Reviews

Sacred 3 Review – Sacred, But Not Sacred

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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 and PS3
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Keen Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: 2-4 player co-op

Going into Sacred 3 I was somewhat nervous, having largely missed out on both of the first two games, playing just a few hours of each. I read through both game’s Wikipedia entries, watched numerous walkthroughs, flicked through fan forums and more, all in the name of at least becoming semi-familiar with the series before providing a newcomers viewpoint of this latest iteration. As it turns out my research was pointless, because with a new developer at the helm Sacred 3 ranks only as a distant cousin to the first two games.

Gone are the vast worlds, loot, mounts, myriad of side-quests and relatively deep levelling mechanics of both Sacred and Sacred 2, and in their place lies a very straightforward top-down hack ‘n’ slash brawler with a focus on co-op. One could argue that given how little it resembles its own predecessors Sacred 3 should not sport a numeral in its name which thereby presents the game as a direct sequel, when the reality is that it’s more like a spin-off of the franchise. Fans of the series will be left baffled and angry by time the credits roll, while for everyone else it’s an instantly forgettable game.

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In Sacred 3 a man named Lord Zane has brought forth the deadly Ashen Empire, his ultimate goal being to seize the Heart of Ancaria, a McGuffin that goes mostly unexplained. It’s up to a small band of heroes to save the day by thrashing Zane’s lieutenants, duffing up Zane himself and recovering the Heart.

The overarching narrative is as simple as it comes, then, but what keeps the entire thing entertaining is the quirky and sometimes downright daft humour exhibited not just the heroes, but also the villains of the piece, such as one baddie who constantly uses the wrong words, leading to several brilliant lines  At first the humour is grating, but the game’s own desire to avoid taking itself seriously slowly turns into a strange charm. Still, it’s rather hit and miss comedy. Sometimes characters do come out with genuinely chuckle-worthy lines, their every word seemingly dripping with sarcasm and irreverence. However, because they’re all sarcastic and quirky the heroes begin to blur together, lacking anything but superficial traits to set them apart from each other.

To put it bluntly don’t go into Sacred 3 expecting good dialogue, sharp writing or interesting characters. Not a single person is actually capable of uttering a complete sentence without attempting to inject some cutting remark or rude joke, and thus the story never manages to get further than stopping the bad guy because reasons.  The game gets by by waving its hands and yelling loudly, “Wow, look how wacky I am, friends!” It’s trying too hard, but through that manages to elicit feelings of mild affection. It’s almost like a hyper little kid – often annoying, but just cute enough that you want to muss up its hair and call it champ just for trying.

To kick off the game you’ll need to pick one of the available heroes to venture forth as. Whereas Sacred 2 boasted seven distinct classes of character, Sacred 3 has just four; Vajra the Khukuri Archer, Claire the Seraphim Paladin, Alithea the Ancarian Lancer and Marak the Safiri Warrior. There is a fifth hero, but he’s hiding in the shadowy realms of pre-order bonuses and therefore has no place in this review.

Regardless of the hero you choose you’ll have at your disposal three basic moves with which to pummel things. Your standard attack is a three hit combo, while tapping X releases a defense shattering strike designed to…uh, shatter defenses and interrupt enemies. Speaking of going on the defensive  B can be used to either dodge or block, depending on which you choose to assign. Considering the game’s love of large mobs of enemies, though, dodge is easily the more favorable option as it allows for some mobility, whereas blocking tends to get you swamped quickly.

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The two shoulder buttons are assigned to your hero’s two unique powers, with the left button unleashing a light attack and the right a heavier, more powerful move. By default, for example, the big warrior has a fiery swipe that can set alight a few enemies at a time, while his more powerful move is a ground-pound that’s good for dealing with large numbers of foes. Both of these attacks can be upgraded or changed throughout the course of the game, allowing for a minimal amount of playstyle customisation.

