There is nothing quite as special as the RPG. It’s a genre that can be done in so many different ways or the same way every time and yet we will always have different things to say about each one. Maybe it’s our long term love for games like Final Fantasy, or maybe it’s just the fact that beating them feels greater than any other accomplishment known to man. Whatever the reason, RPGs will always have a special place in my heart.
However, I’ve played so many RPGs over the years and since they do take a long time to complete I’m now very selective about which ones I choose to take on. An RPG is like a relationship. It’s a commitment that could take weeks or even months to finish. There are still people playing Skyrim that bought it on opening day. So when SanctuaryRPG first fell into my lap, I was worried because I wasn’t sure if it was worth the commitment. I haven’t played a text based RPG in a long long long time and I never really loved them to begin with.
My time and yours is valuable and limited so I can’t just have a long term relationship with any game. It has to be special. Boy am I glad that I took the plunge and spent a night with SanctuaryRPG. Black Shell Games is a small, but well established development studio with a current library of six games. Trust me when I tell you that SanctuaryRPG is the first of six games I’ll be checking out by them. If it’s any indication of the rest of their games I’m already sold. Before I even get to the finer details I’m just gonna go ahead and say it now. Buy this game! You will absolutely not regret it.
As I’ve already said, SanctuaryRPG is a text based RPG. But before you check out please understand something. It’s a text based RPG in the way a graphic novel is a book. It’s not just a bunch of reading and taking notes. No, it’s a visual game. It just so happens that all the visuals are done in Times New Roman font. It’s full of pictures, cut scenes, landscapes, a cast of characters, and a large bestiary. While it may not be in 1080p, in a lot of ways the graphics are more impressive than something done with 3D models because they’ve created everything with nothing but text characters.
The game plays on a very small and convenient window. It can’t be resized, but there is a full screen mode. I never actually used it, because I found it unnecessary. The small window is magnificent both visually and for convenience. The background for the entire game is black, but through the use of different colours and angles all in the same size, Black Shell Games has created an entire world of graphics, both stationary and moving, with just text based characters. At first you may be skeptical, but by the end of the opening cut scene you’ll be sold.
And it’s not just a few elements used over and over in different colours like you see in many games or even franchises (cough Final Fantasy cough). There’s a ton of different things in this game. Plenty of different types of enemies such as dragons, pigs, robots, bandits, blobs, and anything else you’d expect to find in a fantasy RPG. There are also 5 different weapon types with tons of different weapons to choose from and they each actually look different. The areas all look different as well. Is there a lot of reading? Yes. But no more than you would see in Pokemon or any other JRPG.
When talking about the graphics in SanctuaryRPG I think the most important thing is that it’s visually appealing. Even though it’s all text, you don’t dislike looking at the game. The graphics are active and the game has all the elements necessary for a fun visual experience. When it comes to innovation, variation, and appropriateness I have to give this game extremely high marks for graphics considering just how much was accomplished with the very small list of symbols available on a keyboard.
The best way to start with a description of the gameplay is to say that it has everything that a traditional RPG has. Battle mode with special techniques and actions, special buffs and status ailments, crafting, armour and weapon variation, races, classes, and subclasses, summoning, many different types of stats to upgrade 1 point at a time, hidden areas and items, special events, side quests, a battle arena, backtracking, grinding, and anything else that needs to be on that list.
You are not getting some fake almost RPG gameplay experience. This is a true RPG that just happens to be done with text-based graphics. There are three modes. The two story based modes are Hardcore and Softcore. Hardcore punishes you for dying with permadeath, while Softcore takes away all money and experience since you last level up once you’ve ascended past level five.
The game starts off like any other RPG with you picking your race, class, and origin. You then have to go through the traditional experience of starting as a noob with no money and working your way up through grinding battles and various other things that gain experience such as retrieval quests for other characters, working in/owning an upgradeable tavern, and crafting. It’s also important to note that crafting has its own very interesting and slightly addictive mini-game. You do everything by entering numbers and letters one at a time into a command line and pressing enter. The entries correspond to different specific actions depending on what you’re currently doing.
You have to choose which areas to explore and what places to go. Special events can occur at almost any time. When you explore you can meet people, find items, or get attacked. Battles can be initiated in different ways. You can be sneak-attacked, directly assaulted, or challenged. This affects the start of the battle. A sneak attack will leave you damaged at the beginning of the fight.
When you battle you have a list of different techniques to choose from which can be chained together for combos. Different enemies respond differently to different attacks, weapons, and actions. Some enemies are immune to certain techniques and can respond to all your attacks in different ways. They and you are also capable of doing things like guarding, charging up, and initiating different sorts of buffs and ailments such as poison or bleeding.
You have HP and MP, both of which can be recharged in battle. Enemies, usually bosses, also can have special meters that respond to certain actions and can cause you a lot of trouble when fully charged. In the same way you later gain a meter that allows you to summon a guardian who will act on its own based on the style of behaviour you’ve set it to. I really like the battle system because while it’s not timed, it’s still quite intense. I actually think a timed mode should be added in order to make the game even more challenging.
All the information you need is easily accessible through various menus such as all your stats, gear, and abilities. The game has a number of detailed manuals that are optional to read. Different areas have recommended level ranges, and the game’s difficulty can be adjusted at any time, reaping more or less exp and gold for winning battles. It honestly plays like any other fully turn based RPG, but in some respects has much more variation in what can actually occur. Critical hits will play a very significant role and may cause you to lose unexpectedly against later enemies for example. It’s kind of difficult to explain how this is all possible and interesting with just text which is why I’ve provided many more videos than usual.
