SanctumlikeTBC Developer Coffee Stain Studios Publisher Coffee Stain Studios Genre First Person Shooter Platform PC Release 15th April 2011 Nopub November - Sweden has become a haven for the on-going renascence of the small video game developer scene. While multi-million dollar publishers are trying to make the biggest, simplest blockbuster game out there, indie developers are doing what the big money won't: Experiment. Take Coffee Stain Studios' Sanctum, a futuristic First Person Shooter-come-Tower Defence game. The concept sounds daunting at first, but give the game a chance and you may just have the knack for it.

Not sure that 'armour' is actually standard issue but... Whatever.
You play as an elite soldier, Skye, who's protecting her home world from invading alien hoards of an unknown origin... Sadly that's about as far as the story really goes, it loosely ties the game together with some form of narrative and trickle-feeds you parts of the story through standing by certain terminals around maps at the odd occasion, these terminals give you little tid-bits of information about the Sanctum universe. I say sadly because the world the game takes place in is fairly interesting, it's a fairly typical (don't want to say "generic" as that does the game a great misjustice) Sci-Fi, futuristic setting but done with a fantastic art style and far-from-dull character design.

Sanctum, being a tower defence game, is based solely around defending a single point on the map, the single point being the "core". Enemies will use the shortest route possible to reach these cores and by doing so, deplete the health of the core. If the core's health drops to 0%, game's over. Your job is to erect blocks (towers) with defined build-able areas to block enemy paths and make them take the longest route to the core as possible. The longer you give yourself to fend off the hoards of approaching enemies, the better chance you'll be able to take them down. There's two ways to dispose of enemies; use of small arms the player has on them or use of "blocks" to mount weapons upon, once mounted they become sentient and damage enemies who wander near them.

I think this is good enough...
The game's basic flow revolves around matches, usually consisting of 20 to 30 rounds depending on map size and difficulty. Each round can have up to three types of enemy, each with their own specific strengths and weaknesses. Killing all opposing enemies progresses the round. Before you do any killing, however, you are thrust into the "building phase", which as you may have gathered is where you erect "towers" by placing blocks on the ground. All ground forces will walk around the blocks and your basic idea is to block-off enemy paths, but you're unable to completely block enemy paths as the game would instantly be over (enemies can't climb walls). Building winding, twisting mazes is often the best solution. When building, you consume resources, in the normal game you're given a bonus of resources (think of it like currency) for completing rounds. Once you've placed blocks on the ground, you can build defences upon them. There are a multitude of defences one can place upon these blocks each with their own specific best-case uses. Where the game starts to get pretty tricky is the introduction of air units as they can bypass your extremely well-made block-labyrinth and blind-sight you in no time at all. Dividing your attention between ground troops and air troops is hair-raising to say the least, especially since some air units are hardly affected by anti-air defences.

Sanctum does require a mix of good forward thinking and planning but also good shooter skills. While it's often best and most effective to let your towers do most of the killing, some enemies will require direct intervention. You can equip three standard weapons with a choice between small arms like your standard machine guns, sniper rifles, shotguns and a curious "Freeze" weapon which slows down enemies for a set period of time. Some weapons have a set "ammo" count before a reload (which you can't trigger manually) while others will over-heat if used too rapidly or used at all. This heat-up/cool-down is shown in percentages, if a gun hits 100% heat-up, it will be temporarily incapacitated and unable to fire until the cool-down hits 0%.

If I had a hammer...
During the "Build Phase", you have the opportunity to upgrade any weapons or towers you've built. Upgrading consumes resources which doubles with each subsequent upgrade level. When upgrading, stats of that particular tower or gun improves. For instance, the Sniper weapon in the game starts with just one shot before reloading, however, by it's maximum level (5) it will have four shots plus improved accuracy and damage. However, much like towers, weapon upgrade costs double as they progress. A successful player must balance tower and weapon upgrades carefully to optimise damage. Missing upgrades and focusing entirely on building will quickly come to bite you as enemies increase in number and strength as the match progresses.

Enemies themselves are also a major consideration when building defences, each enemy has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully, the game is nice enough to give you an encyclopaedia of enemies detailing their behaviour, strength and weaknesses. Even if you don't care much for the encyclopaedia, enemies all have their weak-spots glow a distinct orange colour ready for you to land your reticle on. The most annoying enemies are those which have very small weak spots which tower defences have a hard time hitting leaving the player to pick up the pieces.

