Sage Sanctum Scramble, by Arthur DiBianca
Reader, a confession: it’s only now, as I’m sitting down to write this review, that I have realized that Sage Sanctum Scramble and Under They Thunder were written by different people. I must have gotten that impression when I was first page-downing my way through the giant list of games, and my shortcut-loving brain must have thought “right, two word games by people whose names started with A, that’s all sorted then,” despite the fact that I’ve played other games by both authors before. Anyway, the conceit for this review was going to be a compare-and-contrast between the two games, which felt reasonable to do when I thought they were by the same person but churlish and weird now that I have at long last disassembled the DiBianca-Schultz gestalt entity living in my head. I guess we’ll just have to wing it!
Typically I like to start with the premise, but, um, that feels challenging here. I’m going to attempt to describe the plot without going back to my notes: you (I don’t think who you are is explained) are magically whisked to an other-worldly word-sanctum, where the head of the titular sages tells you they need your help: an evil four-armed monster is using magic to tear up the place and you need to solve a bunch of word puzzles to build out the vocabulary you’ll need to fight him. OK, let’s see how I did… huh, turns out my brain is playing tricks again, because the game actually sets things up with you solve word puzzles in medias res, and you only get one sentence’s worth of backstory/motivation after you’ve figured out ten of them. This is sub-Bookworm Adventures in terms of character-centricity and narrative cohesion, with the main defining feature being lots and lots of silly names that seem like they should be anagram-jokes but aren’t.
Anyway who cares because I loved this. The premise is there to get you solving word puzzles; there are several dozen on offer, and though you can get a solid enough ending after getting as few as thirty, I banged my way through all of them (sixty, plus the bonus ones too!) because I was having so much fun. There’s nothing too novel here, though there is an impressive variety: there are word-substitution puzzles, mastermind-style word-guessing games, word-bridge puzzles where you’re transforming a word one letter at a time, and of course lots and lots of anagrams. Each puzzle is self-contained and fairly quick to solve once you get the trick, and while I don’t think there are any repeats, the later, much harder puzzles build off of what came before, so even the trickiest of them feel like they’re playing by a consistent, fair set of rules that have been introduced to the player.
The puzzles unlock as you solve them, and you typically have the choice of half a dozen or so, which means it’s easy enough to hop around and feel like you’re making progress – it was only when I was closing in on the last ten or so that progress began to slow, at which point I was sufficiently in the head-space of the game (like, I was starting to look for anagrams in work emails) that I appreciated the challenge. They’re almost all impeccably constructed in terms of puzzle design: there are definitely several that would be hard for folks who don’t have a mastery of English idiom (the one where you need to figure out what two words have in “uncommon”, or a few that rely on knowing a common phrase based on one word in it, come to mind), and a few that rely as much on grunt work as a moment of inspiration, but almost always when I got a solution (or, for some of the last few, was prompted to the solution by some considerately-provided hints on the forum), I was smacking my head and muttering “that makes sense.”
The technical implementation is also incredibly impressive – everything just works, which at first I didn’t really pay attention to because these are just word puzzles, how complex can it be? But when I thought about the amount of work that would need to go into each and every one of the over fifty on offer, in terms of coding custom responses and making what’s basically a different limited-parser game for each (you access a puzzle index by typing PUZZLES and then using numbers to jump around the list, BOOK shows you the keywords you’ve accumulated, and other than that it’s basically just typing in guesses), while having to parse not just whole words and recognize the entire dictionary, but also for many registering and responding to the individual letters and lengths… it’s very impressive, I repeat, and almost completely smooth (I think there were like two times when I got an incorrect result – one was when it wouldn’t accept “anoint” as a verb starting with a, to give you a flavor of what these edge cases are like).
There’s a smart layer of meta-progression over the puzzles that makes it even more compelling than it would be as a strict grab-bag, too. To beat the boss (you remember there was a monster, right? In the rich and compelling backstory?) you need to engage him in a word-fight, and while merely winning just requires you to accumulate enough keywords, he also throws out spells that can only be defended against if you’ve got a matching keyword: one that’s a palindrome, or only made up of letters from the second half of the alphabet. If you don’t have one, it’s not game over, but the eponymous sanctum takes some damage, which makes the ending feel a little less happy. Fortunately, you can always REWIND and try again after padding out your arsenal some more. There’s also a small set of bonus puzzles that unlock some alternate options around the ending, and which were quite fun to find and work through, with the caveat that it took me much longer to figure out how to access them than it should have because I failed at counting.
As I have with many other reviews in the Comp, I’ll conclude by making the obvious point that this is a game with a specific target audience, and if you’re in it you’ll probably really enjoy it but if word puzzles aren’t your jam, you’ll probably appreciate its craft but not find it too compelling. The difference is, I’m actually in that target audience this time out, and hopefully it’s clear that despite my affectionate bagging on the story and premise, I loved it to death. Here’s hoping for a sequel in next year’s Comp!
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