Sanctum: Clash of the interfaces

by berv

I picked up Sanctum as part of the most recent Indieroyale bundle, not because I was particularly interested in the game but because I thought the economic model was neat (the next bundle opens up this Thursday!). Regardless, I ended up with an independent game that not only looked pretty but promised a unique spin on the tower defense genre: the entirety of the game is played from the first-person perspective, allowing you to get in to the midst of the onrushing waves and add your own firepower to the line. A neat concept and perhaps a way around the monotony of simply watching your towers do their job or fail miserably in their attempt.

Once I cracked it open, I found it did exactly what it promised, putting the player onto the TD battlefield and requiring the player to run around during an assault, lending support where needed. All too often, though, I found myself acting as more of an auxiliary to the towers than as a separate and meaningful entity. Most frequently, my time on the ground was spent following particularly tenacious enemies, mindlessly exhausting one weapon after another into their backs in a futile final bid to keep them from reaching their goal. It reminded me less of the combat in an FPS and more of that in an MMO: toggle attack on, occasionally hit a special power button, repeat until victorious.

Some particularly tough enemies need to be shot in a particular spot by the player, opening up their defenses for your towers to penetrate. Though this made for a meaningful interaction between the player and their towers, again it fell into cyclical action: snipe, wait for reload, snipe, wait for reload, change enemies and repeat. Though my assistance was necessary, it was not particularly enjoyable or exhilarating in the way that a good FPS might be.

My biggest gripe and intended focus of this article is that the core activity of the game, that being the construction and upgrading of towers, was made much more tedious by the binding of the player to an in-world entity. In order to build a tower, you need to walk to its location, position your reticule over the base and hold the mouse button down for a second or so. Then you do this again a couple feet over and again and again until you’ve got your desired maze. Need to make an adjustment at the start of the maze? Well, you’ve got to get back over there to do it. So you walk. Given that the player can only construct towers before a wave begins, why not provide an overhead view for this phase then drop down to eye level once the assault begins? To be fair, the player can also contruct “televators,” which will boost the player up on top of towers as well as providing instant travel points, but you need to spend valuable resources as well as construction time to do so. When there is an in-game penalty for ease-of-use, I think you’ve done something wrong.

The layout of the levels and the attack paths of the enemies are effectively two-dimensional; towers can only be placed on one plane and enemies will either path around them or fly in a straight line above. If you’re placing the player within a three dimensional space, why not open up the possibility for three-dimensional tower placement? If you’ve got a long tunnel, you could either create a complex maze at the cost of player navigability or instead line the walls with a spiral of towers, reducing the path length but making it easier for the player to contribute.

Further to that, why force the player into a slow terrestrial body? Imagine the possibilities of a fast presence on the battlefield, able to leap around and over towers or, even better, able to fly! Perhaps you could spend resources to upgrade movement, making you not only able to do more damage (as is presently available), but into a mobile response force that can adapt on the fly to changing conditions!

On the whole, I found Sanctum to be frustrating for all of the reasons I commonly do with both badly designed tower defense games as well as FPSes. Long play times with heavy penalties for early mistakes combined with tedious player action are bad enough on their own, but when you mash the two genres together as Sanctum has, it only brings out the worst in both.

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