Sacred Citadel – Review

Title   Sacred Citadel
Developer  Southend Interactive
Publisher  Deep Silver
Platform  PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre  Arcade Beat-em-up
Release Date  April 16, 2013

I remember playing the first Sacred almost as much as I played Diablo 2, and that was a lot.  I even got involved in the beta testing, my first ever experience with that process.  It was created by the now defunct Ascaron Entertainment and at first glance was a pretty shameless clone, but if you stuck with it and delved a little deeper it soon became obvious that Ascaron poured a lot of love, effort and humour into the world of Ancaria.  I found the sequel on the Xbox, predictably named Sacred 2, to be a little overly complex. Ascaron had expanded the talents, runes and weapons stats to the point that it made my head spin. Without any real kind of help I struggled to get into Sacred 2, and being an ambitious port to the console it was also dogged with performance issues and terrible loading times.  It was also a notoriously long effort to max on achievements and something I doubt I will achieve before next-gen, even though it remains one of those games I can’t bring myself to trade in towards a new release.

Despite GamingLives covering the preview a while back, I totally forgot about this title until it popped up on Xbox Live Arcade last week.  I saw the words “Sacred” and “Ancaria” in the game description and I blindly splashed 1200msp to purchase.  Initially I was horrified. Where was my top-down view? Why could I only go left and right? What do you mean Act 1, level 1?! I accept this was a mistake made by myself and nobody else’s – in my frenzied rush to buy a new Sacred and relight the torch of dungeon-crawling I had abandoned my usual methodology for games purchasing.  I quit out immediately a little grumpy and feeling somewhat foolish.

Fast forward two days and I was looking for something to do that would fill a bit of time.  After the usual staring at the pile of games on the side then staring at the dashboard I settled on giving Sacred: Citadel another go.  My mindset was able to take a fresh start and accepted that this was related to Sacred in name only, and, as such, all pre-conceptions could be put aside.  Set after the story period of the original Sacred, you take charge of one of four characters to embark upon an adventure and save The Citadel, the last refuge of the Seraphim (Ancaria’s historic guardians).  Split across four acts, each divided into multiple short 5-15min levels, the game will take you through a number of environments from jungles to caverns to besieged towns and throw a wide range of enemies at you along the way.

Primarily a left to right brawler, the game has 2.5D qualities allowing you move your character around the foreground as in typical brawlers such as Double Dragon, Streets of Rage and Unbound Saga combined with the fantasy, mounts and mayhem found in the Golden Axe series.  Making use of the space is key to not getting surrounded, trapped and beaten to a bloody pulp by enemies.  The combat is kept simple with basic combos via two buttons and the movement stick but has enough depth to allow more advanced techniques such as enemy juggling when you have multiple players involved. Ultimately, combat is highly repetitive and the AI is quick to counteract when a window of opportunity opens.  This can get frustrating, particularly on boss levels where you can end up being chain-ganked by minions because you are trying to whittle the big guy’s health down.

Layered onto the combat are class mechanics, levels and a basic loot system.  Each character has two primary weapons, armour and an additional class weapon. Enemies will randomly drop loot upon death and when the round of combat is over you can choose to pick it up or leave it by the wayside.  Picking up any loot immediately equips the item, throwing the previous piece of equipment to the ground.  If you accidentally swap something out and move on then between levels you can visit the town blacksmith who will allow you to browse through collected loot and equip anything picked up thus far.

Levelling up is a standard affair, with each level up offering two points to put into either attack, defense, power or dexterity. There is no form of talent system so tailoring characters is not an option, instead the first few levels are used to introduce the various combos and combat moves which are leaked out over the first 20 or so levels as unlocks.  Each class has a role to play, similar to most fantasy RPG/MMO, so you have the tanking warrior, the healing shaman, ranged rogue and spellcasting mage – at least in theory.  Bizarrely all characters have two melee weapons, which are your primary weapons regardless of class. It is the heavy attacks that utilise the class weapon (usually the last button in a combo), but even then each character has the same combo assortment.  The only real distinguishing feature is the special ability (or three) that each class can obtain. Power is built up by dispatching with enemies or drinking potions, and the move you pull off depends on how full the bar is (a set of three blocks). For instance, the Shaman will heal themselves and the team with one block full, but with three will unleash a damage over time attack, targeting every enemy on screen.

