The Black Sanctum (1981)   5 comments

Your object in this game is to overcome the forces of evil.

— From the instructions for the Dragon version of The Black Sanctum

The Black Sanctum (original version 1981, graphics added 1984) is the second game by Ron Krebs to be converted by Stephen O’Dea and Bob Withers for TRS-80 Color Computer. It is also the last game from Mr. Krebs, which is rather a pity because it’s rather good, honestly one of the best I’ve encountered for All the Adventures. (If you’d prefer to try it yourself and avoid spoilers, I give instructions for getting the game at the end of this post.)

The setup rather nebulously places you outside a cabin with no explanation of how or why you are there; I went with the notion this was accidental and the protagonist was looking for shelter, but I could also see rolling with the idea that they arrived intentionally looking for someone in danger, who you’ll see in a moment.

The outdoors just loops you in a circle, the only way forward is in:

The “it’s getting cold in here” message occurs after a few turns, and was sufficient for me to feel the cold. What I mean is that I’ve seen many deserts and snowy valleys in adventure games, but only sometimes do my imaginings contain any real temperature, hot or cold (even the thirst puzzle in the desert of Acheton was more an intellectual exercise than sensing the inexorable heat of the sun).

By waiting a beat before the cold message, the game leveraged the passage of time itself to increase the effect, essentially integrating atmosphere with mechanics; the door will also come into the plot later.

Upstairs is the person in danger I mentioned, in a magical coma and clutching the note shown above.

You can, if you want, carry her with you.

The closet contains a black robe and mirror, looking in the mirror takes you through to the Sanctum. While in the Sanctum black-hooded figures will occasionally appear; if you don’t have the robe they will try to turn you to stone (you can break out by saying “invocare episcopus”, but that teleports you to the closet and it means the robe might be somewhere difficult to reach).

A plaque announces we are at St. Sebastian’s, founded 1739, and a manuscript announces things went wrong in the same century, shelved next to a Bach fugue.

The only antagonist who isn’t a monk is the old man above, although he is placated by a jug full of wine and falls asleep (you can get the jug back). From the man you can get the items above (keys, shears, a saw) and the keys let you into a locked room with an organ.

Playing a fugue at the organ will open a secret area where clearly the Bad Things happen.

A passage behind the lectern leads further to a crypt, where the bishop from the 1700s awaits us…

…and explains how to overcome the forces of evil.

Looking at the more satisfying adventure games we’ve encountered, many have been a sort of “climax” puzzle, one that puts together the pieces throughout the game for a final push, heroic or antiheroic. Zork II had you collect treasures for a demon, who you used to defeat the wizard that tormented you all throughout the game; Voodoo Castle had a ritual that you put together in pieces; Frankenstein had the ultimate revival of the monster (who you then had to defeat).

The collection of the ritual above fell in the same category, as it was a treasure hunt across the whole map. For building an altar, there’s a boarded up door; removing the nails with the hammer lets you reuse the boards and nails. The white cloth (which took a little thought) is from the bed that woman is sleeping on. The pine needles are from outside, although going outside presents a problem:

You can use a shovel to get through to get needles; you also need to GET SNOW while holding the jug. After you’ve gone through this, the woman has disappeared. There’s no way to prevent this; she’s a statue back at the pentagram and the raven. (Even if you’re carrying her — I guess it’s a magic curse rather than a kidnapping. I would have loved there to be an alternate ending, but this is on a TRS-80 CoCo, so I understand there are limits.)

This does unfortunately present a potential softlock, because you need have gotten a lock of her hair (using the shears) before she gets statue-fied. (Another possible softlock comes from not getting the shovel before the snow blocks the door, but the shovel is just laying outside and I’m guessing very few adventurers would leave an item behind.)

Bringing everything back yields sanctified ash, as mentioned above, and it is only a few steps to victory: THROW ASH followed by INVOCARE EPISCOPUS.

I can’t say the game felt “modern”, but it aced its atmosphere, and even though they essentially present no danger when you have the black robe, the constant appearance of monks was nerve wracking. The puzzles weren’t difficult but they felt substantial, especially in collecting for the ritual, and the cursed woman gave the plot a bit of heft.

There wasn’t any especially artful prose, but nothing was sloppy or egregious either. There were not, in retrospect, that many dynamic elements, but the small pieces the game had (combined with the semi-tragic ending) elevated what could have been a regular scavenger hunt into something else.

From Mobygames.

Here is where I’d normally give a link to play online; there in fact is one, but only for the DOS version of the game. If you want the more-attractive TRS-80 CoCo, you’ll need to find the download here and use the online emulator here to load the disk.

Posted December 6, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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5 responses to “The Black Sanctum (1981)

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  1. You probably already figured this out, but “invocare episcopus” is slightly broken Latin for “invoke the bishop” (specifically, it’s what you’d get if you looked up each word in a dictionary and strung them together). Have we seen full-fledged commands in foreign languages before this?

    • Oh! I just had it stored in my random-magic-word memory bank, I didn’t think of trying to see if it made sense. Good catch.

      We haven’t had this before unless you count having to type the imaginary-language chant in Kadath.

  2. Again, this is astonishingly pretty for the time. I figure I’ll just skim over your introduction lest I be spoiled to give these Ron Krebs games a spin myself.

  3. Is the gameplay in the DOS version very different? I’m not getting anywhere by LOOK MIRROR. BREAK MIRROR takes me to a strange place where my body feels paralyzed and the only thing I can find to do is INVOCARE EPISCOPUS.

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