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Developer:
Ascaron GmbH
Publisher: Encore Software
Platform: PC
Release Date: March 23, 2004

by Ronald Wartow




Are you ready for some questing? Sacred is the answer to an RPG’ers dream, a marvelous and compelling action-RPG set in a gigantic world containing probably the greatest number of total quests ever in a game of this type, between 200 and 300. Plan on spending at least 40 hours for just one run through the game, and forget finishing in 20 hours or less, sadly the norm for a bunch of RPG’s over the last 2 years. Just released within the last 2 weeks, Sacred resembles, but surpasses, such dynamite games as Diablo II and Divine Divinity, and pushes the RPG envelope with plenty of new features to admire and enjoy. (This review does not cover the available multiplayer and online aspects of Sacred.)


Release Blues

Potential purchasers should heed the following information well. My game, played at the developer’s recommended PC performance thresholds requirements, played admirably for an entire run through the game without any problems. Though my experience has been untarnished, it appears that significant bugs relating to many game aspects, including installation and performance, are plaguing many an anxious and disappointed Sacred player. Consistent online traffic at the prestigious Gamefaqs.com and the official Sacred forums confirm this, as do the comments of the developers. The worst bugs, though certainly not all, reportedly affect the multiplayer aspects of the game.


Workarounds to some of the problems are flying all over the net, and the frustration level of many gamers is obvious. A 7.5 meg patch issued within days of release seems to be causing more rather than less trouble. To illustrate the extent of the problems, the official Sacred forum on gameplay problems, just 10 days after the game released, contained over 2000 messages, while the open Sacred discussion forum for people playing the game had 6000 messages. Though far from a sound statistical analysis, it appears one-quarter of Sacred purchasers is having problems, a sizeable share, and not a good sign. The developers promise another patch soon. Despite this, those wary of purchasing now should hang in there. The game is simply too first-rate an addition to the RPG scene to pass up.


Captivating Gameplay

Like most action RPG’s, Sacred has the hackneyed plot, plenty of real-time hack and slash combat against hordes of versatile and powerful monsters, and many unique and rare items and equipment to find. Improving on that familiar formula, the Sacred gamer can anticipate many interesting novelties, many clear right from the get-go.


Diverse Characters

Sacred’s available characters present a wide variety of types, each with its own unique gameplay style. The game’s tank is the melee expert, the Gladiator. The wonderfully multi-talented Battle Mage is equally good at “tankdom” and spell casting. The shape shifting Vampiress is a noble knight by day, and, you guessed it, a bloodsucking vampire at night. The Wood Elf, a combination of elf and druid has the ability to summon unicorns, and can cast ranger-like spells. The Dark Elf is also an outdoorsy type, but the black arts are its forte. Finally, the Seraphim doubles as a winsome user of magic who excels at hand-to-hand close up.


Sacred has a normal leveling mechanism with choices required to increase your skills and attributes.


Horses

While Sacred is not the first RPG to employ animal conveyances like horses or, for the Final Fantasy aficionado, the chocobo, the game extends the player’s options in that regard far beyond simply quicker transport to a destination.


First of all, I believe this is the first action RPG where your character can fight monsters from horseback. (I do recall horseback combat in Wild Arms 3, but that was a turn-based combat RPG.) Furthermore, there are different types of horses, each with its own level, special resistances, and defense mechanisms. The player can enhance a horse’s capabilities through the use of bigger and better saddles and bridles until a horse is an integral part of the fighting. (Horses, as expected, are not allowed to enter dungeons. Remember Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring when the heroes let Sam’s horse, Bill, loose rather than risk exposure to the dangers inside the Mines of Moria?) Lastly, rather than wander endlessly finding out where you left your trusty steed, a simple command will whistle for your horse, who will respond quickly and come near for mounting.


Pinpointing Quest Locations

Like other games of this ilk, Sacred has a maps and a handy log to keep track of the main quest and side quests. Gamers are then left to their own devices to find the quest’s location, do the deed, and then traipse back to whoever initiated the quest, usually frantically trying to remember where that was. Since Sacred has over 200 quests, probably approximating 300, a good log and helpful maps are absolutely necessary.