There are a couple small glitches in the current build of the game, but they don’t directly affect gameplay. It’s more of not being able to go back from certain menus and having to reload the game. Thankfully the game auto saves so when this happens you never lose any progress. And since the game starts up in seconds it’s not that big of a problem. All in all I give the gameplay an A.
SanctuaryRPG is not just a visual experience, but it’s also an audible pleasure. The sound selection is full of varying sound effects, music tracks (52 in total) for every occasion including both normal and boss battle themes, and adventuring music. I don’t want to say it’s as epic as Skyrim, but it is pretty epic. Even the crafting sound effects really put you in the smithing mood.
The best way to describe it is to say that it sounds exactly the way an RPG should. The music is clear, but not too pounding. At times it does sound a little scratchy, but I think it may be more intentional than low quality. The sound effects are clean as a cow bell. That save sound will take you back to the good old days of Sega Genesis and NES.
The way sound is used in battles is really telling of just how much effort and care was put into this game. This is a full turn time game where everything that occurs must be initiated with a button press. Even in battle nothing will happen until you’ve actually done something first. This means that you have no reason to rush in your decision making or feel that time plays a factor in the game. Yet I promise you that once you get the hang of battling you will rush through them. I don’t mean that as in you will just want to get through them as fast as possible because you don’t care. Quite the opposite actually.
The music is so exhilarating that you feel like you’re under pressure to react quickly. Black Shell Games has created the perfect atmosphere even with just text. There are special action commands that can occur at random throughout the battle and often you will miss them because you get so distracted in the heat of battle. I know it sounds preposterous for such an effect in a text based game, but it really happens and the sound is a large part of why. SanctuaryRPG definitely gets a lot of points for sound.
As a text based RPG, writing is probably the most important part of the game. All information must be given with words, but in a way that’s still interesting, active, and not too lengthy. SanctuaryRPG does this in many respects. The cutscenes aren’t too wordy and the information pages aren’t too shabby. You get to know everything you need to know in the right amount of text.
One thing that is done really well is that all the cutscenes are done in prose instead of novelization. It’s almost always as if someone is talking to the player in short one to two sentence bursts as opposed to large paragraphs of text. Even the directions for things like crafting are done in bullets. This really helps to keep the player from being overwhelmed by text, but still presents a very detailed story with many characters, locations, and occurrences.
Something that I really like about the writing is that it’s aware of itself as a video game among other video games. The writing is not too serious and often pokes fun at its self, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall. There are references to Sonic the Hedgehog and other pop culture icons. Even Jimmy McMillan is subtly referenced in the game. I think this really makes it a more enjoyable experience because you are reading for the whole of the game. Black Shell Games made the right decision in deciding that funny was a better way to go than super serious.
While the game is funny, SanctuaryRPG does have a serious plot as well. Early in the game you learn that an evil sorceress has taken over the land and it’s your job to try and stop her. It’s your classic fantasy adventure plot complete with wizards, dragons, knights, bandits, monsters, and surprisingly robots. You have your own origin story which comes from picking both a class and a race. Throughout the game you will meet a number of characters both good and bad along with some reoccurring villains.
There is some linearity to the story as well as some reoccurrences regardless of what class you choose, but there are also choices that affect the story. Special events can happen that you have to respond to, some of which have lasting consequences. There’s even a moment where you are asked to choose between killing or sparing a “main” character. Ultimately it’s a fine story that contains multiple acts, travel to many places, and a slew of side quests, though granted many of them aren’t optional. It’s a real RPG experience and it’s long enough to stand among other games in the genre.
First of all, this is a real RPG with six classes, three subclasses, five weapon types, and a number of character development and plot based decisions throughout the game. The first of four acts took me more than 4 hours to complete. Assume you won’t get through Softcore Mode in less than fifteen hours and even that might be a little low. Then there’s also Hardcore Mode which I won’t even touch because I don’t do permadeath. Plus you also have survival mode. You’ve got plenty of first play value and then tons of replay value for each of the classes.
This is one of those special moments where I find a game that I actually think is too cheap. You can actually download SanctuaryRPG for free from their website and donate whatever you think it’s worth. Or you can buy it from Desura for $1.99. Here’s my problem with that. $1.99 is too low for this game. If we take it as a baseline and assume most people who will actually donate, which in this case you absolutely should, that’s way too low. Before I saw the price I was thinking it would be $5 or even $10 and honestly I think that’s still a fair price. I wouldn’t go higher than that, but I believe that once you play it you’ll agree that Black Shell Games deserves at least $5 for such a long and highly entertaining experience that I have never seen before at such a high level of quality. You should definitely play it and you should definitely contribute something for a game this good and lengthy.
As I said at the beginning, you definitely need to buy this game. I chose those words specifically because I think you should play it and pay money for it even though you don’t have to. The sound is great. The writing is funny and well done. The graphics are amazing considering it’s all done in text. The gameplay is on par with any turn based RPG and even some smaller scale action RPGs. And there’s tons of replay value. On all counts it’s a phenomenal game and deserves your time. I haven’t felt this strongly about a PC indie game since One Finger Death Punch and I’m actually more impressed with SanctuaryRPG than I was with that. Black Shell Games really did an amazing job.
You can and should get SanctuaryRPG directly from the Black Shell Games website and name your own price. Or you can get from Desura for $1.99. It’s also coming to Steam soon as it has already been approved on Steam Greenlight.