Before the iPhone hit the market, tower defense games were few and far between. The first one I recall playing was PixelJunk Monsters, which featured the protagonist moving about the battlefield, tending to towers. Since then, the genre has been flooded with innovation branching off in several directions. Whether it’s the comedy and style of Plants vs. Zombies or the infusion of card-collecting elements in Elemental Monster TD or simply a coat of Final Fantasy paint in Crystal Defenders, the good tower defense games manage to stand out in the crowd.
Sanctum, by Coffee Stain Studios, is one of the games in this genre that will most certainly be remembered for its version of the model. Of course, you’ll find the standard parade of monsters, turrets, and an object to protect. What makes Sanctum unique is that your character, Skye, dives into the thick of battle. The game plays out largely through a first-person perspective. Once the enemies start charging your orb, Skye is on the battlefield with her own arsenal that includes an assault rifle, freeze ray, and a sniper rifle. Before the horde starts advancing, though, you are afforded a build phase to prepare yourself. There is no time limit on the build phase, which allows you to plan a strategy.
You will always know what kinds of enemies will be coming in the next wave, so you can tweak your defenses accordingly. The game maintains a comprehensive encyclopedia of every enemy and turret type, and even flags when you’ll be assaulted by a type you haven’t yet encountered. Sanctum lets you know what will be coming your way, putting the emphasis on your tactical decisions.
Skye can build blocks to direct the flow of enemies and then upgrade those defensive structures to one of 6 types of guns plus a floor type that can slow the advance. Building and upgrading are a piece of cake. Point the cursor at the space you want to build on and hold the left mouse button to build. Once you have a block, the scroll wheel selects a gun type. All building and upgrading is handled with the left button. Selling structures is handled with right button. Skye can also upgrade her personal weaponry to enhance damage, increase clip size, and decrease reload time. In combat, left mouse button fires and right mouse button triggers the alternate fire mode for each weapon. You can quickly move around the battlefield by toggling the overview map with the Tab key and choosing one of the Televators that are scattered across the landscape or that you choose to construct. This instant teleportation mechanic gives you the opportunity to mop up stragglers that may have escaped your turrets.
I love being in the thick of the action. Too often while playing tower defense games have I felt that one small mistake means the difference between a big win and a crushing defeat. By having an independent, mobile unit capable of plugging the holes, Sanctum is more forgiving and, for me, more enjoyable. That’s not to say that you don’t need to be careful about your block and tower placement or your upgrade choices. You most certainly need to be prepared. Sanctum simply allows you to lessen the blow of a tactical error, giving you the chance to survive until the next wave.
Each of the three maps is available in each of the 4 difficulty levels. The first map, Mine, starts you off slowly, with only one entry point for the enemies and a more confined area to build in. Once you advance, though, the maps become quite open, forcing the player to consider multiple angles of attack and to create complex mazes of blocks to buy time for the turrets to finish their work.
Sanctum comes with a cooperative mode, putting two players on the battlefield. The gameplay is identical, with players managing their own resources and weapons, but having the ability to upgrade blocks and towers placed by either player. Strategizing with a compatriot is enjoyable, and the game does throw more challenging enemies at you. Having someone to partner with adds to the replayability, especially with the “endless” gameplay mode, which simply asks you to survive as long as possible.
Sanctum plays smoothly, though the graphics aren’t terribly impressive. The sound effects are enjoyable and Skye chimes in with a cheer every once in a while, especially when you manage to ace an enemy with each bullet in a sniper rifle clip. I loved seeing the damage numbers floating above the heads of my helpless victims and the little reward for completing each set of 20+ waves elicited a chuckle more than once (as did the “penalty” for losing). The spoken dialog from the automated turrets that bookends each phase is appropriate for the theme and, though I don’t expect to be humming any of the tunes, the music’s electronic styling fits nicely.
For those tower defense fans out there looking for a twist on the genre, Sanctum should hit the spot. Spyn Doctor has blended the traditional style of tower defense with FPS for a result that isn’t quite like anything else out there. Having the run of the battlefield provides an interesting safety net that other TD games don’t provide, enhancing the enjoyment of seeing the creepy crawlies get blown to bits. There are enough enemy types to keep you on your toes and test your tactical reasoning, with many combinations of weapons at your disposal to optimize your carnage. It’s an innovative and enjoyable experience and one that I lost myself in as time flew by.
Review copy provided by publisher.