Sacred ups the ante with an enlightening glut of information where quests are concerned via a multi-pronged compass and map annotations. From the first minute of the game, a compass at the bottom center of the screen has an arrow pointing towards the next location to advance the main quest. Another arrow indicates the direction to take to accomplish whatever side quest on which you wish information. These arrows are even on the game’s localized map. So, the player always knows what direction to take.


Even better, the game’s world map contains markers at the spot where the player needs to go next for the main and side quests. Even better, the practical log also contains snapshots of the exact physical location on the map where all the quests can be completed. Even better yet, once the quest is completed, the local and world maps contain markers showing the exact location of the quest giver, for easy and quick return and reward.


I recognize that some may find this excessive handholding. From my point of view, these excellent features eliminate much of the unnecessary drudgery and angst in alleviating the difficulty of those tasks. This lets the Sacred gamer concentrate on the important things in his/her RPG life.


Traveling on the Local Map

With the dexterous use of two fingers on your mouse hand, you can travel like the wind on the local map. Identifying colored dots let you know if an enemy is near in plenty of time to toggle the local map off and prepare for combat. The terrain at this map level clearly shows where the player can and can not go. Even without a horse, travel by this method was lightning quick between goals.


Attention-Grabbing Ample Landscape

While many RPG’s cover large universes, the landscape usually is just a series of differing environments with nothing to do but fight monsters on the way to the next pivotal location.


Sacred shines here. Traveling the world map to the next target can be chockfull of surprises and gotchas. Travelers can be ambushed. Players can stumble upon special hiding players for some terrific items. A gamer can circumvent trouble by zooming the map way out to see what’s happening up ahead, behind, or on the sides. Need experience points? Rush headlong into nests of monsters, or circumvent trouble by taking a roundabout route. I particularly enjoyed stumbling across everything from little out-of-the-way shacks to large enemy camps when penetrating some deep forest or mountain range.


Sacred’s populated pockets can be small encampments to huge castles and an accompanying town. There are plenty of them with over 15 large regions to explore and many more locales. The gamer has plenty of objects within which to finds items and gold everywhere. To easily traverse large distances, there is a convenient teleport and portal system that can be uncovered by the player during travel, and let’s not forget the swift horse.


The Sheer Volume and Substance of Side Quests

Recent, popular action RPG’s like Champions of Norrath and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II had little or no side quest activity. Before Sacred, I believe Morrowind was the side quest king with almost 150.


Now comes Sacred presenting a huge number of side quests. A current in-progress FAQ being prepared on the side quests is now up to 182 and still counting. During my first run through the game, I successfully completed 80 side quests. To maintain spoiler dignity, let me say that Sacred’s main quest contains somewhere between 1 and 100 quests.


Side quests contain many of the usual goals: rescue someone, clear out a dungeon of monsters, or protect a bridge entrance to a town. However, lots of Sacred side quests provide some terrific bits of humor and exciting surprises. When a side quest is completed, an impressive trumpet fanfare announces your accomplishment. And, remember, giving those side quests are hundreds of unique and interesting Non-Player Characters (NPC’s), some of whom accompany and help you along the way.


Because of all the above, Sacred is extremely nonlinear, and is very reminiscent of Morrowind in that regard.


Eliminating NPC Chatter Drudgery

Though the Sacred world is populated by hundreds of NPC”s, there is no need like in other games to question every one just to find the one person you really need to talk to at any given juncture. Sacred identifies important main and side quest personalities by placing a bold exclamation point above the characters. Another way to pin down important persons on the local map is to look for white dots. This saves lots of time, and eliminates lots of useless, though sometimes humorous, comments, like “I thought you were taller.”


Combat Arts and Combos

Character enhancement through the typical leveling does not set Sacred apart. However, so-called combat arts take the place of magic, and a special practitioner called a combo master can help the player create devastating 4-part combos. My favorite is this combo that gives the character strong protection, heals to the max, and then casts a couple of devastating fire spells: Stoneskin, Spiritual Healing, Fireball and Meteor Storm. The possibilities are endless. Four combos are the limit. I have a combo for pure attack, pure defense and healing, and harmonizing mixtures of each discipline. (Combos cannot be cast from horseback.)


My test for combat balance, a crucial factor in RPG’s, is whether I finish fights with little or no hit points, or bite the dust just before I was to administer the final blow on a monster. Sacred passed this test with flying colors. Many a fight ended in my exhaling after holding my breath for what seemed forever.


