Discussion Review: Sacred 3

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

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Tim: Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MS3TK) had a fantastic run making fun of cheesy, low production movies. The campier, the better. Being able to comment on some of the worst moments in cinema and make two hours hilarious and fun, is a feat that has not crossed over into any other medium. Playing “so bad it’s good” couch co-op video games is a pretty close second. Cheesy dialog and competent gameplay are two ingredients that allow for an impromptu MS3TK revival while playing Keen Games’ Sacred 3.

Sacred 3 is an arcade brawler. The game begins with a choice of four different class types that fit the stereotypical fantasy role-playing game: Safiri Warrior, Khukuri Archer, Seraphim Paladin, and Ancarian Lancer. Each story level begins with an animated cutscene that can be skipped. This is a good thing, as the story is forgettable and needlessly slows down getting to the action. The gist of the story boils down to this: One bad dude is trying to become a god and uses various other bad dudes to help him achieve his goals. Each level is set in a new location, progressing the story and introducing new locales and enemy types while offering a visual feast but not a whole lot more than that.

Selection of levels is presented via an overworld map which ties story missions and tiny combat arenas together by paths in the jungle. Missions are gated only by the fact that a recommended level of experience be met before attempting to tackle a level. The mini-missions offer up additional health or spirit potion or totem slots as well as various combat gadgets. The gadgets are useful toward the end of the game as they can help out in a pinch by providing additional damage against overpowered bosses.

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Combat modifiers in the form of Weapon Spirits are unlocked seemingly at random during play and can be equipped one at a time. Each spirit provides a different ability bonus in exchange for hampering another combat aspect. Finding the right Weapon Spirit for your play style and hero selected I’m guessing is meant to provide replay value. My problem with this design choice is two-fold. First off, any upgrades, be it weapons, spirits, or attack skills can only be changed out before a level is started. Secondly, the spirits are needlessly chatty and say some of the most inane things during combat. I can almost overlook the incessant chatting by simply turning the volume down and listening to a podcast instead, but it really boggles the mind that the game doesn’t allow you to switch out skills until a level is over. Combat isn’t great, but it is the only thing going for Sacred 3, so why force me to slog through an entire level just to be able to try out a new skill?

Sacred 3 supports local and online co-op simultaneously. Online play is integrated easily for drop-in, drop-out play. Games are public by default and throughout my 12 hours with the game I had at least ten different random folks join my game for a match or two and then drop out. Playing Sacred 3 on PC was a great experience until I realized that the only way I could communicate was via the Steam chat interface. The game offers voice chat, but not once did I ever hear another player speak up during a match and there is no way to bring up a chat window and type in anything. Granted the game doesn’t need much strategic communication in order to complete a level, but it would’ve been nice to not have to keep popping out of the game to chat.

One other thing I found interesting when playing in local co-op is how the game allows the second person to play under my profile. At the time I hadn’t played any other characters so the game let my nephew pick a different class and auto leveled it to be the same as my Lancer. This is cool for the sake of keeping things equal, but at the same time, my nephew wanted to be able to level a character up from scratch. I suppose the console version of the game does this a bit more gracefully, but on the PC version it feels more like a Steam profile limitation.

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Matt: The main crime Deep Silver commited with Sacred 3 is its title. This game may have the number ‘3’ in it, but it has very little in common with the previous two, numbered Sacred titles. Sacred 3 is like a narrowly more complex take on Gauntlet, which for longstanding series fans will feel like a huge step in the wrong direction from the wonderful Sacred 2, a serious action-RPG with loot drops, in-depth character building, side quests galore and a massive open world offering dozens of hours of gameplay, none of which this third game has. While I think it is only fair to judge each game as its own thing, naming a game as part of the core continuity of a known series sets a certain level of expectation for what the game will offer. So even though it was made clear throughout the development process that Sacred 3 was changing to an arcade hack ‘n’ slash format, it’s hard to not feel an initial shock of disappointment when play begins. Even as a huge fan of Sacred 2, I personally don’t mind the change, but for the masses Deep Silver would have avoided all controversy had the game simply been called Sacred Citadel 2, or something else outside of the main series lineage. Citadel may have been a side-scrolling brawler, but Sacred 3 has a lot of the same arcade characteristics from that game, only converted into a game played from a top-down isometric view. If memory serves, Citadel served as a prequel to this game to begin with, so making the connection to that game would have saved everyone involved a huge headache.