And that’s it. No, really. This limited list of abilities and moves are the only things at your disposal, and using them you’ll massacre your way through a seemingly infinite number of enemies. Foes do come in different shapes and sizes along the way, but underneath their skin there’s really just three basic types to contend with that each have slightly different abilities. During combat large indicators will pop up to tell you when they need to be interrupted or have their defenses broken with a tap of X, while occasionally the chance to unleash an execution move will pop up, but there’s no depth to the combat, no combos to learn or strategies to figure out. No matter what attacks the enemy have or numbers they come in, all you need to do is hammer away at the regular three-hit combo and chuck in special moves whenever it seems like they’ll be most effective. The closest thing to depth the combat system achieves is allowing you to pick up a bomb and roll it into the enemy. There’s not much reason to consider replaying the story with another character, either, as the differences between heroes is tiny. Sure, one might use a bow and the other and axe, but they all  follow the basic three-hit combo followed by special move recipe for success.

Killing a lot of stuff is all you ever do. The main story missions involve running from one end of the level to the other, murdering all that comes near until you face off against a boss, all of which are solid opponents but pretty standard fare. Things will get mixed up by having to dodge falling artillery, a mechanic that gets used way too much, or by making you spin a giant wheel six times while fighting off attackers, another mechanic that gets used way too much. Outside of the main storyline missions there’s special arenas where you fight five waves of enemies, and another mission type in which you run from one end of the map to the other, killing everything that…wait, that sounds familiar. Indeed, they’re essentially the same as the story missions, except they last a few minutes at most. In total there’s fifteen story stages to contend with, thus my first playthrough, including all side-missions, totalled in at around 8-9 hours. For the Sacred series that’s a pitiful number, but for the repetitive gameplay it’s abour right.

The thing is, killing lots of stuff is fun, at least for a while. Hacking through legions of foes has a certain brutal appeal, and it’s easy to sink into a repetitive state of mind, hammering away mindlessly at the buttons and enjoying the spectacle of it all. Some days gamers just want to pick up something simple and brutalize an army of goons. But after even just 30-minutes the appeal fades, and the game begins to become tiring, the simple allure of violence no longer enough to sustain interest. Playing through the game in a series of short sessions is definitely the way to handle it.

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But let’s face it, lots of hack and slash games keep players hooked for hours on end despite having repetitive gameplay. Titles such as Torchlight and Diablo III are time-sinks, sucking away your precious life hours. That’s because they both have one thing in common: loot, and lots of it. Surprisingly, though, for a top-down arcade slasher and ex-RPG Sacred 3 doesn’t have much of a loot system to keep you plowing through the levels. On your journey you’ll acquire a few different weapons to equip, and through gold you can upgrade them with some small stat boosts, but there’s no hunting the corpses of the dead for sweet gear, and treasure chests just throw out gold with which to buff your character a little. Worse, the three or four weapons you do unlock only feature slightly different stats, barely differing enough to warrant the bother of switching. The more interesting purchasable upgrades don’t arrive until late into the game. Your armor can also be upgraded along the way, but it’s handled automatically when you reach certain levels.

Your two special moves can be swapped out for a couple of other options, or upgraded using gold you’ve acquired. To upgrade a weapon or move you must first reach a certain level, but the gaps between them are so large that at most you’ll only ever have one or two things to upgrade and more than enough gold at your disposal. You’ll upgrade an axe at level 13, only to find you can’t do anything with it again until you hit level 20.  Because of this and the fact that upgrades paths are linear there’s never much sense of progression, and zero true character customisation. With everything so controlled every upgrade comes at what is essentially a pre-determined time on the adventure. You’ll get a new weapon exactly when the game wants you to, and won’t be able to upgrade it until it says you can.  The biggest difference you can make is to swap out your special moves, but even then the warrior you have at the end of the game is going to feel almost identical to the one you began with.

Weapon Spirits stand as one of the game’s few interesting ideas, but once again questionable design choices have robbed them of all potential. While their existence is never actually explained within the game Weapon Spirits are presumably exactly what their name implies, spirits that settle themselves into your chosen tool of pain. Regardless of how they actually work the point is that by equipping one your entire group gains a small bonus, one that’s usually counteracted by a negative as well. Sadly Weapon Spirits offer up dull increases in your stats, with only a few providing something a touch more interesting, such as the possibility of arcing electricity that can damage several foes at once.

