SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition

By Rituro - March 18th, 2015


Is it fair to say we live in a golden age of roguelike games? Considering the success of games like FTL: Faster Than Light, The Binding of Isaac and even the technically-still-in-early-access Darkest Dungeon, it’s very tempting to agree. The thing is, those games are a little too…well…modern to really capture the aesthetic of the true Rogue experience1. If we really want to go back to the days of the genre’s progenitors and stake a claim to the golden age of procedural dungeon generation and the potential for cruel insta-death encounters, we need to embrace its text-based roots. Enter SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition.

Black Shell Games’ proudly ASCII roguelike is about as authentic an experience you could ask for enhanced with decades of advancements in game design. SanctuaryRPG looks like an old-school Ultima or The Bard’s Tale by way of Zork and, in the same breath, looks absolutely nothing like them2. For starters, when was the last time you watched an introductory cinematic stop-animated in ASCII? How about the last time you were serenaded by a faux-16-bit soundtrack in every scene? Exactly. Touching briefly on the score, I like how it blends an almost-chiptune vibe with something more grand and sweeping as befits the fantasy setting. It’s a metaphor for the whole game, in a way – a clever mix of old and new that presents itself very well.

Not that you’ll necessarily be stopping to admire the music for long; this is a roguelike, after all, which means you’re constantly adventuring one step at a time, one bad combat situation away from death3. Tasked with recovering a big honkin’ MacGuffin sword of doom and stopping a villain named The Matron from destroying the world, you’ll travel the land uncovering events, monsters and loot – precious, precious loot – over five acts. Your character, chosen from six classes (Assassin, Barbarian, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Wizard), displayed with a randomized ASCII portrait and customized with a place of origin, enters the game with a randomized backstory chock full of irreverent, sometimes nonsensical events and a bizarre fixation on potatoes. It almost feels like SanctuaryRPG is going for the parody route; thankfully, this feeling vanished almost immediately for me as, after visiting the blacksmith post-tutorial, a dragon showed up and instantly splatted my Ranger dead like a pesky bug. Roguelike!

Cynthia is hawt.

Attempt number two went much better as I sent a Barbarian into the world to rage violently against anything and everything that moved. This gave me a chance to actually experiment with (and appreciate) the combat system in the game. Since everything is text-based, your attacks are determined by pressing the appropriate key on the keyboard. Certain attacks are listed as “Starter”, “Linker” or “Finisher”, allowing you to chain combos together for extra damage, status effects (stun, freeze, burn, guard break, etc.), self-healing, or any combination of the above and more. Going combo-crazy can be lethal, though; wild damage combos are fun, sure, but if you’re left with a sliver of health while the enemy winds up for a big attack, you’d better hope your heal ability resolves before the attack lands or that your damage barrier (once unlocked) absorbs enough to keep you in the fight.

Really, the biggest enemy you’ll face in SanctuaryRPG isn’t a dragon with multiple status enhancers (Champion, Demonic, Shrouded, Vicious, etc.) – it’s complacency. My most successful character, Crag Hack the Barbarian4, died not because of being under-leveled or poorly equipped, but because I lazily did my usual 2-1-3 combo without paying attention to critical things like running out of health and mana earlier than expected. Suddenly, I had not enough power to activate my barrier, to heal, or to finish my combo and end the fight. All I could do was reposition (an action designed to dodge incoming dashes or charges, break guards and replenish MP) and hope for the best. The best did not come and, despite having waltzed through the entire first act without breaking a sweat, Crag Hack was dead. Attentiveness: It’s A Thing™ – and not just in combat, either. When adventuring, the ASCII artwork will sometimes contain letters or numbers highlighted in green. Typing the green character(s) will take you to a special event or perhaps give you a nice loot drop. Not that this attentiveness would save my next character, a Level 6 wizard, from getting splatted by a bird. A [expletive] bird. Roguelike!

These weapons look pretty amazing.

For this review, I played the Black Edition – an expansion to the base game that adds a boatload of game-enhancing content to an already solid core. Boasting improved ASCII art, more dialogue, more music, more character creation and customization option, more loot variants and a faction system that affects your damage output on weapons and unlocks certain quest trees, there’s no reason not to have this expansion compared to the base version. After experiencing the procedural monster fight chain (a.k.a. “Keystone Portals”) that leads to a boss fight in which super-rare loot drops are possible – game-changing wardrobe options? Yes, please – I can’t imagine playing SanctuaryRPG without it. Not that I would stop playing SanctuaryRPG any time soon; I still haven’t managed to beat the second act and with a level cap of 300(?!), I’ve still got plenty of the world to explore. Now, where’d that ranger-killing dragon get to…?

1 – Give me ASCII and/or give me perma-death!
2 – And when your entire graphical structure is text-based, that’s saying something.
3 – There is a “Softcore” mode which removes perma-death but, as per the mode’s description, it is “casual and not recommended”.
4 – Might & Magic shout-out!

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