SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition

When we talk about retro games on PC, we usually talk about MS-DOS games that are often represented by low resolutions and distinctive pixel art. But those who have really been around for retro PC gaming will probably remember that before pixel art came ASCII code.

Although I never really managed to master (or even understand how to play) the famous Dwarf Fortress, I've enjoyed a lot of games like Candy Box 1 and 2, and found it fascinating how some things can be represented by random symbols and characters, and how you would believe it. Not that you had much of a choice back then.

Fast-forward to the year 2015. We have games with graphics that don't look far away from reality, and we are starting to perfect gaming in virtual reality environments. Yet for Black Shell Studios this is all vastly overrated, so in February they released the definitive version of SanctuaryRPG on Steam: a very solid rogue-like RPG entirely in ASCII art, originally released in April 2014.

The fact that they chose this art style was reason enough for me to give it a try, but this game has so much more to offer that it's going to be hard for me to articulate.

It's a tree.

Navigating through the areas feels like playing Zork again, in a way. Instead of using the mouse to click an icon where you want to go, you have to type in the number or letter of the destination you choose, which only reinforces the retro theme. It may feel a bit awkward to someone who has never done this before, but I took to it like a duck to water!

The story, with all its quirks and touches of humour that I adore, is actually to be taken very seriously. If the story was put in a game with let's say HD graphics and gamepad support, you wouldn't notice a difference. It's compelling and interesting, and the fact that you create your character from scratch, with its background and a fairly complex class and perk system makes you care even more about them. So it's obviously going to suck when you meet your inevitable and permanent demise (unless you play on easy mode, where death is not permanent!).

Yes. This is clearly hero material, right here.

The clever combat design and a very well-explained tutorial will allow people who have never played a turn-based RPG to understand its mechanics and cycles, and it offers enough innovation for RPG junkies like me to seek an additional challenge by finding the most efficient way to kill a monster. It is not without its difficulty, though. I've had some of my characters meet their untimely death because I got too ambitious in combat. Losing everything because you bite off more than you can chew really sucks, and there's nobody but yourself to blame.

Plus, the "enemy encounter" screen cracks me up almost every time:

How dare you, Skeleton!

Speaking of this, humour is just everywhere! In the combat texts, the events, the character's background, in the conversations with NPCs... I encountered a teddy bear on the ground while travelling through a forest, and upon choosing to hug it I took damage because it was full of knives (!?). I also encountered a small potato in the same forest that decided to follow me around for no reason. I encountered some sort of circle in a meadow, and one of the options was to start crying. Upon crying, my tears materialized into a potato that gave me clothes (!?!?).

Yes, there are a lot of potatoes in this game - which is a good thing. I, for one, welcome our future tuberous overlords. One day they will take the Earth, just you wait.

Coming back to SanctuaryRPG, the last thing that I want to highlight is how wonderful the soundtrack is. One would expect to have the classic chiptune soundtrack in a game whose main theme is retro, and while it does contain its fair share of chiptune, it also has a bunch of high-octane tunes that perfectly fit the tension of the battles, and there is a charming soft song that plays when you have to choose a destination or are in a town. I didn't really hear anything of it before I purchased the game, but now that I have, I'm quite sure that I will shell out the extra €3 for the 66 songs that the Soundtrack DLC on Steam offers! All of my hats go off to Rafael Langoni Smith!

If you are a fan of turn-based RPGs, ASCII art, or you just enjoy epic stories filled with humour, you should definitely check SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition. You can try out a free demo of the original on the game's website, or you can buy Black Edition on Steam for €7.99 (or $7.99).

ReviewBob Morate