Modern role-playing games seem to take full advantage of a PC’s power, generally featuring hi-res graphics, maybe a few CG cut-scenes here and there, or even being fully voice acted. However, “back in the day“, RPG’s were little more than black screens and green text. They required a vivid imagination and boatloads of note taking to help ward off that whole dying thing. Rather than navigating a fully rendered 3D backdrop with that oh-so-helpfull minimap, you had to draw your own map as you made your way through caves and swamps, battling foes with text commands.
Black Shell Games wants to take you back to that era with their retro roguelike ASCII-art role-playing game, SanctuaryRPG. You begin the campaign by choosing between six difference character classes, such as Barbarian, Druid or Ranger, and then selecting one of nine unique races. I opted for an Assassin which offered a plethora of fun bonuses, like increased bleed damage, and passive bonuses for avoiding attacks or repositioning myself during combat.
Your next decision is choosing your game type, and here’s where things start to get interesting. You can go old-school and choose Classic, which basically turns SanctuaryRPG in to a full on roguelike. Death is permanent, regardless of how far along you are, so one mistake and everything you’ve worked for is lost forever. Of course you can also go with Softcore, which removes perma-death at the cost of a reduced drop rate for items and a 100% loss of current XP and gold upon dying. If you’d like a break from the campaign, you can also choose Survival mode which pits your character against non-stop enemies and boss creatures.
I decided to go with Classic, but my outlook quickly changed as I was sent packing around level 8. Here I was, an hour in to my first adventure and I was already starting over on Softcore, but at least I had a better understanding of how the intricate combat system and character growth worked. That’s the whole point of a roguelike, after all. Even as a fan of roguelikes, I still enjoyed the game a bit more on Softcore, although I did go back in for more Classic attempts after about 10 hours of gameplay.
Although SanctuaryRPG‘s ASCII presentation may look archaic, the game manages to offer an intuitive combat system that was a blast to learn. Battles are turn-based and attacks are combo driven, so you’ll begin your onslaught with a starter ability, followed by a linker, and finally a finisher for maximum damage. Completing combos also opens up the use of ultimate attacks, which, when used properly, can deal out insane amounts of damage. It’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3, since you have to beware of an enemy charging or trapping you between combos, as well as various boss-specific mechanics that, if gone unnoticed, will ultimately lead to your demise.
A charging enemy requires you to interrupt your combo to reposition yourself, generally granting passive bonuses based on your chosen class and race, and avoiding damage in the process. As an Assassin, I found myself repositioning often to take advantage of its +150% reposition damage boost, but on subsequent playthroughs found myself eating charges much more often. Enemies will also trap you to prevent your repositioning, but if you manage to notice you can spend your turn on a break free command and then reposition as normal.
Leveling up in SanctuaryRPG offers you a great detail of customization, as you can allocate points in to weapon specializations, a larger health pool, stronger armor, and various other typical role-playing stats. It’s a pen-and-paper RPG’ers dream, and even though it lacks flashy graphics, I always seemed connected to my character, which made committing to Classic mode that much harder.
The in-depth combat system, character customization, and charming ASCII visuals are definitely the highlight of SanctuaryRPG. As a role-playing game, it does feature a story, but the writing sways back and forth between standard RPG tropes and absurdly comedic dialogue so often that I found it hard to really about care what was going on. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good laugh here and there and I’m all for lighthearted dialogue, but after being asked to inject something in to a bartender’s crotch with a syringe, I kind of lost all hope in the story. Again, that’s totally okay. Dialogue exists, it’s genuinely comedic, and that’s the game’s charm, but don’t expect a plot that’s as epic as the rest of the game.
With so many different race and class combos, 3 different game modes, and randomly generated character traits, SanctuaryRPG boasts over 100 hours of gameplay. The best part? It’s absolutely free to download. Black Shell Games has put a lot of time in to making an ambitious love letter to games like Zork and Rogue, but they’re running off of donations at this point and really deserve more than that.
Overall, SanctuaryRPG is free and there is absolutely no reason to pass it up. Being free has nothing to do with it though, as it stands on its own as a terrific RPG, even if I felt that it was mostly driven by its fantastic combat system and in-depth character customization. The ASCII art and old-school feel is what initially drove me to play SanctuaryRPG, but beneath the retro exterior lies a great experience riddled with campy dialogue and lots of imagination.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling news, reviews, and a bit of our public relations communications. He’s an aspiring writer and Baltimore native that can usually be found watching terrible B-movies or knee-deep in a roguelike, a horror game or some sort of point-and-click adventure. His favorite console is the Dreamcast, favorite game is the original Metroid, and he could watch The Goonies for the rest of his life. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow his insanity on Twitter.