Oh hey Core.
The standard game, which you can pick up for less than a tenner on Steam, comes with five maps which you unlock by clearing stages on any difficulty. Maps are quite varied, mixing up the configuration of the build able space offered to you, each have multiple ways for you to build your block maze in an attempt to ensnare your alien enemies, which come from various and often numerous directions. Some even spitting enemy convergence into two opposite directions for you to consider. Maps will often give you high-ground for you to perch upon to snipe from a distance (my personal favourite tactic) but aren't always capable of allowing you a good view of the entire playing field, making it possible for enemies to slip by. If you feel the need to get in-close to the battle, you can set up "Televator" blocks which allow you to quickly jump to any Televator block around the map by hitting the Tab key and clicking on the Televator you wish to teleport to. The Televator is one of two blocks in the game which are "passive", they're not really passive as they don't let enemies travel through them but they don't attack enemies. The other more friendly block is the "Holo" block which increases the power of any block augment on-top-of them. For an extra charge, there's two additional DLC maps and a handful of extra block augments like the "Violator" weapon, which is a crazy-powerful anti-air and anti-personnel weapon.

The standard gametype is also extended using the "Survival" modifier, which makes the round number endless and, as the name implies, you keep going until your core hits 0% health, which, by the way, is how the game will end if you fail to defend the core anyway. In the very latest version of the game, there's several modifiers to this survival mode including a "pre-built" mode which gives you a random selection of pre-built defences and you must work around or "bounty" mode which gives you resources per enemy killed, rather than a set number based off-of the round.

More proof of how pretty this game is.
I've mentioned it in passing before, but Sanctum looks incredible. The game is built upon Unreal Engine 3, so all the minor graphical problems like texture popping are all apparent here, but it must be said that Sanctum, on some mid-to-low settings still ran perfectly fine on my somewhat antiquated laptop setup at a steady 40fps. This frankly amazed me as the game does look wonderful, with a generous draw-distance filled with various particle and distortion effects taking a common place during the action-heavy segments of the game. I would expect this level of detail and visual awe from AAA titles of this nature, just knowing it's an indie game makes everything just that little sweeter. Not that I want to put down indie developers, but they don't exactly have the man-power nor budget to afford such beauty most of the time.

The game's soundtrack is alright but nothing special. Each stage, as far as I can tell, has it's own soundtrack for both the Build and Extermination Phases but it's a fairly generic score. There's nothing in the soundtrack which really fits well into the game's atheistic and while it does sound nice, just doesn't seem like it was created with the intent of being used in this manner. The inclusion of subtle audio-cues are often an indicator of a polished product and Sanctum delivers, from the warning of incoming enemies to Skye's infrequent cheers from landing successful headshots. Sadly, Skye's vocal parts are repeated a little too often and loose their effect, her near uncontrolled joy over the death of an enemy was far more powerful and evocative of the character... The first few times I heard it. After the 20th, it didn't quite carry the same punch. Alas, indie game, small budget. These aren't criticisms.

You'd think with such upper-body strength they could, you know, climb over the blocks you lay in the game?
Ultimately, I love Sanctum. It's a fantastic game at a fantastic price. It's genuinely one of the finest FPS games I've played in a long while due to it's genre-blending and out-right ingenious design. What more can I say? Oh right, it has multiplayer as well. Sadly, I haven't had enough time with the game's multiplayer to give a fair idea about how it differs from the single player, but the game's still fun by the bucket-loads. If you enjoy your shooters to have a little more thought in them than "he's an enemy, shoot him" or just love a good Tower Defence game, then look no further than Sanctum.

Although completely incidental to this review, Sanctum is currently 50% off on Steam (ends midnight 7/11/2011) with a Free To Play weekend deal as well. Check it out.
The game's major problem is that there is no story. Not one that's given in any meaningful manner, anyway. Which is an odd criticism for a Tower Defence game, I will admit.
Finely balanced and incredibly polished, Sanctum is a joy to play even if some of the enemies are cheap.
For an indie game, Sanctum is utterly beautiful. For a game on it's own merits, the game's definitely pretty.
Sadly, the soundtrack doesn't pull it's weight. There's some nice tracks in the game, but it feels forced and like
8 Hours
The game's only as long as you want it to be. You can easily spend just 2 hours on a single map and each play of that map will be different. To unlock and complete all the maps will take about 8 hours, don't mistake this for the extent of the game though.