It’s strange, but when Diablo came out in 1996, despite being very successful, it didn’t generate any imitators. In fact, it wasn’t until right around the release of Diablo II in 2000 that similar titles like Darkstone, Nox, and Throne of Darkness arrived. That, I think, is a testament to Blizzard Entertainment and the fact that creating an action role-playing game isn’t as easy as it looks.
Or, let me rephrase. Perhaps creating the engine is time-consuming but straightforward enough (compared to other game engines), but doing something intriguing with the engine, and making sure the engine creates a fair and balanced world, is where problems arise. Consider a couple recent role-playing games in Temple of Elemental Evil and Divine Divinity. Both had excellent engines, but both suffered from other problems. Temple had the worst excuse for a campaign that I’ve ever played, while Divinity was one of the worst balanced games that I’ve ever played.
All of which leads me to Sacred, an action-role-playing game from Ascaron Entertainment and Encore Software. Ascaron is probably best known for its Patrician and Port Royale games, and so Sacred is a definite change of pace for them. But even so they managed to create a very nice engine. The graphics and animations are great, the game is colorful to watch, and if you zoom in the view Sacred is about the only game I’ve played where things actually look better and not just bigger. Plus, there are six types of characters to play (including oddities like the seraphim and the vampiress), and there is a 30+ hour campaign with a whole slew of side quests to work through.
And so Sacred sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun, provided you like the Diablo style of action role-playing games, where killing monsters is just a mouse click away. But here, again, is the problem: you have to make the game interesting to play, and you have to make the game balanced, and Ascaron managed to do neither.
Consider this. There is no story in Sacred. I don’t even have any idea why the game is called Sacred, since I don’t remember the word “sacred” coming up even once in the slight amount of dialogue the game includes. A more appropriate name might be Build up Your Character to Kill the Big Bad Boss at the End. That’s more descriptive if perhaps a little too long to fit on the game box. Anyway, after an introductory cinematic sequence where an evil magician summons an evil demon, you end up in a story about an evil baron trying to take over a kingdom from a good prince (one of the protagonists is named DeMordrey and the other is named Valor; guess which is which) and then suddenly you have to find five elements to defeat the demon, when I don’t think the demon had been mentioned since the cinematic.
Mostly, the single-player campaign sends you on a tour of the world. Walk here, and then walk there. And, hey, you missed that obscure corner over there! Walk there, too! And what you do on this trek is kill stuff over and over. The game keeps track of some statistics for you, and what I discovered after finishing the game as a gladiator is that I killed about 7000 creatures (including over 600 goblins) in about 30 hours. That works out to almost 4 kills per minute! Just how exciting can combat be if you’re mowing through enemies that quickly? Not very. Even the final boss was a joke, since he got into a pathfinding loop and never attacked me.
So perhaps the side quests could save the day. Nope. The problem with the side quests is that they feel like they should be random but they’re not. For example, you walk into a town and a farmer there asks you to kill the wolves that are threatening his cows. Two minutes later you’ve killed the wolves and collected your reward. Then somebody asks you to find his missing son / daughter / cousin, and two minutes later you’ve done that one, too. All the side quests are about that inconsequential, and none of them advance the story or add depth to your character or even give particularly useful rewards. This is the first role-playing game I’ve played where I started avoiding quests just because they seemed like they were wasting my time.
But there are some good parts to Sacred, too. The interface is easy to use, with most everything being handled by the mouse. You want to attack an enemy? Left click on it. You want to execute a special move? Right click on it. The six characters you can play are also distinctive, and each one gets its own opening vignette, similar to how Temple of Elemental Evil starts. And Ascaron even handled the map very well. Every time you receive a quest a new marker appears on the map to show you where to go, and then once you’ve completed the task, the marker disappears and is replaced by a new one to tell you where to go to collect your reward. That means you should never be lost or confused in the game.
The problem I had with Sacred is that I was never excited, either. Every so often I had some fun with the game, but too much playing time is taken up by long, boring trudges where you have to kill the same enemies over and over again (and then over and over some more, since monsters constantly re-spawn), and that isn’t much fun. So overall I found Sacred to be a below average game, and while I wouldn’t really recommend it, it’s a game you might want to try out once it hits the bargain bin.