If you’re old enough to remember the classic video games of the 1980’s, like Space Invaders or Galaga, you might know what I mean when I say that playing those games was a little like being imprisoned in some kind of hellish afterlife in which your soul was condemned to do battle in nonstop gladiatorial combat for all eternity—or until you ran out of quarters. In terms of story, those games existed in a kind of frozen netherworld in which the only narrative development was an increase in the strength and speed of your enemies. You could vanquish entire armadas of pixilated aliens, only to be confronted with fresh waves of progressively stronger foes.
This mood of Sisyphean futility settles upon the player early on in Sacred, a new PC action-RPG from Ascaron Entertainment, a German developer best known for the sea trading strategy games Patrician and Port Royale. Sacred provides hack ‘n’ slash thrills galore, but even a diehard fan of hack ‘n’ slash classics like Diablo II and Dungeon Siege may tire of the near-constant hacking and slashing after the first hundred or so screaming orc legions. It’s not enough to sink this otherwise excellent game, but it may drive off the less patient gamer.
It’s easy at first glance to dismiss Sacred as just another fantasy-themed computer role-playing game in the well-worn tradition of Baldur’s Gate, and of course Diablo and Diablo II, which this game most closely resembles. And in fact, Sacred, in many respects, is just another fantasy-themed computer role-playing game like the ones you’ve played a zillion times before. There’s the standard repertoire of orcs, goblins, and various undead, along with the familiar swords, bows, axes, and other tools of medieval slaughter. The story, too, is your typical sword and sorcery hokum, generously peppered with tongue-twisting Tolkienesque names and portentous British-accented pronouncements such as, “I stood beside King Aarnum as he occupied the Fortress of Mhurg-Nar!” The graphics, a combination of 2D landscapes and 3D figures, are impressively detailed and gorgeous, but at this point in RPG history it’s not easy to wring excitement out of an isometrically rendered grove of trees.
So far, so been there. But Sacred throws a couple of innovative elements into the mix that save the game from becoming a mere Diablo rehash. One is the ability to ride horses, which, frankly, every aboveground RPG ought to offer (it has always seemed a trifle absurd to watch heavily-armored fighters trudging on foot across miles of wilderness). Not only do the horses offer speedy transport across Sacred‘s vast game world, but your character can engage in mounted battle, and even charge into and trample foes.
Another new feature is the ability to create combos, which are essentially combat macros—chains of melee and magical attacks the player can string together and employ with a single click. The real-time combat system in Sacred is a joy to play, thanks to the game’s clever interface. Instead of having to go to the inventory every time you want to switch between different weapons, you can place configurations of items in slots that you can then access with either a mouse click or keyboard shortcut. While realism suffers a bit (not that the idea of a person carrying a U-Haul’s worth of items on his back was ever realistic), this feature keeps the focus squarely on the action, preserving the momentum and immediacy that differentiate real-time RPGs from their more deliberate turn-based cousins.
Character classes, by and large, are a standard lineup of usual suspects, including the Gladiator (fighter), the Seraphim (paladin), the Battle Mage (magic user), the Wood Elf (ranger), and his Dark Elf (sort of a ninja-ranger hybrid) counterpart. However, Sacred also introduces the Vampiress, an intriguing new class that takes advantage of the game’s day/night cycles. The Vampiress character, formerly an evil demon until she bit a Seraphim and—not unlike a certain Joss Whedon TV series hero—was given a soul and a mission of redemption, is a human by day, but at night (well, at any time, actually, although at earlier levels you take damage from exposure to sunlight) can transform into her fearsome vampire form. This is a welcome new twist on the familiar classes, one that adds enormous depth to the role-playing aspects of the game.
