Zork. TerraFirmA. Nethack. The kind of games that conjure up memories of squinting at “@” symbols convincing yourself it was a rat, or possibly an ogre. I spent a fair amount of time within their strangely compelling grasp in my younger days, and more recently thanks to the madness of Dwarf Fortress. SanctuaryRPG is not like these games. It is an RPG, and its visuals are all ASCII code, smooshed together to look like mountains and monsters and silver keys. But that’s where the similarity ends. It also includes the word “Brotato” for some reason, which is kinda awesome.
I started as I always do in this situation – with a wizard’s staff and a boatload of stat points into “kill everything with fire”, before having a crack at SRPG’s tutorial kick-off. It doesn’t play like the ASCII adventures of old, mostly due to the lack of control over movement – you pick a destination rather than a direction. It also straddles a line between comedic-narrative (one of my characters randomly generated back-story included “You were birthed in a cannon and became the first baby to orbit the earth”), and a kind of procedurally generated gibberish. The funnies are hit and miss, but I had enough chuckles during the first hour to be comfortable with it at least.
Soon I was beating on a slime monster with a wooden stick and rather enjoying myself. The combat is a mostly text interface where you chose attacks and follow-ups, it’s simple to string combo attacks together and the game is pretty clear on its basic features – for example repositioning when an enemy is blocking or about to charge you, or heal yourself to cure poison, etc. Combat is as quick as you can hit the buttons too, although I have found that taking the time to read the screen can help you avoid pointless deaths – and playing on the standard mode in SRPG meant that death was permanent – although there is neat use of colour to call attention to stuff like poisoning and so on. Splatting the slime gained me a new staff and I pressed on towards my destination.
Outside of combat, you control the game by entering numbers and letters to navigate the game screens and menus, of which there are a surprisingly small amount compared to more… ahem, hardcore rogue-likes. Finding myself in a small town, there was two routes out of it, the way I came, and a bandit camp. There was also a few places to buy weapons and even a crafting station. As you progress in quests, more areas open up – for example, once I had dealt with the bandit-camp, I could then head through a wood populated with more powerful creatures. Each segment is accompanied by ASCII-doodled scenes, and these can also hold the occasional hidden area too. But this is no free-roam rogue-like, in fact it plays more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book – pick a destination, fight a monster, rinse and repeat. There is a simplicity to this approach that I particularly like, although after a few deaths the lack of options during those early stages can make the game sadly very repetitive.
Alternatively, you can play the Softcore mode, that simply takes away all your gold when you die and allows you to respawn. I started a druid character on this mode and have found it significantly less irritating to play. Toting a longbow and a toothy disposition (“Spending time with a talking pig has always been your biggest regret” claims my bio), I feel a little more in control. Well, up until an encounter with a tricky monster (“A vengeful Rhoax has vomited on you”) ends my tromping and puts me right back to the starting town. Which is where my only issue with this game creeps in – it’s not exactly hard, it’s just absolutely bonkers.
Here’s an example – there is a presumably random system that attaches various adjectives to enemies you encounter, “Vampiric” means that the monster will constantly regenerate health for example, while “Molten” will cause you to take constant fire damage during the combat. These are a very clever way to keep the combat fresh and interesting. Then this rhino-lookalike thing appears with “Vengeful” in its name – which means that as it dies, it does a massive amount of damage to you. I have fought three “vengeful” creatures, and died three times despite winning each fight. The combat is tough to read at the best of times, but throw these kind of abilities into the mix and the frustration is tangible.
Not that this should put you off though. SanctuaryRPG is a fascinating little thing, and despite its linearity, it certainly is fun. The incidental stuff is wonderful – the random NPCs that appear and spout nonsense at you, the flavour text as you get into encounters, the sheer daftness of the whole thing is quite pleasant. Finding a potato and deciding the best course of action (I stood on it) is like something out of a Monty Python movie – inexplicable, yet amusing. The humour may not be to everyone else’s tastes, and there is a distinct hurdle in the repetitive early game until you get comfortable with it and stop dying all the time. But I quite like this mad little indie RPG.
The full version of SanctuaryRPG goes live on the 19th of April, more details at www.playsrpg.com.