Title semantics aside, and despite all the hate it’s been getting (just check the Steam community hub for one angry user review after another), Sacred 3 can be an awesomely fun game if you give it enough time to develop. And if you can get over the pain of it not being a true successor to the Sacred lineage. And if you play primarily in co-op. (Yes, that’s a lot of ifs.) The problem starting out is that the first couple hours are very slow, as it takes a little while for the shallow gameplay to develop a reasonably compelling level of challenge and complexity, and for you to unlock enough upgrades for your chosen hero’s limited ability set to begin feeling like you have some sort of choice in customizing a play style. It doesn’t help that the storyline is an absolute train wreck, spewing forth some of the worst acting and dialogue writing I’ve come across in a video game. There’s an evil dude named Lord Zane who has captured a legendary artifact called the Heart of Ancaria, but through the constant barrage of sexual innuendo and completely out of place slang and attempts at humor, I couldn’t get myself to care about what else was going on or who was involved in said goings on. But as Tim says, cutscenes can be skipped, which is a godsend. Too bad there is no direct way to shut up those yappy Weapon Spirits during gameplay.

As an arcade hack ‘n’ slash, Sacred 3 has a really fun combat system. While the game begins as a standard, puddle-deep brawler, eventually some interesting mechanics develop that make it more than just an all-out button masher. Grabbing smaller enemies and rolling them into their friends is a nice touch. Bombs can similarly be used as exploding bowling balls (just watch out because the explosion can hit you for a big chunk of damage if you stand too close). A bash mechanic is used in some interesting ways as well. Some enemies have shields or use spells or special attacks that can be interrupted with a well-timed bash, which can either be used quickly for close range, or charged up for a ranged shockwave-like effect for hitting faraway spellcasters. Some levels also have trap contraptions like spinning blades and flash bang bombs that will stun your hero. The only way to shut these down is to hit them with a bash.

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Hacking and slashing solo is enjoyable for a short time, but loneliness quickly sets in after a level or so. That’s because the game is so heavily balanced in favor of cooperative play that the single player side suffers as a result. Everything from the hero class abilities to level and boss designs are clearly built for multiple players. Each hero is associated with a different elemental affinity — the Warrior is sun and fire, the Archer is ice, the Paladin is holy, and the Lancer is earth — and a lot of the special abilities seem like they have more impact when mixed and matched with other players. Each hero has a unique Battle Prayer, available only in co-op, which charges up during play and unleashes a special power. For example the Archer’s prayer forms a large circle of ice between he and another ally on the field of battle, temporarily freezing all enemies within the area of effect radius. The Lancer forms a life link with another player, reducing damage intake and increasing the healing strength of health orbs. These prayers add to the sense of strategic teamwork, because you likely won’t charge up more than two per stage, so using them at the right moment can provide a major boost. Too bad they can’t be used whatsoever during solo play.

Other elements like teammate revival, deployable totems that create area of effect bubbles of damage reduction and health/energy recovery, and this one mechanic that allows a player to restrain a larger enemy by repeatedly tapping a button to fill a meter while the other players gang up on the stunned foe, all have far greater purpose in multiplayer. Even the design of certain levels is skewed towards co-op, as some areas will require surviving waves of enemies while spinning a wheel switch six times or using energy reserves to charge an energy gate. These sections are more tedious than anything else when played alone, but inspire teamwork during co-op.

Sacred 3 does at least do a great job of integrating solo play and co-op, as you can freely join any public game in the lobby, and then quit whenever you like (unless the host player leaves first or boots you) while maintaining all experience gain. Other players can do the same, though you can change the settings to disallow other players from joining or limit potential participants to friends or invite only. The nice thing about the drop-in/drop-out system is the way the difficulty adjusts on the fly based on the number of players. If a new player joins, enemies grow stronger. If a player drops, the enemies weaken. And a text notification appears to announce such changes. I also like the sense of friendly competition co-op provides. Everyone is working together to save Ancaria, but the high score rewards at the end of each mission make trying to out kill your fellow heroes a fun personal side mission. The execution mechanic (sometimes enemies will be knocked to the ground and left temporarily vulnerable to a one-hit pounce kill) always seems to stir up a rivalry over who can hit the button first to score the easy kill and give their combo multiplier a boost.

Did you find the same imbalance between the solo and co-op design, Tim? And did you encounter any bugs or performance hits? I’ve had some choppy lag in a few online co-op matches when joining other players’ games, but whenever I’ve been the host the game has been smooth. I don’t know if this is a widespread issue or limited to my system, but whenever an achievement pops or I open the Steam app in-game, parts of the closed interface and the little achievement boxes appear permanently garbled in the top and bottom screen borders until the end of the stage. It doesn’t directly impact gameplay, but visually it’s a distraction from an otherwise lovely-looking game.

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Tim: I’m glad you mentioned the teammate revival mechanic, Matt, because it reminds me of a choice example of how flawed it is. I had started playing the last two levels by myself and had worked my way to the final encounter. The enemies up to the final boss drained my hero of all but one health potion. I had managed to work the boss down to the end of his life (for the first phase of his encounter) when suddenly a random player joined my game. Of course that increased the difficulty of the enemy, but the person who joined my game didn’t spawn in until just as the timer for teammate revival ended. This meant I couldn’t revive myself and all I could do was watch someone else beat the last stage of the final boss fight for me. To me, the teammate revival is a neat idea, but the implementation missed the mark. Getting into position to press the Y button to revive more often than not meant wading through enemies and accidentally picking up an enemy (the Y button is also used to grab things) just as the timer ran out instead of reviving the partner.