As familiar as much of the game will seem to the seasoned RPG player, Sacred nonetheless impresses in nearly every area, the developers clearly having studied the genre, and taken pains to avoid the more annoying aspects of its predecessors while retaining the best parts. Sacred isn’t a revolutionary game so much as an evolutionary one, a refinement of the formula. Most of the complaints gamers commonly raise about RPGs are addressed in some form here: the game world is huge and open-ended, with a staggering array of side quests and opportunities for exploration, level-raising and treasure gathering; transitions between areas are nearly seamless, with virtually no “loading… please wait” screens; and the missions are varied and can be challenging even for the veteran gamer. For a hack ‘n’ slash game, there’s a goodly amount of strategy involved in successfully completing even minor quests; they aren’t just mindless killfests.
Of course, having said that, it must be said again that much of the game, alas, is devoted to mindless killfests. Enemies respawn constantly, which may either be an exciting feature or exercise in tedium, depending on your level of bloodlust. And there are many of them. Many, many, many of them. In fact, the number of orcs, goblins, killer wolves, hill giants, and other homicidal predators easily outnumbers the civilian population by about 500 to 1, which makes one wonder how there can even be any humans left alive in this world. You can slaughter hordes of orcs, then travel a few yards only to find another horde of orcs charging towards you. I was reminded of the scene in the “Fistful of Yen” kung-fu parody in Kentucky Fried Movie, where the hero mows down a small army of henchmen, pauses to savor his victory… then stares in dumbfounded disbelief as yet another army of henchmen appears out of nowhere. In a game with a less complex, involving story than Sacred, this constant respawning wouldn’t be an issue, but Sacred does such a good job of immersing the player in what feels like a living, breathing, organic world of interlinked communities, that an arcade-like feature like this stands out as a glaring incongruity. The sense of satisfaction one derives from clearing a region of monsters and saving a village from certain destruction is undermined by the fact that none of your efforts make any real difference.
On a more positive note, character and narrative, while rehashing familiar fantasy elements, are developed strongly in Sacred. The opening and overall story change to varying degrees depending on what type of character you choose, so replayability is high, and the story feels tailored to your character. The intrigues between the warring factions in this world are actually rather compelling, as it’s not simply a humans-versus-monsters clash but a conflict involving several forces, which leads to some surprising plot twists—and best of all, you’re not simply a spectator to the story but a true participant, with a role to play (imagine that in a role-playing game!) that involves more than simply moving from point A to point B and watching a series of cutscenes. There’s also an element of morality in the game, but it’s expressed in a subtle way; instead of featuring a “good/evil gauge” or punishing characters for behaving badly (you are supposed to be a good guy, after all), there are certain points throughout the story where behaving heroically instead of selfishly nets you bonuses. If you wish to play as a jerk, you’ll probably never notice the difference, but it’s there.
The narrative aspect of Sacred is also improved by a distinct absence of self-importance on the part of Ascaron’s writing team. Yes, the story borrows heavily from other fantasy games and literature, especially Tolkien, but the game’s creators don’t bother to hide it (one NPC is a ranger named “Arogarn”), and poke fun at themselves with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek satire (be sure to read the tombstones when you explore cemeteries). In contrast to the ponderous blandness of some recent RPGs (all games with a healthy sense of humor, take a step forward—not so fast, Knights of the Old Republic!), Sacred knows when to lighten up and remind you that this is supposed to be fun.
If the idea of fantasy role-playing games makes you want to run screaming to your buddies in your Halo clan, there’s little about this game that’ll change your mind; Sacred is a traditional, isometric fantasy RPG through and through, and seems like a bit of an old-fashioned fuddy duddy compared to ultra-hyped RPGs like KOTOR. But on those terms, Sacred does not disappoint; it’s a solid, engrossing adventure of epic proportions, gifted with solid gameplay, a smooth interface and beautiful visuals that lead the RPG pack. If games were cars, this sleek German import would be a Mercedes-Benz, all burnished leather and tasteful appointments; Sacred may be conservative and a little tame compared to its sportier, flashier competitors, but it’s impeccably engineered and chock-full of the latest refinements and under-the-hood innovations. As the gaming world moves from 2D to 3D graphics, Sacred may be the last of its breed—but it’s one of the finest.