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DPrime Review: Sanctum

Developer: Coffee Stain Studios
Publisher: Coffee Stain Studios
Genre: First-Person Shooter/Tower Defense
Platforms: PC
Release Date: 15 April 2011


In Sweden, something is going on. A small group of students from the University of Skövde have decided to create a company called Coffee Stain Studios. I can only assume there was some sort of argument in the office about whether to make a tower defense game or a first-person shooter, or maybe this is a vision of a future where developers really begin to transcend the genres. Whatever the case may be, the result is a fusion of these two rather different game types in Sanctum.

The Narrative

You play as Skye, an elite soldier fighting to protect her home: Elysion One. The enemy: hordes of aliens whose only goal is to spoil your day. The aim is to build and upgrade defensive blocks in order to stop the enemy from reaching the core (a great shining ball of energy) at the centre of the base. The difference between Sanctum and other tower defense games is what transpires when you hit the big red button that starts the attack wave. Suddenly, Skye is no longer interfacing with the turrets, but sporting a selection of weapons ready to blast those aliens into tiny pieces. Your core begins each game at 100% and is damaged depending on the strength of any enemies that manage to reach it, so one of the weak but fast ‘runners’ deals tiny damage compared with a wallowing but tanked ‘soaker’.

If you successfully complete all of the waves of enemies, you are treated to a small cut-scene where the humans are having a bit of a dance to celebrate while a few aliens look dejected in the corner. Awww. I found it more disturbing when I allowed my core to get destroyed and was shown a cut-scene where the aliens were performing a dance with top hats! This does beg the question: if all both sides want to do is listen to music and dance, why on earth are they blowing up the crap out of each other all day? Still, I found that less annoying than the voice that kept telling me what to do; oh really? Build defenses? Thanks for reminding me.

The Design

There are several different types of towers that become available as you advance through the levels. At the moment, there are only three maps, but that’s ample for the diversity of enemies, potential defense layouts and difficulty. After that, Skye also has her own arsenal to choose from. To begin with, she has access to an assault rifle, sniper rifle and a freeze gun, all of which can be upgraded to deal more damage and last longer before a dreaded cool-down period, presumably there to stop you from blasting the living crap out of the aliens before they can even get close to a turret!

The controls are the standard FPS layout, although I had a small gripe with the construction interface as the only way to build and upgrade is in FPS view. This can lead to frustration when trying to highlight the precise square you want to build on if you’re not standing right next to it, especially if there is a whole field of buildable areas in between. Yet, I can’t decide if the game would benefit from a top-down construction system or not… I suspect it would lose most of its idiosyncratic charm. You can also get as creative as you like in the construction of your mazes; the Bridge map gives you one enormous playground to build upon however you please, whereas the Mine map gives you the scope to direct enemies one way or another around the base with strategic clusters to build on.

The size of the maps is overcome by Televators, which allow you to teleport to the initial starting point of the level and to wherever else you built one. This also helps you avoid running the gauntlet you built to help you and gets you past any slow sectors (as they slow the player down as well). Plus, if an alien gets past the front line, you can teleport to the back and snipe them until they die. And that brings me to the most satisfying part of this game: you no longer have to sit and grimace when it’s clear that one enemy is going to waltz right in and damage your hub; you can whip out the freeze ray to slow it down, chase it and pump it full of bullets. The satisfaction when you take down that final Hoverer before it ends your game is like sweet nectar, especially because of the way the creatures slump forward when they’ve breathed their last (assuming, of course, that they do breathe).

Skye herself seems to be made of tough stuff, as she can gleefully leap into the abyss with no consequence beyond teleporting back to base. Place her in the path of enemies and she gets pushed aside, rather than mauled to death with nothing more than a grunt (I definitely get the impression that the aliens aren’t violent – they just want the big ball of energy!). This is more than convenient when you want to get up close and personal with a soaker and kill it to death.

There is also the scope for online multiplayer. This has the potential to be fantastic fun with the announced four-player multiplayer update on its way. I can imagine discussing different designs with teammates being a lengthy but fun interlude between waves. If possible, it could lead to even more hectic situations with all four of you running and gunning to take down the one that got away!

The Presentation

Sanctum’s music is enjoyable without being too intrusive or repetitive. I found it most noticeable at moments worthy of Hollywood as I imagined the camera zooming in on Skye’s face, illuminated by the muzzle flashes from her gun as the bodies piled up before her, or at the start of waves when I settled the sniper scope on the alien spawn point. My least favourite noise was the BOOP whenever I clicked on something that the game yelled was “not relevant!”, but that was only happening because I had decided to try and get Skye to eat a pile of sandwiches I had found. Still, I’m the player, so surely I decide what’s relevant?

The richness of details is astounding and is one of the game’s most pleasing features. A lot of thought and effort has obviously gone into making the maps feel alive; in the image above you can see Coffee Stain Studios’ name and logo scrolling on a flickering screen, and that’s just one example. During a brief poke around I also found what I’m fairly sure were fish, Russian dolls, sandwiches in someone’s toolbox and moths flying around a light. The backdrops and scenery are inspiring, with cliffs, enormous plants and man-made structures all draped in luscious detail, from a distance at least. The actual bases you get to roam can feel a little restrictive at times with invisible walls and such, but that may be the intention as the main focus is taking down those dancing alien bastards.

If the indicator in the bottom right corner between waves isn’t enough to show you which aliens are on the way then you can look them up in the in-game encyclopaedia. This is a nice touch but I felt it could be expanded to include a little more detail about the game world as well as those things that populate it. Each time a new enemy appears you get a heads up to show you what it is and how it is different to those that came before it. Visually speaking, the aliens are relatively easy to distinguish between and easily noticeable thanks to their glowing coloured strips. Similarly, online there is little risk of confusing your allies with the aliens.

So, overall, what do I make of this game? Well, it has its foibles and it could be tighter, but games from developer giants are far from perfect so why should we expect perfection from an indie developer’s first major release? In fact, this game speaks of greater things to come and offers a fun, challenging experience that is certain to make you tear out your hair and gnash your teeth if you’re brave enough to try the insane difficulty!

For a price tag of £9.99, Sanctum already offers a lot to keep you busy, but the developers have promised on-going support adding more maps, more weapons and more enemies (along with the four-player online discussed above). So, what are you waiting for? Try something different and don’t ever look back.


8/10 – Great!

Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris

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