Wot I Think: Sacred 3
Sacred has always been Diablo’s cheeky little cousin. Made with none of the precision or flair of Blizzard’s series, they’ve been bumbling action-RPGs that have attempted humour, mostly missed, and been generic but inoffensive click-a-thons. Hey folks, that’s all about to change with Sacred 3! This game is properly, unambiguously rubbish. Here's wot I think:
From the opening moments, Sacred 3 feels like a bad time. Making Sacred 2’s bug-ridden launch look like a carnival of fun, part three – from a different developer and publisher – is a stripped-down shell of the franchise, seemingly constructed as dreadfully as possible. I’ve not encountered anything I’d call a bug while playing; instead I’ve encountered consistently terrible design ideas deliberately implemented. Once again we enter the fantasy world of Ancaria, to click on a squillion enemies, and hear a story of its perennial theft of mcguffins. Except, without any redeeming features.
Extraordinarily, in a move that strikes me as about the most foolish choice imaginable, this latest entry to the series has ditched any sense of gathering loot, and even the inventory. Instead, downed enemies will now only reward you with showers of health or energy orbs, and tiny scraps of gold (used to unlock skills). That core of Action RPGs, the compulsive, adorable chase for improved swords, hats and potions, is entirely gone. And replaced by nothing. Sacred 3 perhaps isn't an ARPG. It's a sort of nothingy-space.
I’ve been trying to imagine the scenario where that decision came about. Giving it some thought, perhaps at some point there was a meeting to decide how they’d do loot in Sacred 3, when a fire alarm went off and everyone had to go outside. In their hurry they left a window open, and in flew a confused gull, which began madly flapping around the room, knocking over bottles and coffee cups, its idiot wings smearing the writing on the whiteboard. Eventually, by dumb luck, the gull manages to crash back out through the window. When the team comes back in no one notices the results, and they accidentally implement the smudged remains of their design ideas. Thanks, gull.
The controls are the next most strange aspect. Rather than sticking to traditional ARPG mouse-led movement (which was present in Sacred 2), here you steer your character with WASD, attack with the mouse buttons, and yet still need to fire off special attacks with the early number keys and your cursor defines the direction in which some movements will occur... A needless muddle. Or one that expects you to awkwardly play the game with a controller, despite the genre. There’s absolutely no discernible reason why the game couldn't have let clicking also act as movement, but as we'll come to see, this is Sacred 3, so nope.
This leads to an awkwardness during fights, which are already frenzied indecipherable madness, not helped at all by an extremely clumsy on-screen interface. Rather than the tried, tested and ideal bottom bar, instead you've got what looks like an ITV sport score box, massively oversized in the top left of the screen as if the resolution were left at 800x600 (it isn’t), poorly communicating what attacks you have available. And that’s just a fraction of the irrelevant clutter that obscures what you’re doing.
The closest the game gets to anything like the thing that makes people enjoy clickfest RPGs comes betwixt the levels, in completely unexplained screens where you can barely change elements of your character once you’ve reached the right levels. Maybe improve a special attack in a poorly specified way? But not actually mould or adapt them in a way that interests you or suits your style of play. And this is all just there, never introduced, or encouraged – in fact, it's presented so bizarrely that you could miss it entirely, confusing the gibberish sliver at the bottom of the post-mission screen for what looks like an online leaderboard.
Open it up and it’s abysmally laid out. There’s no logic, no trees of options, and instead the unexplained XP-spending windows cover each other up. Trying to improve a skill requires clicking an unspecific number of times before it will react, and then there’s no meaningful sense of what difference it will make. There’s no sense of why you'd want to improve one skill over another. It’s just about arbitrarily assigning things and wondering if it makes a blind bit of difference to the distracted clicking that makes up the bulk of the game.