Fighting

The heart of any RPG is fighting, and Sacred has plenty of that. Expect to clash real-time with a wide variety of monsters. (The Log conveniently keeps track of monster levels and strength once killed.) Monsters and heroes have handy circles underneath so you get a good visual read on how close you or the monsters are to termination. Your character type will obviously determine the combat strategy to be employed. Some dodge, run, and attack. Others attack from a distance with ranged weapons and spells. My Battle Mage loves to mix it up close in, with devastating sword blows with a handy Fireball thrown in.


The Handy Smith

Weapon and armor enhancements play a large role in Sacred. Some weapons and armor found or bought contain slots with which to put special items to increase the strength and flexibility of items. Turning mundane, decent weapons and armor into powerhouse dynamos and walls of protection provide an interesting element to the game. Speaking of equipment, the number of items, all with their own individual strengths and weaknesses, to be found during your adventure is staggering.


Import and Export

Tired of playing at the Sacred’s Bronze easy level, but do not wish to start over at a more difficult level? In Sacred, you can take your developed character with all augmentations, items, weapons, armor, and skills, and begin a new game at a higher level though the use of importing and exporting.


Replayability

The replay value of Sacred is practically almost impossible to fathom. There are 4 difficulty levels, of which half must be unlocked by completing lower difficulty levels, and 6 different characters to play. That means 23 replays after your original run through are eminently possible and reasonable. This doesn’t even factor in those who want to try to find every item and location and carry out every quest, which could make still more replays available.


Criticisms

Not everything in Sacred is perfect, though much of it is.


At the top of my “dislike intensely” list is the inexplicable hotkey slot procedure. When the game begins, the player can assign two weapons in hotkey slots, activated by a single key press, and two magic, skill or combo hotkey slots. Given the number of combat arts, combos, and weapons available once the game really heats up, two slots each is woefully small. In combat, where the hotkey slots are needed the most, if you have injudiciously put the wrong actions in those slots, you need to consume too much time awkwardly opening a menu, placing a new action on a hotkey slot, and clicking on it. Only then can you cast the previously-disregarded action. All the while, the monsters are pummeling on your character.


Your hotkey slots increase only at certain levels. You get an additional slot at Level 8, and others at high levels. Tying hotkey slots to game advancement makes utterly no sense, particularly when changes can not be prepared during pauses. That’s right! Sacred does not allow action selection during combat pauses. This wonderful feature of the Baldur’s Gate series and other games helps take the edge off my arcade- challenged real-time deficiencies. In Sacred, it’s downright inconvenient.


The European release of Sacred apparently included a color manual and a useful foldout map of the game’s world. My game included a black and white manual and no map!


Finally, I did experience some frame rate slowdowns when there were many objects on the screen, but these were few and far between.


Graphics, Music, Sound, and Voice

As I have said in prior reviews, these topics have no impact on my enjoyment of a game. An RPG’s story, character development, and gameplay system are the important aspects of a game. Given the fact that I am most likely in the minority on this topic, here are my observations.


The graphics are crisp and clear. You have the useful ability to zoom in and out of the action. View everything from a bird’s eye perspective to get an overall picture of what’s happening, or zip close up to your character to regale in its grandeur. The music is excellent and very atmospheric. Voice acting is capable, and adds to the ambiance. Sounds are equally impressive and warn the player of upcoming events.


Bottom Line

My final review ratings of games are very subjective in nature. High ratings come from the following factors: Is it virtually impossible to stop playing before 2 am? Does my mind wander during gameplay? Do I feel a sense of urgency while playing? Do I develop some sort of attachment to my created character? Do I think about the game while away from home? Do I make notes about things to try or places to go whenever I take a respite from playing? Will I replay the game at least once? My answers to the above questions where Sacred is concerned are yes, no, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. That’s a perfect 7!


Sacred made me forget how disappointed I have been with many RPG’s over the last few years, was wonderful to play, and provided many hours RPG paradise. Just look above to see all the reasons I came to this conclusion.


Nevertheless, given some of the technical problems afflicting some users, I would not purchase Sacred unless I had at least the recommended system levels. I also would avoid that initial patch (1.5), especially if multiplayer is your thing. This is not a guarantee, just a suggestion duplicating my experience.


Final Grade: 95%


                  
Just RPG Award of Excellence!





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