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Sacred 3

Sacred 3 / 6th of August 2014

The Sacred series of games is one that I have thus far avoided for one reason or another, but having actually taken the time to have a sneak peak at this latest instalment, I was immediately won over by its Diablo-esque, dungeon-crawler style. Personally, I rather like Diablo, and as a result, my attitude towards this particular game was immediately transformed from general indifference to an excited eagerness, especially as we are still several weeks away from the release of Reaper of Souls, and I rather needed something to pass the time with. So, how does it stack up against the undisputed king of the genre? Well, not quite as badly as you would probably think…

Following a lengthy development schedule, Ascaron Entertainment, developers of the first two Sacred games went into administration and were ultimately forced to close their doors once and for all in 2009. The bulk of the team’s assets were picked up by fellow German company, Kalypso Media, before Deep Silver acquired the rights to the Sacred series and handed development duties to another German team, this time, Frankfurt am Main based, Keen Games. Since opening as a successor to Neon Studios (developer of the shoot ‘em up, Tunnel B1), Keen have shown an eagerness to tackle any and all genres, though typically without much success, creating What’s Cooking?, the Atari published, Jamie Oliver branded, culinary catastrophe that garnered a rather poor 49% Metacritic score. In addition, the team are also responsible for the handheld versions of the G-Force videogame and even DDR: Disney Channel Edition for the PS2. You might well wonder why Deep Silver would hand development duties to over to these guys, I certainly did, but surprisingly, they just about pull it off, and, with any luck Sacred 3 could signal the beginning of a new, more successful chapter in this studio’s ongoing story.

In Sacred 3, players assume the role of one of five heroes brought together in an attempt to prevent the world from falling into darkness at the hands of the evil, Emperor Zane, as his Ashen Empire have taken possession of the ancient artefact, The Heart of Ancaria. With this, the despotic tyrant wishes to convert himself into a god so that he might rule over all, and unchallenged, he would do exactly that. This, of course, is where Keen’s ragtag group of heroes come in, battling their way from the city of Halios to the final battle in the lava filled depths of Ashgar, where the final challenge awaits. In total, there are just fifteen levels, which will not offer much in the way of challenge, and neither will they take very long to complete. Evidently, much like their compatriots, Blizzard, Keen have intended the game to be played through multiple times, though completing it on every difficulty will take, at most, around twenty hours.

The primary issues with Sacred become apparent rather early on, the presentation lacks the polish of Diablo 3, and whilst the narrator’s dialogue during the opening of the game almost veers close to being amusing, the chatter between the heroes and precedes the first level is nothing short of cringe worthy, and unfortunately, this is a negative trait that remains with it throughout. In fact, I found the dialogue so poor that I actually turned it off as it was negatively impacting on my experience. Likewise, whilst the game, has some redeeming graphical qualities, such as the lighting, the frame rate is nothing short of diabolical, now whilst it certainly does not become unplayable, dips in the frame rate are a common occurrence throughout the campaign. Likewise, and for reasons unknown to me, Keen seem to be rather desperate to show off the quality of the backdrops that they have created on each level, as the camera persistently sways across to a side on view of the proceedings to show off the world beyond the limited range afforded from the standard top down view. Though sadly, these are typically bland, and devoid of any of the graphical splendour that would perhaps have warranted such a move.

Overall though, Sacred isn’t an entirely hideous game, though character models certainly remain quite basic, the immediate foreground isn’t so shabby, though it could have invariably benefitted from running in a higher native resolution-or at the very least having a tad more anti-aliasing applied to sharpen things up a bit. Texture quality is somewhat run-of-the-mill, and likewise, the game’s fire, water and particle effects are also not particularly impressive either, but they certainly do the job. The lighting on the other hand, is actually of a high standard throughout the game, and is hands down, the most impressive feature of Sacred 3’s visuals. The biggest problem here though, is probably the simple fact that it lacks the refinement of Diablo’s art style, its visuals are not quite so stylised and much like the rest of the game, lack character. However, despite the erratic frame rate, the visual quality of Keen’s effort appears to be a huge leap forward for the series thus far and bodes well for the team being able to build upon their work here. The audio is also somewhat hit and miss, the voice acting is utterly dreadful-though deliberately so-yet the score, composed by Tilman Sillescu and Alexander Röder, is surprisingly good, at times bearing signs of influence from the brilliant Basil Poledouris, and his wonderful Conan soundtrack, to the work of Don Davis on The Matrix score.

