Sanctum is an FPSTD. No, not a first-person sexually transmitted disease--a first-person shooter/tower defense hybrid (although what a concept the former would be!). The FPS and tower defense genres are among the most popular with consumers nowadays, especially PC gamers, so it's only natural that a developer would mix the two together. Coffee Stain Studios, an independent crew comprised of students from Sweden’s University of Skövde, manages to pull off the merger rather well, though it’s not without a few hitches along the way.
Players assume the role of soldier/interior decorator Skye, who has been assigned to protect her hometown of Elysion One from alien invaders. Of course, this job means defending a glowing orb of technology with towers from the suicidal otherworlders who want nothing more than to charge single file into it. While Sanctum never actually explains the purpose of the power core, it evidently makes top hats, as all of the aliens are shown wearing them if the orb is overrun. Important technology indeed.
The story is as trite as it sounds. As is the case with both first-person shooters and tower defense games, the narrative is a complete no-show in Sanctum: You must defend the power core in three scenarios. That’s all you need to know, and that’s all the game is willing to tell you.
Sanctum plays out in two phases: tower construction and then the invasion. Fortunately, as ravenous as the alien invaders are, they wait for you to finish constructing and modifying your malicious maze each turn before they attack. While there is a strategic overhead view, you build your towers from the first-person perspective, which can be a bit unintuitive at first but players will quickly adapt.
The game gives you access to the usual gamut of towers: quick-but-weak Gatling guns, devastating lightning rods, anti-air missiles and everything in between. Sanctum does a good job of introducing new units throughout the three-scenario campaign, with the player’s arsenal eventually consisting of half a dozen different tower types.
Once your defenses have been set, you hit the Enter key and wait for the enemies to begin filing in. This is when Sanctum gets interesting. Rather than sitting back and watching your towers do all the work, you can run around and assist them. You have three weapons at your disposal: a machine gun that shoots grenades as a secondary function, a powerful sniper rifle, and a tool that slows down enemy movement. You can jump between your maze’s wall and reign fire down on the alien waves, or you can hop down into the trenches and deal with them up close and personal. Fortunately, you can’t die, but if you’re hit by an enemy, you’ll be temporarily immobilized, which can be disastrous at inopportune times.
At first, your turrets will be able handle most of the enemies by themselves, with you simply providing auxiliary fire. However, during the game, new enemy types are introduced with small weak points that the automated defenses aren't likely to hit. For example, one enemy type, appropriately named the Bobble Head, is impervious to any bodily damage. You’ll have to use your sniper rifle to take these guys out with well-placed head shots. The strategy ensures that you’re an active participant and not merely a strategic overmind.
Successfully clearing out an enemy wave earns you more resources, which can be used to upgrade both towers and your weapons. Picking between improving your weapons or turrets is a Sophie’s choice situation--you need to level up both, but you often won’t have the resources to do it, especially during the later waves. Design an ineffectual maze or don't upgrade your weapons at the right spots and you’ll pay dearly, especially in the obscenely difficult final scenario.
One of the biggest pitfalls of Sanctum is its poorly designed single-player campaign. There are only three maps, but each one lasts 20 waves or more and can take up to 90 minutes to beat. It can be frustrating when you play a scenario for an hour only to realize that you either upgraded the wrong turrets or took too much damage early on and can’t beat the 25th wave, forcing you to start all over from the beginning. The game does offer check points every three waves, but these often aren't enough leeway to alter your defenses when you reach the final stretch, where upgrading a single turret can cost you all of the money you earned from the previous attack.
With only three maps and a limited number of weapons and turrets, Sanctum is a bit short on content. This shortcoming is largely remedied with a multiplayer component that will pit you and another player against endless waves of aliens, adding some longevity to the game. Additionally, Coffee Stain Studios seems to be listening to player feedback and is looking to implement a four-player co-op mode. The indie studio doesn’t seem adverse to updating the weapons roster, either, with items such as a mini-gun shotgun weapon, listed in the game’s encyclopedia but apparently hasn't been added to the actual game yet.
Players with mid-range computers may also want to be wary, as performance could be an issue. Sanctum uses the Unreal Engine, which makes the game look absolutely stunning, especially considering it’s Coffee Stain Studios’ first core release. However, when the game is throwing a hundred detailed enemy models at you, the frame rate tends to dive faster than a sinking submarine, and lining up precision sniper shots becomes all but impossible.
While it has its flaws, Sanctum is a unique and commendable twist on the tower defense genre. The first-person shooter elements and incredibly fun multiplayer aspects offer a fun experience, and with the promise of new downloadable content on the horizon, the game is worth forgoing a few McDonald’s Happy Meals to pick it up.