This week, Zero Punctuation reviews hack and slash Sacred 3.
You know, what pisses me off is that all the things I'm good at are things that everyone assumes they could do if they tried. Playing the bassoon or fluffing a walrus people respect, 'cause there's a specialist skill goes into those, but writing? "Pah! I learnt that in school! Fucking aced it! They made me start doing it all in joined-up letters just to give everyone else a chance! And that, Mr. Croshaw, is why I felt my background in production made me qualified to rewrite all the story copy you did for us to be more like a recent popular film." Well, you know what I say to that, Mr. Producer? Fifty dollars an hour, please. Blimey, I wonder how people with integrity get through life.
But hey, general public, I know you think you're being kind when you tell your ambitious friend that his new webcomic doesn't look like it was peeled off the rancid gammon flaps of the most popular girl in the retirement home. But you know where we end up with that attitude? Sacred 3, that's where we end up. A product by people who had never designed a game, written a story or attempted comedy before, but were pretty sure it couldn't be that hard. Well, considering it's the third game in a series, perhaps they have tried it before and practice isn't helping.
I didn't play Sacred 2; Wikipedia says it was an action-RPG taking place in a vast, seamless open world, and that doesn't sound a whole lot like the game I just played, which was more of an arcade hack-and-slash and about as seamless as a fucking Rubik's Cube. Pity they didn't go for adding a subtitle to the sequel name, 'cause I've just thought of one: Sacred 3: Nothing Is.
With the game based in four-player co-op and levels separated by a map-screen, it feels like a cross between Gauntlet and Golden Axe, only you're playing on an arcade machine in a pub currently playing host to the most excruciating open-mic night in the history of stand-up comedy, where the biggest round of applause of the night came when someone pulled the fire alarm. The plot is best summarized by tearing the contents page out of a book by Joseph Campbell: the fantasy land of Ancaria is being oppressed by an evil empire that must be stopped by a scrappy underdog resistance with no resources except the mightiest heroes in the land and the backing of all the angels of paradise. I think someone might have misspelled "underdog" at some point.
So far, so generic, but a generic plot can be the best platform for a bit of knowing nudge-wink self-referential irony. I think Sacred 3 might have gotten that memo at some point, but then some wires got crossed and ended up just using the platform to stand there trying to slash its wrists with the edge of a saucepan. The thing is, if you muted all the dialogue, Sacred 3 would just be a bland, straightfaced, isometric hack-'n-slash just about keeping my attention with a series of predictable identikit arenas before shrugging its shoulders, pocketing its hands and starting off for the great waste-ground of modern memory.
But I must speculate that at some point mid-development, somebody decided it had to be a comedy game now and got some poor bastard to change every line of dialogue bar none into a goofy sarcastic quip, no matter how tortured it came across or how incongruous it was with the visuals. And that's how we came to be spending the whole game with a support character whose constant ditzy fucking valley girl Joss fucking Whedon fucking sar-fucking-castic observations tormented my stomach lining like a jagged metal enchilada.
But with knitting needles jammed down your ears and on the basest possible level, the combat can be fun. Hordes of bad guys are hurled at you and you swat them all back with a squash racquet. Enemies who are shielding or doing interruptible attacks have big glowing icons over them which, as we established last week, is a total visual design cop-out, equivalent to wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I'm a graphic artist and I drink too much", but that's about the worst of it.
The problem is, the combat is all there is. The levels are linear successions of closed-off arenas with little exploration, and even when there is, there's no reward, no secret +1 frost sword of Tosh McMongmotty. New weapons and abilities are simply handed to you once you've reached arbitrary levels. Secret chests just contain money, health and energy, mere kindling to throw into the furnace of the ever-burning grind engine. You kill and you kill and you kill, and the moment you've killed enough bodies to fill the jar, then a little bell rings and you get a teddy bear and a bigger jar. Reminds me of that old joke game Progress Quest: gameplay based solely around a steadily incrementing number, except the whole "joke" part has been taken off, and burned, and stomped on, and worn as a silly hat by a cunt.
The missions increment steadily in difficulty and all have level recommendations like MMO quests do, but they're still in linear order, so what on Earth is the point? Why don't we just gain one level for each mission we've done? Or forget the leveling system all together, controversially, 'cause if you don't quite meet the recommended level for the next mission, all you can do is play the previous mission again until you do.
But wait! Couldn't you go back and grind in any previous mission, only replaying ones that you liked? No! Because A: anything more than two levels ago becomes insultingly easy and any XP gain is equivalent to trying to fill a fish tank with a water pistol; B: having a favourite mission in this game is like having a particular fondness for a specific few inches of a length of string; and C [Sea]: is a word meaning a large body of salt-water that lots of fish live in.
I'm getting the telltale whiffs of yet another game being sacrificed on the altar of multiplayer; suddenly the focus is not on having a fun RPG adventure in Fantasy Land, but on seeing who out of all your friends has the highest number. And of course it had to be map-screen menus rather than seamless world because then it can double as a fucking lobby that Johnny Fartknockers the world over can randomly drop into to stomp all over the carpet and make all the pictures crooked.
But I say again, co-op games have to stand up on single-player because anything can be fun if experienced with friends; Plan 9 from Outer Space springs to mind. But don't think for a fucking instant that Sacred 3 deserves to be equated to something bad but unintentionally funny. Sacred 3 lurks on the complete other side of that coin: attempted intentional humor that's about as funny as post-traumatic stress disorder. Nothing is more guaranteed to grate than comedy falling flat with smug blissful unawareness. A grim death march through forced kookiness is worse than a thousand Ride to Hells (Rides to Hell, however you say that).
Might as well replace the word "level" with "pain threshold". Pain threshold up! You now have a pain threshold of 25. You have unlocked the special ability, "Call Dignitas!"
- Future Pope: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- No of course I'm not saying Ride To Hell was a better game, just that it left me in a better mood
- Third time's the harm