"The vibe I get from Sanctus Mortem is that it wants to break the glass ceiling and transcend RPG Maker's limitations. "
What do you think of when you hear mention of Xenogears or Xenosaga? Grand mecha space opera stories featuring intriguing characters? Dynamic turn-based battles for both on-foot skirmishes and vehicular combat? Ambitious endeavors that aren't afraid to shoot for the moon and risk missing? With these thoughts in mind, allow me to introduce you to Kisareth Studios' game Sanctus Mortem: an indie JRPG that proudly wears its Xeno influences on its sleeve. While Sanctus Mortem did not make me rethink life, the universe, and everything else the way Xenogears did, it kept me entertained for about 15 hours.
The tale introduces us to Captain Hector and his spacefaring crew aboard the warship Rhoube hailing from the planet Thrasik Prime. Having just completed a grueling mission to improve their position in their intergalactic war against the planet Zinethia's armada, Hector and company are on their way to Starstation Five to both service the Rhoube and allow the crew some much needed shore leave. En route to the space station, the Rhoube is intercepted by Zinethian gunships who desire the Razael Particle and are convinced the Rhoube has it. Hector has no idea what this Razael Particle business is all about, so he uses the old bait and switch to evade the hostile Zinethians before promptly sending a report to Thrasik Prime's Central Command hoping that they'll sort it all out. While Hector and the Rhoube's crew are convalescing on Starstation Five, the space station comes under attack by Thrasik Prime battleships! It seems the government is none too happy that Hector is aware of the Razael Particle's existence and is willing to kill an entire space station populated by its own people to protect that secret. Not wanting to let innocent blood spill on his watch, Hector uses the Rhoube to defend Starstation Five and buy it time to warp to neutral territory. As righteously noble as his actions were, Hector and his crew are now sworn enemies of the government. Unable to go home without severe repercussions, the crew makes the difficult choice to go rogue and discover the truth for themselves.
What I've described is merely the tip of an intergalactic adventure involving parallel universes, alternate realities, time skips, identity crises, and more. This largely story-driven endeavor contains a lot of text from beginning to end, and thankfully the text boxes feature large fonts reminiscent of classic 16-bit RPGs to make reading easy on the eyes. One criticism of the story is that some plot aspects in the midgame portion adhere a little too closely to Xenogears' and Xenosaga's formulas and tropes. Paying respect to influential source material is a fine endeavor, but Sanctus Mortem's narrative is strongest when it subverts or reworks the Xeno recipes with its own unique flavors. I also felt that the endgame sequence arrived well before I was ready for the game to end. That being said, the ending wraps the adventure up nicely and its post-credits scene sets up for a sequel.
The graphics are a happy blend of original graphics and familiar RPG Maker assets, be they stock assets, assets from RPG Maker resource packs available for purchase, or assets from other independent sources. Most impressive are the myriad vehicle sprites and the cinematically animated cutscenes. The tile-based environments, particularly the more technologically advanced locations, are arranged, laid out, and designed in such a way that looks polished and cohesive. Unfortunately, the more rural/traditional fantasy environments do not look as slick and made it very clear that Sanctus Mortem is an RPG Maker game. I also wasn't completely sold on the cute, big-headed "chibi" character sprites. They evoke the traditional 16-bit JRPG look, but I'm not sure that was the right stylistic choice for a game with often-heavy gravitas. The vibe I get from Sanctus Mortem is that it wants to break the glass ceiling and transcend RPG Maker's limitations.
Music from multiple sources, including Kisareth's in-house composer, other indie composers, and RPG Maker-exclusive music packs, coalesce into a varied and dynamic soundtrack. Many composers have produced RPG Maker-exclusive music packs available for purchase, one of the most notable being Seiken Densetsu composer Hiroki Kikuta. During my time with Sanctus Mortem, I recognized a couple of appealing pieces from composer Murray Atkinson's music pack that were also used in the game Major/Minor. I like that Sanctus Mortem employs multiple styles of music including classical-inspired JRPG fare, modern rock, futuristic electronica, and more to keep the experience fresh and interesting. A few original vocal songs are played during the game, and I was especially fond of the heavy rock one I heard a couple of times in the game's early portions. Its marriage of crunchy distorted guitars and soulful female vocals is something I greatly enjoy in contemporary bands such as Graveshadow and Dream State. Each piece of music is perfectly selected for its place in the game and all of it is appealing to listen to, but a part of me would have liked to hear a 100% original soundtrack.
Anyone who's played a turn-based JRPG can smoothly and easily hop into Sanctus Mortem. In an effort to hearken to Xenogears, the battle system consists of a chaining mechanic where after you hit an opponent, an ATB bar pops up where you have a short time to press a randomized button to land a subsequent hit or two. I generally like these kinds of battle systems, as they keep combat fresh, but I would have liked to see several successful chained hits result in a spectacular special attack similar to Xenogears' deathblows. Deathblow-style special skills would have kept physical attacks relevant during the latter portions of the game when physical attacks started doing paltry damage compared to powerful Scion (magic) attacks.
In terms of exploration, towns and dungeons are smooth to traverse and are never overlong. Enemy encounters are visible in dungeons and once you've felled them, they don't respawn during your stay unless a plot element dictates it. I'm fine with one-and-done encounters, because it makes backtracking less dodgy. There is never a need to grind for EXP, because engaging in every encounter leaves you more than adequately leveled for boss battles. Sanctus Mortem does use random encounters when a traditional JRPG style overworld is introduced, but there is a meter that shows proximity to encounters, making them feel less random.
Saving is possible anywhere and any time during exploration and recovery save points usually pop up right when needed. That being said, be prepared to invest large chunks of time into Sanctus Mortem, because sequences featuring multiple battles interspersed with massive plot exposition are lengthy. Players should also be prepared for occasionally clunky menu navigation when buying and equipping new stuff. This is due to the RPG Maker software having limited menu interface options, so I can't fault Kisareth Studios for something beyond their control. The keyboard or a gamepad can be used for input and both work just fine. I had no issues with the default key or button mappings, but there are options to remap keys and buttons.
If you are looking for an entertaining, if somewhat brief, Xenogears and Xenosaga inspired JRPG, then check out Sanctus Mortem. This lovingly crafted and highly polished game made me want to enlist in Thrasik Prime's spacefaring program and join Captain Hector's crew aboard the Rhoube. On the other hand, it sometimes colored a little too neatly inside the lines and ended well before I was ready for it to end. I would love to see Kisareth Studios' future projects strive beyond the RPG Maker pale and incorporate more subversively unique content.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.