Review: Sanctum

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Tower defense seems like the kind of open-ended genre you could mash just about anything into and get it to work, yet hybrid titles aren’t all that common. Sanctum, for example, allows you to assemble your defenses and battle the hordes yourself as a first-person shooter, but it and its sequel are practically the only instances of the concept. It’s a good one too, especially the way Sanctum gives you a wider variety of options when upgrading your defenses. And if it only had more in the way of actual content in which to exercise those options, it probably would have ended up as more of a classic than the backlog-filler it seems to be for most.

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Case in point: Sanctum has no story whatsoever. You’re a spandex-clad lady with awesome hair and a big robot gauntlet, and you’ve got to stop alien-things from mashing their faces into your core-thing. I don’t know how or when or why any of these things happen, and while it’s certainly not essential for a game like this it would help to have some grounding. Titles like Defense Grid actually benefit greatly from their plots, that one in particular getting a lot of mileage out of its hilarious AI companion and unique setups for levels. Sanctum has the appearance of a vibrant world with stories to tell, but disappointingly little to dig into.

So instead we get to business. Each level has a core and access points for monsters to come smash it from, and in between are different paths they can take. Some levels are twisting routes while others are wide-open fields, but no matter the layout there are dozens upon dozens of spots where you can build blocks. Blocks… block enemies from passing, and though you can’t completely wall off your core you can create mazes to corral the enemy. All sorts of weapons can be built into your blocks, including gatling guns, laser turrets, mortars, drone launchers, and several status-affecting devices that pair well with certain weapons. The strategy, then, is to place weapons in the spots where they’ll do the most work in your maze layout.

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That’s only half the battle with Sanctum, though. You can carry three weapons into battle yourself, arms like an assault pistol, sniper rifle, and lightning gun. Each has unique primary and secondary attacks, and just like towers they can be upgraded to be more powerful. Your weapons can actually hold off entire waves themselves with the right combination of upgrades and skills, so there’s a major strategic consideration on what to upgrade with your resources. Do you rely on automated defenses, put everything on yourself, or mix the two? Enemies are varied enough that you can’t just focus on one weapon type regardless, so you’ll need to prepare for big, lumbering foes, tiny swarming ones, and flying hostiles alike.

As a tower defense title, Sanctum does everything expected of the genre and little else, so it’s the first-person combat that gives it an edge. Unfortunately, that’s about the only edge it has so unless you’re desperate to jump into the fight yourself, you may be better served by other games in the genre. The base game has only seven levels to work through, each with set enemy patterns. You can challenge them on four different difficulties and in some slightly different “survival” modes, but that still might be a record low for content in a game like this. There’s not exactly a proliferation of enemies or weapons either, enough to fill out a regular game but not enough to cover for a lack of other content.

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Sanctum’s certainly a fun game, but unless you’re really into perfecting defenses or chasing high scores it won’t last you long. I wish there was more to do in a game that gives you an unprecedented presence in tower defense, but unless you really invest in your personal weapons it’s just a different perspective to observe the battle from. I dig the bright, detailed art style and it all sounds pretty good, but there’s no soundtrack to speak of and no plot propping any of it up. Play this one with friends if you can, because while it’s a neat twist on tower defense it’s one that runs out of steam real quick.

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