All too often we to get caught up in the rapid evolution and distribution of gaming technology. We fawn over the bright and shiny lights that AAA developers blast in our faces, but oftentimes that blinding light obscures smaller titles, some of which are far more deserving of our time and hard(ly)-earned cash. It seems like high time we harken back to the days of old, where stories carried the game and graphics were considered good if they had more than three colors. SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition, a turn-based dungeon crawler by Black Shell Games, brings us back to the days of old with a text-based blast straight from the nostalgic past.
Dragons, Robots, and Blobs, Oh my!
After booting up the game (which required all the technology afforded in a ten year-old graphing calculator) and customizing my character and class, my fat wizard, Shartleby, and I dove head first into the the asterisks, ampersands, and hyphens that made up the world around us. The game’s eclectic mix of environments, themes, and baddies ranges on the bizarre, and you’ll just as soon get whiplash from fighting demons and skeletons, only to move onto battling death machines and blobs of slime.
Your character, one of a handful of classic RPG tropes (with all the classic perk, weapon, and armor stat hullabaloo), is contracted by an organization called The Brotherhood to track down and kill The Matron, an evil mage who, for some reason or another, decided to unleash demons upon the local civilization. You travel along a series of forests, towns, tunnels, and the underworld to defeat her minions and end her miserable life, all the while engaging in a series of side missions along the way.
Read till you bleed
SanctuaryRPG claims its fame by being the “world’s first fully-ASCII game on Steam,” and while that doesn’t sound like much in a world that has quickly forgotten classics like Dwarf Fortress, it’s still quite an impressive feat to be the first (and best so far, eh?) of the genre in such a large collective. The game is built entirely out of lovingly-crafted text visuals, and each landscape shot or enemy profile is prettier than the last, though I did have to occasionally squint or step away from the screen a few times to get the entire gestalt.
In keeping with it’s minimalist form, SanctuaryRPG delivers speech and narratives through text instead of voiced dialogue, and the sound effects and music, while sparse and unimaginative in any other medium, are well-fit to the task here. The necessity to read every line in order to fully understand the story brings the pace down to a crawl, but the decreased rate actually made for a more enjoyable experience. After working/reading through the entire main storyline, I looked at the clock and realized nearly ten hours had passed, and not once did I ever feel bored.
Battles, beer, and fetch quests
The turn-based combat mechanics employed in this cutesy, little title do their utmost best to deliver constantly fresh gameplay. With a set of three main attacks, one main heal effect, and a handful of other barrier, bleed, or restorative buffs, SanctuaryRPG keeps things from getting too stale. Enemies come equipped with a series of different effects, some heralding from the school of poisoning, blinding, and cursing, while others boast immunity to special attacks. The combat is fairly balanced for the most part, though a few of the boss fights drag on in a serious Mobius strip of hit-heal-block-hit-heal-block until you concede out of finger exhaustion (hehe).
When not blasting through bears or shattering killer robots, players can manage their own tavern, serving customers and dancing around for their entertainment, or go on minor fetch quests, most of which require just heading over to the market and buying the item in question. There are also small bounties to gather, items to craft, and interactive events in the scenery to participate in. Coming across a special event in which you leave injured for no other reason than the game just hates you is actually quite a common occurrence, and some of the scenarios the game puts you in are actually pretty funny. It also offers up a few different play modes, including classic single life mode or softcore casual mode (which I ended up having to go with because I died…a lot), and even allows players to test their might in a series of coliseum battles.
You’re funny, I get it
The point at which SanctuaryRPG and I had a minor falling out was over its crushingly oppressive sense of self-awareness. Any chance it could get, the game would make some cheeky self reference or spit pop culture like it was going out of style. Yes, breaking the fourth wall is funny. No, it isn’t funny if that’s all you ever do, no matter how quirky you think you’re being. In what must be at least a thousand different dialogue lines, the word potato comes up in what feels like 70% of them (“You encounter a flying potato!” or “You see a potato on the ground!”), and I feel like a joke that was never really funny is being shoehorned into every crack and crevice to the point of insanity. There’s self-aware and there’s downright annoying, and SanctuaryRPG flutters dangerously close to the latter.
Apart from its sometimes smug disposition, SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition is a welcome entry into my Steam library. The game runs smoothly on anything made within the last century (you get my point), and for how simple it is at first glance, the storyline, combat, and random variability extend the game’s playtime value long after the main plot ends.