The problem with streamlining is that it’s difficult to hit the sweet spot where less is more and to not overshoot to the point at which less is just… less. Sacred 3 is a lean, fast-paced and visually splendid action-RPG that has made a few too many cut backs when compared to the likes of genre stalwarts Diablo, Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest. This has involved boiling down the genre’s core mechanics, further refining the series’ own experimentation with traditional RPG leanings and stripping back the explorative backbone of its forbears. Unfortunately, Keen Games has taken this to the point that Sacred 3 is now more style than substance.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t manage to be fun. With a couple of friends, this hack- and-slash action RPG can be a hoot and that’s particularly true if you have a buddy alongside you for some local co-op play. However, without the distraction of friendly rivalry that the game’s scoring system promotes, the lack of variety across level structure and mission objectives is all too readily apparent. It’s a shame, particularly because it appears less due to a lack of ability on Keen and Deep Silver’s part, and more due to a deliberate lack of ambition.
Take character design, for example. While a choice of six-plus character classes has long been the accepted standard for games such as Sacred 3, here you only get four: the divine Seraphim, hulking Safiri, lithe Ancarian and bow-wielding Khukuhru. There’s is a fifth, the elemental Malakhim, but he’s reserved as a pre-order bonus and forms part of an ominous DLC-shaped shadow that looms large over proceedings (see Money Talks).
Standard physical attacks are confined to a single button press and constant mashing results in a pre-defined three-hit combo; there’s also a bash button to break armoured foes’ defences and disarm traps. Each character has access to Combat Arts, light and heavy energy-based attacks that typically fall into the direct damage or area of effect categories and can be bolstered by way of a short and unimaginative upgrade path, but a number of hero abilities have comparable analogues in other characters’ skill sets.
There’s no discernible difference in a character’s underlying base stats, either. As such, there’s no incentive to take on roles within your group as you wade among the impressive number of enemies that crowd thescreen. This is particularly noticeable when playing solo, as you’ll be swarmed by the same minions, employ the same tactics to deal death, and watch them explode in the same pleasing mess of numbers, Critical Hit messages and pretty lighting effects.
However, it’s clear that this is not a game designed to be played solo. From the number of abilities and skills that are geared towards buffing your party to the manner in which all of the nPCs and voice-over tracks refer to you as a plural, this was clearly envisaged as a party game. It also points to the fact that, at one time, Sacred 3 was expected to feature AI companions to fill any gaps in the four-player line-up but that appears to have been deemed too ambitious and has since fallen by the wayside. Played in the spirit of a competitive co-op game and competing for score rather than peering too closely at the paper-thin narrative, its limited scope works.
It’s not entirely mindless, though, as picking from the limited number of skills and weaponsand imbuing them with various status effects at least offers the appearance of choice and the animations for different attacks remain identifiable among the hubbub of dozens of on-screen enemies. It’s here, in the thick of it, that Sacred 3 is at its strongest and most entertaining but it can eventually wear across the 15-hour duration and by the time you reach the end you rather feel like you’re dialing it in.
Enemies’ attacks are so clearly telegraphed that even a final boss can be defeated using a variation of attack, dodge, Combat Art, repeat. This lack of challenge becomes particularly apparent if you return to earlier optional levels later on, where you are massively overpowered and the rewards are slim pickings. Each area of the map remains constant and is broken up into discreet levels, accessed through a lobby area with main quests coming in at around 15-20 minutes and side quests are compressed into wave-based arenas or “kill everything” jaunts from point A to B. These introduce their own idyllic settings in which to purge bad guys but by removing the majority of loot drops from enemies and treasure chests and instead attaching them to the completion of story levels, you’re robbed of one of the genre’s key appeals: loot collection.
Lacklustre and repetitive objectives aside, Sacred 3 doesn’t really do too much wrong. Its stable frame-rate, lack of bugs and overall accessibility make it a painless experience and what it does, it does with gusto. It’s fun, it just could have been so much more and in attempting to appeal to as broad a crowd as possible across PC and console, it has made the familiar mistake of oversimplifying to the detriment of challenge and reward.
Considering the scope of its predecessors and how far the genre has come since the series’ inception a decade ago, that’s as unnecessary as it is unwelcome. Still, there’s potential here and approached with the right mindset and a group of friends there’s some fun to be had. Streamline your expectations, in other words, and you’re more likely to view Sacred 3 as slick rather than shallow.