The developers have billed Sacred 3 as an “arcade hack ‘n’ slash”, and as such, it would appear to lack the same level of depth as Diablo, yet the game attempts to compensate for this in several ways. Players will not be inundated with new gear as they play through the campaign, but instead earn new items, moves and upgrades for levelling up, with such rewards being staggered to add some longevity to the proceedings. This includes improvements to the basic dodge and block functions, as well as the execution move and even the more powerful attacks, which are known as combat arts. These allow players to equip two powerful moves of varying strength, the lightest of which can be utilised as much as four times in succession, whilst the heavy variant offers only half this. They are powered by energy garnered from killing foes and from smashing destructible objects scattered throughout the levels, so they will never be too far away, and offer players a variety of interesting moves, which, when combined with the standard attacks, along with the execution and dodge roll, leave players feeling empowered, and the result is a satisfying combat experience that, in my own personal opinion betters Blizzard’s offering. However, if Keen were to implement a crafting system into the game, mimicking Diablo 3’s jewel bonding system, this could potentially be enhanced even further.

Extra depth is to be found in the spirits that can be bonded to a character’s weapon of choice, these offer both positive and negative stat changes, leaving players to weigh up the pros and cons, and discover which best suits their particular play style. And, in addition to this, Sacred 3 rewards players for stringing together kills with the addition of a damage multiplier which can boost a player’s attack much as much as five times, which also adds to the satisfactory combat experience that Keen have crafted. Whilst it may not be perfect, there is certainly enough here to keep players interested, and it unquestionably ensures that Keen have something to work with if they are given the opportunity to create a sequel to this.

The world map that must be traversed, takes players from their starting point in the city of Helios, through a wide selection of main missions and optional side quests to the final confrontation with Emperor Zane. Optional levels typically take the form of arenas where players simply have to slaughter every enemy in order to earn some much needed gold, which can then be spent on upgrades to weapons, armour and their moves list. Such improvements are certainly helpful in battling through the game’s main story missions, all of which are concluded with a boss battle, and here is another aspect in which I think that Sacred excels. There may only be are few stand outs (the last boss is particularly disappointing), but these fights feel sufficiently different from the main bulk of the game to offer a refreshing change of pace. One particular highlight being an interesting clash with Karr Tel’s battleship, which forces the player to utilise exploding enemies to damage the boat whilst fending off the rest of the oncoming horde,  now, while it may not be original, it, along with the majority of these confrontations, perform their duties admirably enough. Though with a little more variety and a bit more polish, Keen could have created something of real quality, which in essence, is the real story of Sacred 3.

Upon completing a level, players are awarded scores, which gives the co-operative mode (for up to four players) something of a competitive edge, and likewise, players must try to snag as much loot as they can, leaving players scrambling at the end of a level to grab their share-though personally, I dislike this and feel that it detracts from the teamwork that players should be demonstrating. Though the game does offer a co-operative special move, there are almost no other aspects of the game that encourage players to work together (save for reviving one another), and I feel that this is another area of the game that needs to be addressed as the series moves forward.

With considerably slicker presentation, a little more graphical polish and additional character customisation options, we could have been looking at a very good title indeed, though as it stands it is certainly playable, but it still falls short of meeting the high standards set by Blizzard’s offering, and sadly that makes Sacred 3 a rather hard game to recommend. Still, it certainly shows a lot of promise, and that might just mean that Sacred 4 could have the potential to give Diablo a real run for its money, but for that, we shall simply have to wait and see.

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