But their true function is to provide even more snarky comments. Each Spirit has a personality and isn’t afraid to voice its views throughout the levels. There’s one, for example, who continuously tries to chat up the woman who serves as your guide by spouting cheesy pick-up lines. Another is a cowardly dragon. Talking weapons is a neat idea on paper, but none of the Spirits have much to say and before long you’ll have heard it all. Spend too much time with one and you’ll begin to wish for the option to turn their voices off.

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Weapon Spirits and the weapons themselves can also level up through a confusing Shard system. Enemies will occasionally drop Shards which once collected will cause the appropriate weapon or Weapon Spirit to level up. Sounds okay, right? Well, no. Firstly there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when Shards show up. During my first playthrough four of the things turned up within just a few levels, and then I didn’t see any until the closing stages of the story. On my second playthrough I only found a couple throughout the course of the entire story. The other problem is that Shards have a nasty habit of levelling up Spirits or weapons that you’re not actually using. While this does somewhat encourage you to switch up your loadout it’s frustrating to consistently have your favored weapon ignored while one you never use gets buffed up.

At any given time moving the right thumbstick will bring up a radial menu which houses the various items you can use. Health potions can be guzzled to obvious effect, and Energy Totems refill the energy bars dictating the use of your two special moves. There’s also co-op variations of those two items which produce auras for other players to enjoy, along with a protection aura and a deployable sentry which is frankly useless. Bafflingly only one of these items can be assigned to the D-pad at any given time, and the radial menu can be fiddly when trying to access something quickly during a fight.

At least the game looks nice and runs well. The levels you’re funnelled through are completely linear in design, but there’s plenty of cool environments to admire as you hack through hordes of enemies. Even when playing solo there’s plenty going on to keep your attention, and when you throw another three players into the mix it becomes a visually lovely game. Throughout my time with it I never encountered a single bug or major technical problem, making it one of the polished games I’ve played in a while.

Undoubtedly the game is a blast in co-op, which is where the focus lies. There’s just a few co-operative moves to use, but with four players decimating the enemy at once there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. Buffs found within the upgradeable skills also influence your team, and naturally you can revive a fallen comrade.  Yet it’s important to understand that co-op is not fun because of anything the game does, but because playing with friends is almost always enjoyable. When you get down to it with no reliance on actual teamwork each player is using the same flat mechanics that they would be during solo play. The level structures are still incredibly boring, the combat mechanics are still basic and the lack of customisation is still there. It’s the presence of friends that amplifies the fun, something which is true of pretty much any game that allows buddies to jump in. A truly good co-op game is fun because your friends are there, and because the mechanics emphasis teamwork, providing gameplay that makes playing together even more enjoyable. Sacred 3 isn’t a good co-op game, it’s merely an okay one that believes the success to co-op is the mere act of having co-op.

The simple truth is that Sacred 3 isn’t a bad game, it’s just not a very exciting one, either. It’s a mediocre hack and slash game that is utterly dwarfed by its contemporaries. The combat is fast and fluid, but also incredibly simplistic. The story is weak with poor dialogue, though the quirky humour helps. Mission design is boring, there’s no loot and characters offer little in the way of customisation. All this leaves us with a game that’s mildly amusing in short stints, but that would have made for more sense as a digital download with a far lower price-tag, rather than a physical release with an asking price of £40. If you can snag it cheap and get some friends involved, go for it, if not wait for a substantial price drop.

The Good:
+ Responsive controls.
+ Hacking through legions of enemies.
+ Quirky and weird humour.

The Bad:
- Incredibly repetitive.
- No loot.
- Basic story.
- Questionable design choices.

The Verdict: 2.5/3 – Okay, bordering on good.
A straightforward, unambitious hack ‘n’ slash with little resemblance to its own predecessors. It has its moments, but not enough of them.

 

 

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