Sacred 3 is a pretty game. The vistas and locations presented during each level are a treat. I did notice some minor framerate dips during a few heavier moments of combat, but the fact that Keen put so much attention to detail into each environment and managed to keep the game running smoothly the majority of the time is an accomplishment. One little touch that I liked more than I probably should have was slicing open the sacks of grain and spice located in marketplace areas and watching them burst into billowing clouds of colored particles. Lighting also plays a part in making things look pretty, although I saw more weird glitches with shadows bending or outright being random blocks in the environment, which sort of took away from the pleasant aesthetic.

As far as other visual quirks, I ran into the same problem where any Steam notifications would pop and leave a blurry shadow in the lower right corner of the screen. I never joined anyone else’s game (save maybe one you hosted) and never encountered lag. However, I did notice a delay when the game announces someone has joined the game, but then have to wait a minute or so while that player actually appears in the game.

Having never played the first two Sacred games, I don’t have a good frame of reference as to how this game stacks up comparatively, but I do agree that this could have been named Sacred Citadel 2, because it does feels much more like a visual step up from that game, with similar combat and cheesy dialog to boot. Honestly, I was ready to write the game off after playing the first two levels solo, but after playing a through parts of the campaign with you, Matt, I quickly realized how much better the game was when playing with other people (even if they were non-communicative randoms). That’s not to say that the game is great by any means, but it isn’t something that necessarily deserves the ire that has been directed at it either. Sacred 3 isn’t a total shit bag of a game, but after playing Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition I do have a hard time even thinking about coming back to this.

Tim-TryIt

Pros:
+ Local co-op mixed with online
+ Drop-in/drop-out works well
+ Visually striking levels

Cons:
– Poor balancing for solo play
– Skills and equipment can only be picked before a level starts
– Cringe inducing dialog

Matt: I didn’t have any issues with the revive mechanic, beyond the fact that it seemed like with each death the countdown timer became shorter and shorter. Sometimes I would only have a couple seconds to reach an ally to help him or her up, which was virtually impossible unless I was already standing right there. I suppose the developers made it that way to keep players working together in close proximity, but sometimes it’s important to split up.

Further highlighting the game’s arcade mentality, Sacred 3 is around eight hours long the first time through, or even shorter if cutscenes are skipped and you manage to get by without having to replay a stage. Unfortunately, the game is also incredibly linear and completely devoid of alternate paths and side quests (no, the short wave survival and “kill all enemies in the area to unlock a giant treasure chest” mini-challenges don’t count as side quests). While multiple difficulty tiers–including an unlockable fourth “Deity” setting–and a hero level cap of 50 provide some form of extended replay value, most players probably won’t muster the desire to play the campaign multiple times, if they even make it all the way through once.

You know it’s funny you mention having a hard time returning to Sacred 3 after playing Diablo 3, Tim. It’s actually the complete opposite for me. Having spent so many hours in Sacred 3 and then starting up Diablo on my newly repaired PS4 (after having played quite a bit previously on PS3), to me Sacred‘s combat is way more fun, even if it doesn’t have the loot system and large world scale. Then again, the two games are at polar opposite ends of the action-RPG spectrum, so making direct comparisons really isn’t valid. Obviously my opinion differs, as I’ve spent more than 25 hours on clearing the campaign multiple times over at the higher difficulties, leveling my main Seraphim Paladin up to the 50 cap, and dabbling with the other three classes for at least a few stages each.

Even with its flaws, something about this game has sunk its hooks into me. I know in my brain that it’s merely an average-at-best experience, but in my heart Sacred 3 has become a favorite guilty pleasure that I enjoy jumping into every now and then for a quick co-op romp. If you can look deeper than the title and know exactly what you’re getting in for (i.e., an arcadey hack ‘n’ slash rather than a hardcore action-RPG like its predecessors), this game may just sneak up and surprise you.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Cooperative hacking and slashing actually can be a lot of fun
+ Combat is more than shallow button mashing thanks to distinct hero styles and some clever mechanics
+ Drop-in/drop-out integration between single player and co-op
+ Interesting variety of enemies and bosses
+ Sharp, colorful visuals

Cons:
– Co-op design makes solo play feel lonely and unbalanced
– Putrid story and voice acting (thank God cutscenes are skippable!)
– Those damn Weapon Spirits never shut the hell up
– Hyper-linear levels offer no room for exploration
– Lazily designed side mission stages

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Keen Games
Release Date: 8/5/2014
Genre: Arcade Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Steam review codes provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!