Review: Sacred Citadel

SacredCitadel

There is a saying that there are only seven basic plot structures for literature. The same premise can apply to video games. Games from twenty years ago may not have had mind blowing graphics (although at the time you could easily say that they did) when compared to modern visual feasts like BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, or Halo 4, but the actual gameplay of titles from twenty years ago hasn’t changed much from titles today.  Golden Axe was one of those amazing arcade titles that appeared a short time later on the Sega Genesis and brought a mix of wild fantasy, button mashing and a slight tactical know how of magic to home consoles.  Flash forward to now, when Southend Interactive and Deep Silver have released Sacred Citadel, which layers modern gaming conventions over classic beat ’em up mechanics to provide a mostly fun, roughly polished downloadable gem.

Sacred Citadel sends up to three players on a quest to stop the Ashen Empire’s creation, The Gatebreaker, from destroying the Seraphim’s Citadel.  This minimal story forms the basis for a side-scrolling, button-mashing, combo-building hack and slash adventure. While the game only allows up to three players at one time, there are actually four classes to choose from, including a Warrior, Shaman, Ranger and Mage. Each class has a basic attack and a heavy attack as well as a special ability that changes depending on how full the power meter is when deployed.  Blocking, dodging, bashing and jumping round out the host of abilities players can use to defeat the waves of enemies that attempt to impede progress.

While the different classes all feel the same when using standard attacks, various specials give bonuses to all players or can weaken enemies for much more deadly results. Chain attacks provide a multiplier for scores with the intention of giving players an incentive to keep the chain attack strong and earn a gold medal at the end of each level.  The problem I have with this mechanic is the fact that the battlefield can be a bit cluttered with enemies and players alike and at times I had a hard time keeping track of where my character was in relation to everything else. There are times when enemies and heroes look like they are on the same horizontal plane but attacks don’t seem to connect.  Combat feels like a chaotic balancing act of making sure the hero and enemies are in the same plane, mashing buttons to trigger combos and keeping a itchy finger ready to fire the block button. Yet at the same time many attacks don’t need the hero and enemy to line up. Dodging in the game is, by both hero and enemy alike, displayed with a broad, across-the-screen roll, so unless enemies have an unseen, calculated percent chance to dodge built into their coding, at times combat feels like a lot of swinging and missing.

Adding to that swing and miss frustration is level and enemy design.  Most of the time both design types work.  On the whole enemies are orc-like thugs or small boar creatures, but occasionally flying insects will swoop in out of reach of a normal attack.  Playing as the warrior through all of my sessions in the game proved to be a challenge with any flying creature because the seemingly precise need for lining up the horizontal plane for attack is magnified with flying enemies.  The other issue I have with enemy design is the fact that many times blocks can be performed which when timed right stun the enemy as they attack.  However this block stun move can only successfully be performed if you can tell whether or not the enemy is facing you.  Several of the enemy boar creatures have such an unusual visual style that it is hard to tell which end is the front and which is the back.  Switching between dodging the swarms of enemies and trying to block stun enemies when they attack can be a jumbled mess.  All of the enemies typically crowd on the hero and one enemy body blends in with another, and trying to dodge roll and then turn to block an attack at the precise moment an expected attack is coming more often than not ends with the hero being knocked over by what appeared to be the butt end of an enemy.

While the combat can feel muddled at times, add in environmental hazards and some levels feel like cheap imitations of the hardest stages from Mega Man or Super Mario Bros..  Trying to precisely jump between acid pits while attacking or avoiding enemies is an exercise in frustration.  Cap the frustration with a mini-boss battle that requires jumping over acid in order to even reach the boss, who can easily attack without taking damage from the environment. This particular battle gave my son and I a moment of bonding through a lesson in new curse words.

Even with all of the frustrations, Sacred Citadel still is a fun co-op experience. It is a bit unfortunate though that the game only allows three of the four characters to play at one time.  I managed to rope my older daughter into playing the last act of the game with my son only to hear complaints from my younger daughter that she too wanted to play. One other drawback with the co-op is the fact that there is no drop-in/drop-out for local play.  While I understand that there are some issues with how the game tracks XP and overall points for each player, the option for only adding players from the main menu is a design choice that feels dated.  While the game includes online play and is listed as supporting drop-in/drop-out functionality, I was unable to find any games to join and couldn’t find any ability to drop into the middle of a game. Hosting a game and waiting for an online partner is akin to watching paint dry.

One cool thing that the game does, is quickly bring new players up to level quickly. I played through the first act alone and then my son joined when I began the second act. During the first two stages of the second act, my son’s character leveled up four or five times per stage to quickly be at the same level where my warrior was. When my daughter joined us in the fourth act, her character leveled up 25+ times during the first stage of the fourth act. Features like this show that some thoughtful design balance went into the game. Plus, there is just something satisfying about seeing a character “ding” during combat, especially so many times in one stage.

Sacred Citadel delivers a competent brawler. The one downside to the game is the fact that the screen becomes very cluttered with enemies, heroes and all the flash that occurs with the various attacks that both sides perform. While the story isn’t anything deep or engaging, it draws on elements from the existing Sacred universe which has me curious to see more of that franchise. Local co-op is a blast, yet it is unfortunate that the online play is dead (on PSN at least) and the supposed drop-in/drop-out functionality is poorly defined. Harkening back to arcade classics like Golden Axe, Sacred Citadel passes the time with a mix of fun and frustrating gameplay.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Easy to learn button-mashing combo system
+ Local co-op is good fun

Cons:
– Very busy screens sometimes make it hard to determine enemy and hero location
– Confusing design for some enemies
– Lacking online activity and drop-in/drop-out functionality

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for PC and XBLA
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Southend Interactive
Release Date: 4/17/2013
Genre: Side-Scrolling Brawler
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-3 (local and online)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.