It takes a lot to make an Action RPG stand out these days - does this one have wings?
Ah, an isometric-viewpoint action RPG where you click the left mouse button a lot. Never seen one of them before. No, wait, we've seen thousands of them before. Since Blizzard's Diablo released in (checks calendar) 1996 nearly every developer ever has tried their hand at recapturing the mouse-breaking magic of that stunningly addictive game - an RPG focused entirely on the art of murdering things as quickly and quantitatively as possible. The Sacred series has never really challenged Diablo, Torchlight or any of the other popular ARPGs for the top of the genre, but they've had a decent audience despite strictly "okay" reviews. With new developer Keen Games on hand let's see if Sacred 3 can turn the series' fortunes around.
Normally this is the point in the review where I'd give a general story synopsis for the game, and as a fantasy RPG with two games' worth of universe to draw from you'd expect Sacred 3 to have a deep and potentially interesting plot. You'd be wrong. It is so utterly forgettable I already have. There is a story, involving a dark lord called Zane seeking a powerful artifact called the Triforce Heart of Ancaria and you being part of a group of heroes sent to stop his invasion, but it's told so badly and so half-heartedly I stopped giving a toss ten seconds into the first cutscene. The acting is atrocious, the writing worse, and to cap it all off it's trying to be Magicka i.e. funny, but usually not. All it means is Keen Games haven't taken their story seriously so you shouldn't either. Still, there are a couple of funny lines, however none are in the cutscenes. Skip them all.
Fights can be epic, but better with others
This isn't really a problem - Torchlight 2 had a similarly poor storyline and I had lots of fun with that. It's not what they're really about, which is killing a lot of monsters in a bunch of entertaining ways. There are four characters: Marak the two-handed warrior brute, Vajra the archer, Claire the angel-winged "swords & magic" paladin, and Alithea the barely-clothed long-reaching lancer. In all my various matches, I only ever met people playing Claire (including myself) so she's clearly the winner. I can't imagine anyone playing the archer, especially as the maps are pretty zoomed-in and clearly intended for meleeing. You then play through about 15-odd main stages and 12-20 quicker bonus stages and clear them of enemies, on your own or with up to three other players.
Let's get the main shock out of the way: Keen Games really really wants you to play co-op. The whole thing's online, for a start. When you start the game you have to join a lobby, there's no offline mode, you can't pause the game or save mid-mission (there are checkpoints, but if you exit you have to start again), and unless you set your preference to "Friends" or "Invite Only" then strangers can join your game at any time. It's fairly seamless and works well, and the game is totally fine to play in single-player, but Sacred 3 is clearly aimed at the co-op crowd. If not being able to pause or stop during missions (which last around 30-45 minutes) is a turn-off for you then please don't get this game. I got used to it, but it was a pain at first.
The more baffling pain though is the utter lack of character customisation. There are four set characters and you can't change a single thing about them, not even their names (which aren't said in any cutscenes or dialogues). Even when you level up you basically aren't allowed to change them in any way. There are no armour or clothing to equip, it happens automatically, and while there are a few choices about what special abilities you have equipped afterwards progression is almost a straight line. Gold is almost pointless since you can't buy any extra health potions or anything as you're only allowed to carry a certain amount (increased by playing side missions), and while you buy upgrades you don't have any choice about which one to get - the only thing you do is go through all the various lists and find the upgrade you unlock at that particular level. Furthermore I always had enough gold to buy all I could possibly get at every level. So why have gold to collect at all? Gotta collect some damn thing I guess.
Wheel-turning bits are tedious unless you're playing with others
Thankfully despite all this the main part of Sacred 3 - the gameplay - is lots of fun and plenty addictive, whether in single-player or co-op. The controls are my favourite type for ARPGs, namely mouse for aiming and attacking but WASD for control (fuck Diablo's all-mouse wrist-strain-fests) with a few odd buttons for special moves, dodging, grabbing, using items, and jumping Executions for when an enemy is down on the ground. Left Mouse Button attacks and Right Mouse Button bashes/interrupts/breaks shields. It's all kept simple and yet has just the right level of depth to it, requiring you to mix your various abilities, work with your allies (if you have any) and prioritise opponents. Even doing special executions can be used tactically, making Sacred 3 feel far from a mindless hack 'n' slasher. Aiming can be a little difficult when there's too much happening on screen to see the mouse pointer, but otherwise I don't have many complaints about controls.
It is very linear though, with the only deviations being to find secrets. These are pretty awesome, yielding anything from a small chest to an epic surprise boss fight, but they inelegantly stop at a dead end and force you to retrace your steps to carry on. Fortunately the rest of the design is more elegant, carefully upping the difficulty and introducing a steady stream of newer, tougher and smarter enemies so the gameplay absolutely never gets boring. It all looks nice too, with a shiny graphics engine that gives a good sheen to every environment. That all said the linearity and unchanging levels rather takes the fun out of replaying the game again, even with other players (which you've probably done in the first place). "Getting a better score" doesn't really cut it, nor does grinding for gold since you'll have all that you can eat.
Boss fights are great fun and, er, funner with others
Fortunately playing co-op is a hell of a lot of fun and changes the game dynamic completely from single-player. Suddenly all these extras Keen have given you, like a third power you can bestow on a partner, energy and health orbs that work on an area, and the ability to Revive, make sense and you have to really use them skilfully. Furthermore tedious sections in single-player that require you to press a wheel six times or destroy an artifact while fending off attacks actually become entertaining once one player takes on the enemies and another completes the objective. Enemies cleverly become tougher to accommodate more players, anyone can wander off-screen at will (and it's easy to track them because of the linear levels), and drop-in co-op seems to work perfectly. Admittedly I'm playing before the majority of players get in, but this isn't an MMO or anything so it should simply make it easier to find other people to play with. If you set your game to "public" you'll probably get four players immediately once the game goes live, although a bit of crowd control beyond just the ability to stick to friends might have been nice (max two players for example). Still, lots of fun, but it's not Left 4 Dead or anything so you may not play it more than once.
SACRED 3 VERDICT
While we’re certainly not starving for Action RPGs these days Sacred 3 does manage to stand out. A poorly-told story with odious voice-acting, crushing linearity, a total lack of customization right down to clothing and levelling upgrades, and an absolute distain for single-player gamers are its biggest faults. None of these manage to stop it from being a really fun and well designed ARPG, which is addictive with one player and utterly glorious in co-op. The linearity and other lack of reasons to do so stop replayability dead however, so beyond maybe an odd further playthrough of certain maps in co-op you’ll be done in about 10-15 hours. If ARPGs, particularly co-op ones, are your thing then Sacred 3 should definitely be on your to-buy list, but don’t expect it to take over your life the way other games in this genre have a tendency to do.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Getting four players in on a boss fight and having a ball. Also the line “by the sun that makes me squint!”.