As with many other games forged in the tempestuous and volatile bowels of the current games industry, Sacred 3’s path to existence is a fractured one. Previous series developer Ascaron went into administration after the release of Sacred 2, the license eventually being acquired by Deep Silver and passed to new developers Keen Games to craft this markedly different sequel.
We return once again to the land of Ancaria, where the unquestionably evil Lord Zane has allied with dark forces to raise his Ashen Empire, and your band of unlikely heroes must fight back and stop him claiming the fabled Heart of Ancaria. So far, so fantasy. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t really matter as it is coated in a thick veneer of parody and off-the-cuff humour, which appears to be the calling card of this series. Where the last game was, for all its micky-taking, a pretty straight Diablo clone with all the freedom that entails, things here have taken a turn for the simple. What has resulted is an experience more akin to its immediate predecessor, last year’s cut down spin-off Sacred Citadel. Gone is the spacious open world from its direct past incarnation, pared down here to a single map screen from which the main levels and smaller challenge maps can be selected. There are no shops to visit, or NPCs to discover; the levels themselves are just corridor after corridor of monsters to clear, with next to no opportunity or reward for exploration. Although they can be attempted in any order, you’re more or less directed to play them sequentially, or suffer belittling defeat at the hands of demons many ranks higher.
In fact any semblance of customisation or freedom of progression is largely absent. You select your character from one of four common archetypes (five, if you fork out for the frankly money-grubbing day one DLC): the obligatory heavy with an axe, an archer, a scantily clad pike maiden and a heavenly seraphim. Apart from this initial selection, you can do nothing to customise their name or appearance, and they all play in much the same way. There’s no collectable loot to speak of, just items which get unlocked at certain levels, which can be linearly upgraded by spending some cash. This is undoubtedly the biggest subtraction from the expected formula, and having to contend with only a smattering of weapons and one solitary suit of armour definitely feels cheap. Both are upgraded in the same lacklustre, limited way. The combat system has a couple of configurable special attacks that in the later levels you can pretty much spam until the end of days, but aside from these the most strategy you’ll find is knowing when to roll out of the way of the larger enemies’ obviously telegraphed big attacks. Some enemies and traps require a shield-break move to be performed before they can be damaged, but this is always available and requires little skill. The only thing about your loadout that boasts some variety is your choice of ‘weapon spirit’, ethereal former warriors who find a home in your blade, providing certain buffs, debuffs, and their own unique brand of inane chatter, the constant repetition of which may cause you to forgo a favourable stat boost just to get them to shut up for a while.
Elsewhere on the audio-visual front the graphics are pretty decent, with the camera often swinging to pan across pleasing but nonetheless inaccessible vistas. The screen can occasionally get a little busy with waves of enemies but player locations are clearly indicated. The soundtrack comprises the usual stirring orchestral swells one expects from the fantasy genre, and is competently executed. The voice acting, on the other hand, will make you want to drop the controller that you may better employ both your hands for maximum cringing. Although the series has possessed a healthy dose of irreverence from the get-go, they’ve cranked the sarcastic observations and awful puns into overdrive on this latest iteration. Ninety percent of the dialogue falls completely flat, and it’s all the worse when you can tell they were really trying for the gags. The cut scenes lurch from serious exposition to tired hokey attempts at dry wit, and while the voice actors clearly threw themselves into the characters, the writing’s just too groansome to even be intentionally bad, in a MST3K way. One guy constantly mixes up similarly pronounced words in an attempt to sound clever! Another guy is a complete misogynist who exclaims ‘sexypants!’ after every combo! It’s not exactly Monkey Island grade material, to say the least, which you often wish they would.
Multiplayer is transparent and functional, so even if you start questing on your lonesome it’s easy for friends and strangers alike to land by your side in-game, up to a maximum party of four. One niggle about this setup is that as every game has the potential to be multiplayer, pressing start never pauses the action, even if it’s just you and you’ve set your party to private. In terms of gameplay four heads are definitely better than one, but there’s never any genuine co-operation beyond an extra hand clearing out the plethora of low-powered grunts. The number of enemies isn’t affected and there are no proper co-op attacks to speak of, other than occasionally being able to hold a larger beast down while your compatriots wade in to do some damage.
Sadly on the whole Sacred 3 does a lot more wrong than it does right. The spirit of a good game is in here somewhere, amid all the lumpen, hackneyed nonsense. The resounding consensus from fans of the series seems to be that this latest installment is a pale shadow of the previous games at best and an outright betrayal at worst, more River City Ransom than RPG. From this newcomer’s perspective, Sacred 3 is a cheesy, flawed B-movie of an arcade brawler that you might get a few evenings’ entertainment out of before consigning it to the very depths of your games pile, never to infirm. I mean, return.