop for buying and trading items. Staving off perma-death makes many of these activities extremely necessary, as loot, items, and equipment can have a significant impact in boosting your all-important stats, but the wealth of side-line quests and pursuits just serve to demonstrate the sheer ambition of this game.
Want to know the best bit? It’s completely free to play – you can choose your own price when you download the game. With the capacity for hundreds of hours of gameplay, Sanctuary RPG is fantastic value for little or no cost. An adventure of epic proportions, this little retro gem will inspire the most hardened of RPG fans to test their mettle. And possibly romance a cow.
[+Sleek and challenging combat system] [+Detailed stream-lined leveling] [+Huge bank of loot, equipment and weapons] [+Impressive application of ASCII graphics] [+Engaging and diverse soundtrack] [+Moments of genuine hilarity and general silliness] [-May be intimidating and/or repetitive to players not used to this genre]