As well as outright damage dealing you have two defensive maneuvers. A standard block which can repel most frontal attacks from standard enemies and a dodge move that makes you pretty much impervious to damage whilst the animation runs.  It could be my playstyle but I pretty much relied on the dodge move as it stops you getting surrounded and guarantees an escape, unlike block which some enemies can break through and is totally useless against pretty much every boss/sub-boss.

A single playthrough will take around 6-8 hours, but there is some effort to encourage replaying levels.  At the level select screen you can jump to any unlocked level as well as visit the town.  The town holds a blacksmith, stores and a challenge NPC. There are three challenges for each level: time attack, score attack and completing the level without dying.  You can place a bet on a challenge and levels will be, seemingly, randomly selected as eligible for that challenge round. There is no consequence for failing the challenge other than losing the money you bet, you still retain all items, xp, etc gained during the run and if you run out of time then you continue playing to complete the level – it isn’t a game over scenario.

Lives seem to be limitless, although prudent use of health pots and ample food dropped by enemies and destructible crates will likely ensure that death is a rarity. There is also no difficulty selection, so this will pose little to no challenge to fans of the genre beyond a frustrating first encounter with a few of the early bosses without the complete complement of combo moves.

In order to properly utilise the local multiplayer without resorting to split screen and also stop excessive kiting, combat rounds lock the screen to a defined area of the environment. When the combat is over then you are free to retrace your steps, perhaps to replenish health potions after a boss fight having previously had to leave them behind – you can only carry a maximum of three of each type.  I tried a local two-player game after struggling to find any online games. Even creating a public match doesn’t allow drop-in/out, instead requiring three players before it starts. This is a major let-down, although even with just two of us playing the action on screen gets hectic and very confusing quite easily so I can see many people opting for solo play most of the time which is a shame as this, like Streets of Rage, Golden Axe et al are way more fun when kicking arse as a team!

The world of Ancaria is as bright as ever, an interesting shift in art style for this spin-off provides a cartoonesque view of the environment and characters.  It’s an interesting move and one that allows for some very vivid colours to contrast with a set of base pastel colours.  Most of the characters on screen are fairly small too, so when many vivid-coloured bodies go flying and crashing around the environment it’s easy to lose focus on your character at times.  That niggle aside, the artwork is quite impressive, if simplistic, and most levels are distinct enough to ensure you don’t get bored.  Some levels make use of the environment for obstacles, traps and tactical play. Battling a bunch of enemies on small islands surrounded by a damaging acid lake changes up the mix a little.  Likewise, some levels contain some vertical aspects, like a lift or getting onto rooftops for some fights – sadly these are still set routes and there are no alternative ways to navigate levels which may have added an extra layer of replayability.

I played this on the Xbox360 and had some odd sound issues. The sound would completely cut for up to a second quite regularly which was jarring and frankly unacceptable considering the 1200msp price tag.  I wasn’t able to verify if this affected just my install or if this is a wider issue with the Xbox360 version in general, hopefully it is just a glitched install.

I’m aware that my musical tastes are not always on par with the rest of the universe and I’m fairly certain there will be some comments about the music in Sacred, particularly the opening menu music which sits in the dubstep camp. I love it, a really moody piece of bassy music that is probably a bit like marmite in that people will love or hate it. The rest of the soundtrack is less contemporary and finds its feet amongst upbeat electronic sounds and more traditional ‘fantasy’ rpg styled music.  Although unlikely to be a soundtrack that you will rush out to buy, I felt it punched above its weight compared to most arcade games.

