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You are on top of the world. That’s not always a good thing., February 5, 2023
Earth is inhabitable. Its ecosystem is destroyed, and high levels of radiation are everywhere. Roughly 1000 humans have been selected to live in an underground bunker until conditions on Earth return to safer levels. The bunk is self-sufficient and designed with infrastructure to sustain a scaled-down version of society. It is thought that it will be safe to leave in about fifty years.
However, this sanctuary requires a particular kind of decision maker, someone to call the shots when something major happens. A neutral party with no personal stakes or biases. A person (you) has been launched into space to live on an unnamed space station with the sole purpose of keeping tabs on the bunker. The surviving humans consult you from time to time for serious matters when they need you to make a decision.
Otherwise, you spend your time in suspended hibernation until you are summoned once more.
Ultimately, the gameplay revolves around one major decision that ends your mission and the game: opening the bunker to allow the humans to explore and populate Earth again. It also marks your death. And no, that’s not a spoiler. The PC knows right from the start that this is going to be a one-way trip. You continue until you expire (this is one of those rare games I’ve encountered where hibernation tech does not preserve your body from aging) or open the bunker door on Earth.
The Last Sanctuary has high replay value and involves strategy. Most of the gameplay involves trade-off decisions where choices are made to preserve one system or resource over another. For every scenario there are two possible options. You may encounter the same scenario more than once, but the repeated success of either decision is variable. It forces you must keep track of decisions that are high-risk and high reward. If your bunker is crumbling away, play it safe. But even that is uncertain.
A stats page with colourful visual indicators is provided so you can keep track of the population size, bunker conditions, supply stocks, data stores, and communications levels. The most important stat is the one measuring radiation levels on Earth. It takes years for it to go down to zero. Your sleep cycles depend on the inhabitants. They may wake you up after six years, sometimes just after one.
When you open the bunker door, (Spoiler - click to show) the game gives you roughly four assessments. Earth’s habitability, genetic diversity based on surviving population size, the level of tech and data remaining, and the long-term state of humanity’s new civilization. This can range anywhere from thriving to dying thanks to radiation sickening within hours. Experimenting with different outcomes will keep you busy. You get a final score that is stored in the game’s high-score page. My highest was (Spoiler - click to show) 815.
My only complaint is with the achievements. When you open The Last Sanctuary, it pulls up a menu page where you input commands, such as “play” to start a new game. This menu includes an achievements page that keeps track of secret endings, how many encounters you have found (including special encounters), and how many general endings you have completed. The achievement reads as (Spoiler - click to show) Locked: (14/22) Endings, which means that there are 22 endings total and I only found 14.
I have no idea on how to get the remaining endings and seems to have reached a wall. My guess is that (Spoiler - click to show) some are about failing in certain ways, but it is actually quite difficult to fail before you open the door because you die of old age before your decisions wipe out the inhabitants. Speaking of which, it is impossible to lose every inhabitant. There has got to be an achievement somewhere for that. Nor can you run out of food or have total failure of the radiation shielding. The reason why I am going the destructive route is because I have exhausted the other (more optimal) outcomes in the game. These are the only unknowns left to explore, but I cannot seem to play the game long enough to see them through. I feel like the game is too tightly constrained in this regard. Plus, there is a secret console achievement that I want to reach.
The premise of The Last Sanctuary reminds me of another Twine game called Seedship. Both put the player in charge of the remainder of humanity after Earth becomes inhabitable and involve making tough decisions. If you like The Last Sanctuary, please try Seedship, and vice versa. They have a lot in common while still being distinct high-quality pieces of sci-fi interactive fiction. Let’s take a closer look just for fun.
Seedship is about an AI of a ship carrying 1000 frozen colonists with the task of finding a new planet for a human colony. Just as the PC in The Last Sanctuary sleeps until woken by the bunker dwellers, the AI snoozes until the ship either reaches the target star system or is awakened mid journey by an unexpected event. You also make judgement calls that often make you sacrifice one thing for another (ex. Do I allow the sleep chambers to overheat or the construction system?).
The player manages stats that include scanners, ship systems, and data storage. Everything leads up to one all-encompassing decision that determines the outcome of humanity: landing the ship on your chosen planet. Like The Last Sanctuary, you get a score on your performance. The AI has cultural and scientific databases that colonists use to retain levels of technology and a heritage to Earth. If these are incomplete the colonies are less likely to build a flourishing colony. This value on preserving human memory is also shared with The Last Sanctuary.
If you have played Seedship, you are probably nodding your head. But this review is about The Last Sanctuary, and it ultimately offers a separate experience. Seedship, being in third person, makes you feel more like an observer. Meanwhile, The Last Sanctuary captures a stronger sense of self. You feel like the PC, and not just because the story is told in second person.
Every time the PC wakes, we get a glimpse into their thoughts, and the writing captures the feel of being a lone person on a space station trying to guide the remainders of humanity on Earth. We start to see what it is like to go from an Earthling to a permanent human satellite with only one purpose. That sort of atmosphere shapes and defines the game.
The Last Sanctuary also allows the player to see the effects of their everyday decisions on the people whom they are responsible for. Frozen colonists* have little opportunities to throw temper tantrums at your choices. But the humans in the bunker have no qualms about talking back, (Spoiler - click to show) starting cults, breaking things out of spite, and (Spoiler - click to show) demanding to be let out of the bunker at their own peril. If you think about it, the only reason you wake up is when they want you to. You definitely get that human dynamic.
*Actually, you’d be surprised at how frozen colonists can mess with an AI, but you’ll just have to play the game.
The game goes creative with its visual design. The screen is just one big animated starfield that makes you feel like you are cruising through space. The settings allow you to control the speed of the stars (which was more fun than one would expect) including stopping them entirely which was smart since the starfield gets distracting. I would just stare at it and forget what I was doing.
Smack in the center of the screen is an illustration of an IBM computer. Appropriately, the game's text appears on the computer's screen, and the font and text colour also contribute to the “digital” appearance. There are even a few computer buttons you can toggle, although they don't seem to have any particular purpose aside from turning the screen off and on. Still, points for interactivity.
Most importantly, the use of computer visuals highlights the fact the protagonist is doing the same thing as you: sitting at a computer screen while weeding through inhabitants’ requests. The coolest part of the visuals was how the game makes an illustration of your civilization when it presents your score.
The Last Sanctuary is a fun but introspective game where you, and only you, are responsible for providing some semblance of leadership to people you will never meet face-to-face. You call the shots for humanity’s survival and yet you are confined to a space station with no hope of returning to Earth once it has been restored.
But you can look at it both ways. You have the chance to put humanity back on the right track, and these themes were compelling to explore. In essence, it is a strong story with irresistible gameplay.