In a strange game of strangely terrible ideas, the strangest thing of all is the incessant jabbering from the game’s characters. Delivered sarcastically, but never with any humour, a collection of unwanted heads endlessly blather away at you. It’s, I think, an attempt at self-deprecating commentary, which - as is almost inevitable in games that try this - means the characters are tiresomely pointing out how the game is trite, clichéd and predictable. So let’s say this once again:
Saying that your game is shit, while your game is being shit, does not make your game any less shit. In fact, it makes your game fourteen times more shit. We have graphs to prove it.
This spoken nonsense never stops. Snarky, witless gibberish comes from about five different unseen voices at any time, making me feel like I’m losing my mind as I play. There are, apparently, “spirits” who join you, giving you extremely tenuous bonus abilities, and they add to this cacophonic chorus. And one of them’s a wackily sexist dude! He says things that are knowingly sexist! Or there's the timid dragon! He's scwared. None of them worse, however, than the 'does-this-sound-sassy?' voice of your constantly faux-mordant companion, who barks utter rubbish at you throughout. (See the video just below.)
The cherry on top of this plop is that when your own character speaks, his or her words appear in a vast, black speech bubble above their head, entirely obscuring the fighting! Because someone somewhere decided that was fine. Perhaps another gull. Teams of people making a game said, “Yup, let’s have a huge black speech bubble that is guaranteed to obscure whatever the player is currently fighting.” No one objected. It was part of the finished game.
Here's half an hour of me playing the game:
Sacred 2 was a very strange game indeed, appearing two years after Titan Quest in 2008, the year before the likes of Torchlight re-revived the genre, and so gaining a bit of a pass for at least being an ARPG in a dry time. It was clumsy in the extreme, with its own peculiar controls (W and S move the character back and forth, but A and D rotate the screen, while movement works on the mouse too), and a ludicrously over-large game world packed with more side quests than you could possibly keep track of. Sacred 3 seems to have addressed this latter concern by killing the concept of a game world entirely.
Instead you now have a mission select screen via a map, each linear mission set in self-contained corridors, side quests now existing in their own tiny instanced zone. Rather than an RPG world to explore, here it’s about playing almost identical levels, each with their own tiresome final boss. And because of this, because the sense of a world is taken away, death (where the game offers any challenge, it should be noted) means checkpoints, and the checkpoints are a textbook guide to doing them appallingly. Long, frustrating sequences where death is far more likely than not are then followed by more potentially lethal stages, with no checkpoint between. Die in the latter and you’re forced to yet again repeat the former until you fluke past it, and so on.
And despite this, despite the fractured, bitty nature of the game’s delivery, it is still presented in enforced multiplayer, impossible to pause if the phone rings.
Oh, gawd, just everything about it seems to be going out of its way to be ghastly. Surely no one could create an interface where when closing multiple overlaid windows, the “back” button switches between the left and right slots, by accident? That has to be deliberate malice, right? Or have it so the display settings reset themselves each time you load the game, but only resetting after forcing you to sit through multiple splash screens. "Ooh, it's still in a window... Oh." Or have an option to switch the dreary, incessant music off, that doesn’t actually do anything! Or a game built with a fixed camera that then fills the fourth wall of the screen with actual fourth walls, so you can’t see what’s going on half the bloody time.
It’s spectacularly bad. Bad not like Sacred games have been bad before, where maps stopped working or the game just crashed. In this game crashing would be a welcome feature. Here the awfulness is hard-programmed into the code, wilful, deliberate. It’s a series of abysmal choices strung together in a vacuous, tiresome chain of near-identical linear missions. The "combat arts" should have been its defining feature, letting you craft a unique and elaborate fighting style to afford this drivel at least the genre of "hack n slash". But instead it's the rusting chassis of an ARPG, after it's been stripped down for parts and left, abandoned in a disused yard, where it really ought to be forgotten.
Sacred 3 is a huge £34 on Steam, but wasn't supposed to be out for another four days. Which is odd. We checked with PR, and they said it wasn't out today, but, um, it is! It's on sale on 360 and PS3 too. What a palaver!