Gamers scarcely need to look far for an extensive list of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups. To name a few, X-Men Arcade and The Simpsons scratch that sentimental 2D itch, while Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World radiate a polish and presentation technologically impossible on old-school arcade cabinets. Now, Sacred Citadel has entered the ring, rousing faint memories of titles like Golden Axe, though the temptations of loot feed on prevailing video game addictions.
Two decades of systematic improvements give Sacred Citadel the edge over Golden Axe, but that has little bearing on the befuddling narrative. The Ashen Empire created the Gatekeeper to kill off the Seraphim, an ancient race of retired warriors. The Gatekeeper requires two mystical artifacts before he can shatter the Seraphim’s citadel, however, and with their near-limitless numbers, the orc-like Grimmocs have been elected to pillage towns until the idols are found. Lost yet? Sacred Citadel heaps on the exposition without explaining who the characters are and why they matter, even introducing the four heroes haphazardly. But willing to do anything for a little fame and fortune, the adventurers agree to save Arcania.
Arcania looks quite good, even when burning to the ground.
Players still pummel the life out of fantasy creatures, but Sacred Citadel’s gameplay deviates from the series’ RPG norms. The action proceeds from a 2.5D perspective (contrary to Sacred 2’s overhead camera), and the four classes, though not astonishingly diverse in the melee realm, occupy different combative roles when playing with others. A Warrior should flatten enemies with his mighty hammer, for example, as the Ranger’s bow inflicts barbed harm. Also, every hero’s super move grows more effective over time. The Ranger fires a rapid volley of arrows at first; many levels later, he clears all on-screen adversaries with a salvo of bombs.
While Sacred Citadel strays from the RPG label, the developers do not abandon it. Players grow stronger for every monster slain, spending amassed experience points in dexterity, health, defense, and power. Every character specializes in a particular field – the Shaman and Mage benefit from more health and armor; a Ranger with high dexterity does greater projectile damage. However, Sacred Citadel gives you free rein to, say, build your Ranger as a frontline rogue or substitute archer.
And although heroes may not reset their skills free of charge, gamers should not fear tweaking their characters to their liking. Several stages decrease in difficulty with another ally, but Sacred Citadel never errs towards challenging, nor requires you to consider combos carefully. The Ranger’s primary X, Y slam helped me carve a my way across Arcania in five hours. Sure, the gameplay does approach repetitive territory, yet the enemy attack patterns keep players on their toes.
Sacred Citadel also contains mounts, though they are much slower to attack than your heroes.
The lively locales also quell monotonous complaints. From burning villages to foggy swamps to cold mountain dwellings, the game's adventurers prove themselves masters of all terrain. Sacred Citadel boasts a vivid presentation – one lush and vibrant but not quite cel-shaded – and the animations are smooth. My love goes out to the frequent loot drops and ease of comparing armaments, too. Sacred Citadel instantly contrasts weapon stats (damage, elemental effects) with your weakest bludgeon, without the demand for extraneous menus.
Every class dual-wields weapons, be they axes, swords, or maces, so players are never handicapped for choosing the Shaman over the Warrior, Ranger, or Mage. Strangely, the protagonists possess no actual inventory. You may equip antiquated gear at one of the town vendors, though you may never sell it. Still, I never ran into money problems. 30,000 gold lined my virtual pockets by the campaign’s end because, beyond the inexpensive health potions, the merchants contain few items worth buying.
Potions can pull you of a tight bind, and so will crystals. These rare gems serve a profound purpose, strengthening your dexterity, power, and so on for a set period of time. Unfortunately, and oddly, potions and crystals do not replenish after each death. Say you get yourself into trouble with a boss. You consume three health mixtures but die. Those vials are gone forever, no longer available when you reload a save. Now you must face the beast again, further disadvantaged. Such amateur design infuriated me, especially when I confronted the final boss, who ignites the ground with several inescapable attacks.
Some environments contain hazards. Here you will have to dodge runaway minecarts.
In hindsight, Sacred Citadel almost seems built for single adventurers (unless you have friends nearby). Despite the four champions you choose from, multiplayer simply supports three. Beyond attempts to reduce the on-screen chaos, which already grows maddening with each passing second, I do not see why the developers opted for three-player co-op instead of four. Players cannot bring two of the same character into the same match, either. That means gamers must join lobbies where the host has not selected their preferred character, or level a new hero from scratch. Also, loot drops are free game for anyone once they hit the ground.
If those design choices anger you, then good news! Not three days after launch, the multiplayer contains no signs of life. Sacred Citadel features local co-op at least – a real treat when the game calls for actual teamwork – yet several bugs can be the difference between life or death. Gameplay hints do not disappear until the end of a level, covering a third of the screen with intrusive black bars, and on plenty occasions, characters refused to use their special attacks.
I expected Sacred Citadel to be another mediocre beat-’em-up, but Southend Interactive (mostly) calls my bluff. While an assumed familiarity with the series does the game’s threadbare narrative no favors, a solid evening of tenderizing orcs with maces and swords awaits if two friends tag along, as do the guarantees of loot to keep you invested. Sacred Citadel surprised me, just not for all the right reasons.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Southend Interactive
Release Date: April 16, 2013
Number of Players: 1-3 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), XBLA, PSN