Dialogue is fairly sparse throughout the game, but when it makes an appearance it is well handled. There are hints of the usual silly humour that lightened the open-world Sacred adventures and stereotypes are used with shameless abandon from the salty pirate to the dull-minded grimmoc (orc) horde.  It is unlikely such an button-mashing brawler game would try too hard when it comes to plot with Unbound Saga coming the closest in this genre to making a connection between gamer and character. Usually, for me at least, it is the character that suits your fighting style – Blaze in Streets of Rage, for instance – not which has the most compelling backstory that determines your character of choice.  Investing heavily in plot and narrative all seems kind of irrelevant considering you’re moving from left to right constantly spamming attacks.

Sacred Citadel grew on me and it’s a great time killer but it doesn’t quite have the compelling pull to play that puts it above the other releases currently doing the rounds.  Although the addition of the challenges and the loot/upgrade aspects are a nice touch, it doesn’t really enhance the game beyond it’s basic hack and mash action: lower quality weapons just means enemies take longer to kill, there is nothing tactical gained.  Enemies don’t scale either so going back to retry an early level turns into a cakewalk and a guaranteed gold medal award making that challenge/scoring aspect rather redundant.

  • Easy, fun and accessible combat
  • Nods to other previous games in genre
  • Tries to splice RPG elements into a brawler
  • Short levels split across acts allows quick play sessions
  • Plenty of options for replayability via challenges, level select, differing classes
  • Doesn't overstay its welcome
  • Not many competing brawler games on consoles
  • While not bad, not amazing either
  • Enemy AI can get irritating and borderline cheating by juggling you if surrounded (even though you do that to them for the entire game!)
  • No real addition to the Sacred lore/story. Storytelling is bare-bones essentials only
  • Sound issues plagued my experience
  • RPG elements like loot, levelling up, etc are all superficial and realistically add little to the experience

Sacred Citadel doesn't really make any mis-steps. It's a good length for the game type - recapturing the shorter, replayable roots of older brawlers like Streets of Rage and it has a solid combat system, if repetitive. Times have changed, though, since my family had a Mega Drive and just five games. Now I rarely play a game more than once or twice, but that could be me and the situation I find myself in now I’m an adult with a job and mortgage to pay.

There is longevity available for those that seek it but where Sacred Citadel does nothing majorly wrong, it also does nothing outstandingly right: there are a couple of notable boss battles, a slightly awkward mount implementation, a basic loot system - the list goes on but overall nothing breaks outside of the 'average' bracket.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the game. The combat was satisfying and responsive, and the RPG additions of loot, XP and levelling up were a welcome addition but didn't really add anything above the odd distraction after a battle. That, I suppose, is the crux of Sacred Citadel's failings... the sprinkles of 'enhancements' to the genre can't hide the fact that under the hood this is a repetitive side scrolling brawler and nothing more.

If you are a fan of the genre then I'd recommend you take the demo as either you will rather like it or you will detest the lack of difficulty options and limited combat moves. If you are not a fan or thinking of branching into a new type of game then I would recommend you first try something like the Streets of Rage pack which is two thirds the cost and nets you all three games in that series - despite being released over 20 years ago it shows how little the genre has progressed and stands up well to any current gen arcade brawler.

For those looking to fill the void before Sacred 3 this is likely to disappoint but perhaps one to consider for the summer gaming drought if it goes on offer...

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  1. Richie rich says:

    I recently maxed Dungeon Fighter Live and it was a similar mix of beat em up and RPG so this now intrigues me. Good review!

  2. Lorna Lorna says:

    To be honest, I think that I would have made exactly the same error, rushing in after seeing Sacred and then thinking “bugger…” :) Interesting art style, but I’m not that great at brawlers… at least, I haven’t played one for years (unless Fairytale Fights counts, in which case…).

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