The good news first: Sacred 3 is a vast improvement over its 2009 predecessor, in technical terms at least. Gone are the fussy camera, the scruffy visuals and fiddly menus, and in their place stands a slick and basically enjoyable action RPG.
The bad news? To get there, it has been so utterly disembowelled that it's little more than a thin shell; a game that is simpler, smaller and far less interesting than previous games in the series, let alone any of its genre peers.
We're once again in the vaguely sketched fantasy land of Ancaria. This time the enemy is the evil Ashen Empire, which wants to get its hands on an artefact known as the Heart of Ancaria which is important for reasons. You - and up to three other players - are going to stop them.
You do this in traditional top-down action RPG style, stamping around a variety of locations, from harbour towns to neon jungles and frozen wastelands, smiting the bejesus out of everything that crosses your path, using a variety of weapon and magical "Combat Arts" special attacks. It's just that in Sacred 3, that is literally all you do.
Pretty much everywhere that Sacred 3 can reduce content, cut corners and generally deliver a smaller, less ambitious game, it seizes the opportunity. Sacred 2 offered seven playable character classes, Sacred 3 has only four (five if you include pre-order DLC). In the previous game you could customise their appearance, within limited parameters of hair colour and style, but here you get what you're given.
That means Vajra the Khukuri Archer, Claire the Seraphim Paladin, Alithea the Ancarian Lancer and Marak the Safiri Warrior, aka The Obligatory Big Video Game Black Man. Some are better at range, others at close quarters, but there's not enough difference in the way they make you play the game to warrant multiple playthroughs. Dodge-roll away from enemies, hold down the main attack button and aim at bad guys. Garnish with special attacks as needed. That's the recipe for every character, more or less.
The content-slashing isn't confined to the characters. The game itself is far smaller than Sacred 2, and indeed any other comparable game in the genre. Forget hundreds of hours of gameplay, or even dozens. My first playthrough on Champion (or normal) difficulty took less than ten hours, and that includes all available side missions. A second playthrough, on Legend (or hard) difficulty, took less than three hours.
Admittedly, that meant skipping the side missions second time around, but those only come in two flavours. One is a five-wave survival battle, the other is a truncated area where you just have to kill all the enemies. Neither lasts more than a few minutes, nor do they deepen or enrich the overall game.
With only fifteen story stages, this is already a very easy and very short game. You can very quickly advance ahead of the recommended level for the story missions, and once there it's a doddle to reach the end without any real obstacles. Sacred 3 ends where the second act of most RPGs would begin, but you only really get a challenge from the Deity difficulty setting - and that's only unlocked after you beat the game.
One thing that has been retained is Sacred's rather offbeat and often downright puerile sense of humour. Boss enemies have names like Karr Tel or Zep'Tik. One talks like a pimp from a blaxploitation movie. Another has a thick stereotypical African accent. There's the usual "fate of the world" nonsense in the plotting, but the dialogue is made up almost entirely of glib quips and anachronistic jokes, usually of a smutty nature. Combined with the game's weak mesh of superhero and science fiction aesthetics, it's like Masters of the Universe performed in the style of a Carry On movie. I feel duty bound, however, to point out that this makes it sound far more awesome, and far less irritating, than it actually is.
That goofy humour is one of the only aspects of the previous games that has been carried over, however. Everywhere else, things have been removed rather than added. There are no NPCs and no inventory. There are no mounts, and only one campaign whereas before there were two - one "dark", one "light". Gone too is the open world of Sacred 2, and in its place is a simple map screen from which you select the next location. Those locations are utterly linear in nature, and yield little in way of exploration. Every now and then, you'll find a dead end with a small chest containing less gold than you earn from standard combat encounters. That's it.
There's not even any loot. This is an RPG where you will never find new weapons in the field, nor are you able to swap between different weapon types. Playing as the archer, I unlocked just two additional bows during two complete playthroughs, boasting only slightly different stats. There are a handful of Combat Arts to learn and upgrade, but as with everything in the game, these progressions are tied to your level and so become available at fairly scripted points in your journey.
One of the only new ideas is that of Weapon Spirits, which offer both buffs and status effects. Equip the Dragon spirit, for example, and each attack has a chance to trigger a five-second shield, but at the cost of the energy you use for your special attacks. The Vampire lets you gain small amounts of health for attacks on larger enemies, but reduces the effectiveness of health orbs by half.
It's a nice idea, but implemented in a woolly way. It's never clear what you have to do to earn these Weapon Spirits, or the shards that level them up. They just pop up, seemingly at random, during combat. You might earn four or five in a row, then get nothing for the next five stages. Even more problematic, the impact they have on the gameplay, while noticeable, isn't nearly dramatic enough to encourage you to play around with different Weapon Spirits. It's a nice addition, but a minor one.
And that's frustrating, because Sacred 3 otherwise represents such a huge improvement over the previous game. It looks better, controls better and is a much smoother and polished experience. There's no denying that there's a lot of appeal in ploughing through a swarm of enemies with an over-powered character, and even the same old routine of advancing down pathways and spamming attacks, has its hypnotic allure. In terms of bugs, there were a couple of instances where characters became stuck in place, but compared to the creaky ramshackle construction of Sacred 2 it's a far more reliable experience.
The drop-in multiplayer is also well implemented though largely no-frills, allowing you to make your game public or private, and restrict visiting players to those near your level. It's certainly more fun with others, though a full four-player lobby tends to result in a sort of colourful chaos where thoughtful play is even less valuable than normal. Unfortunately for Sacred, the days when an average game could be elevated by basic online play are long gone.
Sacred 3 could have been a really good game, and a much needed shot in the arm for a series that has always struggled for relevance. There's simply not enough of it, though, and what is there is so slim and featureless as to be almost intangible. It certainly doesn't feel like a game that's been in development for years (Deep Silver announced it in 2010) and is constantly defined by what has been left out, far more than the little that has been fixed or added. As such, amusing as it is in its own shallow way, Sacred 3 can only come as a mediocre disappointment to the hardy few who still consider themselves Sacred fans.