Simplification in the name of accessibility has become a perceptible trend in the games industry in the wake of the spiralling development costs that the HD era has wrought. Though a few exceptions exist – the transition from the original Mass Effect to its sequel springs to mind – most series that have attempted to cast off some of their more complex features in order to attract more players have almost universally found themselves diminished as a result. Sacred 3, the sequel to 2008 cult classic hack ‘n’ slash RPG Sacred 2, is no different in this regard, ditching the wealth of features that won its predecessor an army of fans in favour of a game that, at its worst, is little more than a button-mashing brawler.
Sacred 3 takes place in the fantasy world of Ancaria and sees the player assist the guardian Seraphim in a quest to stop Zane Ashen, the ruler of the Ashen Empire, from obtaining obligatory macguffin artefact the Heart of Ancaria and opening the gates of hell, unleashing untold destruction upon the world. Four classes are available at the outset – a reduction from Sacred 2’s seven – and fall into the usual hack ‘n’ slash tropes: burly warrior, stealthy archer, noble paladin and crafty rogue, although their titles are altogether more outlandish. In actual gameplay terms, the differences are fairly minor; mash primary attack repeatedly, roll away to avoid damage and employ area-of-effect attacks and special moves when things get a bit hectic.
Progress through each of the fifteen story levels soon falls into a predictable pattern: the player takes on hordes of enemies, with tougher variants and elites showing up as the mission and game progress, before coming to a section filled with traps which have to be carefully negotiated to avoid taking heavy damage. Though the terrain changes – the usual castle, jungle, frozen wasteland, dungeon and mine environments are all present and correct – the routine doesn’t. At some point the player will be forced to dodge falling objects before eventually tackling an over-sized boss monster and progressing to the next stage. The monotony is lifted slightly by a glut of side missions but even these come in only two varieties. Indeed, the repetitiveness and tedium extends right into the core gameplay.
Unfortunately, Sacred 3’s action RPG framework has been so stripped back that it’s almost completely lacking in depth. The developers’ decision to jettison any kind of loot system robs the game of the tangible sense of anticipation that comes with each downed enemy in the likes of Diablo or Torchlight and means that character progression relies on a deeply unsatisfactory upgrade system that delivers little more than a procession of interchangeable weapons. The same system governs special abilities and while the player can unlock a range of attacks bound to the controller’s shoulder buttons, these have little or no impact on playstyle, especially in comparison to the tactical permutations offered by the nuances of Diablo III’s skill runes. The net result is a game that requires little in the way of thought or effort to play and offers even less in the way or challenge or reward.
Sacred 3 is a marginally more enjoyable experience in multiplayer. Available in local and online flavours for two and four players respectively, co-operative play sees the enemy count increase significantly and, on higher difficulties, adds a new range of tactical considerations from reviving fallen enemies to deciding who is going to handle stun duties while comrades dish out damage. Some character classes do have complementary abilities that allow for special combinations although again, it’s only on Legend difficulty that there is really any impetus to do so. In truth, multiplayer is really the only way to realistically tackle the challenge of Legend for all but the most dedicated of players; with bosses able to kill in as few as two hits, the spike in difficulty is something of a shock to the system.
More jarring yet is Sacred 3’s presentation. The world of Ancaria inhabits the type of fantasy universe where female heroes consider a chainmail thong bikini practical adventuring wear and lingering in-game artwork pans highlighting breasts and buttocks serve only as a constant reminder. The writing is thick with unsubtle sexual innuendo which isn’t really clever or dirty enough to prompt much of a reaction beyond a weary sigh of resignation or a very occasional giggle at the sheer inanity of it all. In an age where sexual politics is a hot topic within the games press, Sacred would run the risk of raising the ire of a few crusading hacks were it not for the fact that it is likely to simply slip under the radar.
The trouble is that given its many flaws, it’s extremely difficult to recommend Sacred 3 in a world where Diablo III exists. In the full glory of its post-Reaper of Souls pomp, the seminal dungeon crawler has overcome almost all of its early teething problems to represent the apogee of the action RPG. Although Keen Games’ latest effort has tried to differentiate itself from Blizzard’s genre-defining juggernaut in tone and accessibility, it can’t help but suffer greatly in comparison. If you can endure the game’s sense of humour, there is fun to be had here with a few friends, for a while at least, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Sacred 3 is ultimately a derivative and tedious experience.