The Diablo 2 craze has been raging for four years before Ascaron released their hack & slash clone in 2004. When it was originally released, I fumbled with a Seraphin character build but eventually lost interest. Sixteen years after its initial release, I finally managed to take the time to thoroughly inspect Sacred (the Gold release). I’ve always been a big fan of hack & slash games, even though it’s not my favorite RPG flavor. So let’s take this opportunity to compare mechanics of Sacred VS the undisputed king of hack & slash: Diablo II.
1. World Design
The world of Sacred takes place in the continent of Ancaria and it’s massive. There’s a neat looking world map that automatically records quests and your exploration progression. Unlike Diablo II (Let’s call it D2), the world is open, and you can go to anywhere your heart would desire. Monsters are somewhat scaled to your level, to a much better degree than TES IV: Oblivon. There are some nice surprises that reward exploration, but as expected, the sandy dunes are… sandy, and the icy hilltops are… icy - and that’s about it. There’s not much else out there.
In Ancaria, it is possible to rent a horse to go riding and zoom quicker through the world - provided you didn’t forget where to park the animal last time, since the stables don’t buy new horses. There are portal waypoints scattered throughout the world, but it is not possible to open up a town portal yourself. Luckily, a merchant should never be too far off. Mounted combat also plays differently: some weapons, such as polearms, are better when on horseback, while others, such as single handed swords my vampiress uses, take considerable more time to land a hit. The horse system is not perfect, but it’s unique and a very welcome addition, even though my character ended up mostly walking.
I actually preferred Sacred’s world progression compared to D2’s chapter-divided ones. Sacred has much bigger cities full with sub-quests, we’ll get into that later. D2’s sandy town of Lut Gholein for instance does not stack up to Sacred’s Castle Bedrock. Another point for Sacred: each class starts in a unique place and has a unique bit of dialogue/questing before merging with the main storyline, not unlike like Nox - hopefully someone still remembers Nox. The more I think about it, the better I like Sacred’s world.
Sacred’s engine renders characters in 3D and backgrounds in 2D. The result is a sometimes clunky (characters running) but most of the times lovely look (especially in cities). You can actually stroll into buildings seamless and the effect is gorgeous, even in 2020. Spell effects are less stellar, and most shooting effects are the same: whether it’s the dwarf firing off his cannon shot or the vampiress sucking blood out of a particular enemy. The UI is good enough. Swords and shields can be quick-slotted and are unique and 3D-rendered.
However, when exploring the world, the scenery starts becoming pretty mundane quickly. Trees and bushes do not move whatsoever, and the dark forest of the even darker elves looks like smeared out dirt. When again comparing to D2, I don’t think it’s better or worse, since D2’s overworld becomes boring too. Since enemies scale to your level, respawn, and even fight each other as the main quest unfolds, the world looks a tad more alive than Diablo’s. Especially considering there is a weather system and a full day/night cycle my vampiress' combat arts are even dependent upon!
Enemies and Mobs
Speaking of mundane, let’s move over to enemy design. The first five hours are exciting and varying, but after that, you’ve pretty much killed all goblins/orcs/skeletons/thieves there are to see, except of a few late-game foes. That’s not particularly bad but it does offer less variety than in D2. The Underworld expansion does provide a much needed breath of fresh air.
The biggest problem I have with Sacred isn’t the diffusion of enemy types, but the mob design. In Diablo II, seeing a lightning-enhanced mob should send shivers down your spine because you know you’re either going to die or going to get a bunch of good items - or level up. In Sacred, there are also three enemy types: regular (black text), stronger ones (blue text), and “unique” mob bosses (yellow text, like the spider in the screenshot below). Item drops should act accordingly, but does not: you’re going to get crap anyway. Only one of the nine dragons drop a decent amount of goodies, akin to your typical Mephisto run in D2.
Another irk is the behavior of enemies: the shoot-and-scoot kind of behavior that’s more than irritating. Enemy spellcasters also love trapping you in a magical web, that also brings your horse to a dead stop - literally. The animal gets slaughtered easily and before you know it, you end up being surrounded, while all you wanted to do is quickly ride to town.
This is where Sacred gets more interesting - sometimes. Towns are full of peasants and partisans ready to offer you their money, and hopefully a Combat Art rune, in return for a favor. That favor is usually a boring fetch quest: from bring back my stolen chicken, my husband ran away at my wedding, to kill that lich lord for me, will you. Some offer humor, a few interesting twists, and even companions for a short while.
The problem is that NPCs need to look after themselves - something they are seemingly unable to do. I’ve had multiple deaths on my hands trying to bring back a lost lover or to help “Poor Globba” explore the world. If you’re used to zooming through lower level mobs you don’t feel like fighting and brought a companion, you better fight anyway!
Subquests are more fun than in Diablo 2 simply because Diablo merely has any. However, when it comes to the main plot, there’s hardly any competition. It’s the standard betrayal story that ends in a weird way. I could not bring myself to be engaged in the storyline, something that is impossible not to do in the Diablo universe.
The loot system might be my biggest problem with Sacred. In a hack & slash game, the reward loop is the most important principle: click click click, a shiny item drops, you pick it up saying “wow”, and continue to click frenetically on everything that moves. The problem isn’t that Sacred does not have a lot of great loot: it’s that it simply does not appear. Towns are full of small houses with chests: don’t bother, it contains max. 500 gold pieces. Sometimes, you come across a small cavern to explore: don’t bother, it doesn’t even contain a proper mob.
Money is completely useless in this game. I ended up with a million in cash, unable to sink it into something like a gambling merchant. And you better pick the “trading”/“merchant” skill as your character levels up: it is supposed to increase the likelihood of encountering rares in the shop. Item rarity categories are the same as in D2. My vampiress used the same sword and shield for the whole second half of the game! Damage does increase through stat boosts, but my item hunger was not fulfilled at all.
Nice items do drop now and then - specialized gear for other classes, of course. And no, there’s no way to transfer that item to your other builds. What a missed opportunity. The blue chest in the town square used to store your stuff does not transfer over to other saves or new games (sure, there are complicated ways of doing that using multiplayer games). That would have been a great incentive to replay the game with another class. There’s a +% money drop item stat, but I have not encountered the classic “magic find”. Proper item drops should encourage exploration, questing, and killing stuff. Instead, I stopped caring about chests all together. Isn’t that depressing in a game like this, to not care about the contents of a chest?
As the game difficulty ramps up, so do modifiers of items. For example, in the Bronze difficulty, an item would grant you
+15% attack. In Silver, that would be
+20%. The game difficulty should also affect the quality of items being dropped, but I haven’t encountered a single chest in Silver so far that wasn’t abysmal. Compare that with your Diablo hell runs (even in normal I’ve encountered a lot more usable things) and you know wny I’m that upset. Even the timed chests in Diablo III are more amusing.
3. Character Progression
Leveling up in Sacred is your standard affair of distributing points across various well-known attributes such as strength, dexterity, constitution, and so on. Hovering over it will reveal the potential gain in health/damage/defense so you don’t invest in the wrong things.
Next to that, there are various skills to pick after a set amount of levels, with a maximum of 7, as seen in the above screenshot. These skills are what make your build unique compared to other vampiresses, for example. However, there’s not much difference between Sword Lore, Weapon Lore, and Two Weapon Lore: all increase attack and damage. Only the latter allows you to dual wield. After picking a skill, there’s no turning back. You can again dump points into these.
What makes Sacred unique, however, are not what the game calls “skills”, but rather “Combat Arts” (CA). These are Diablo 2’s skills and the skill tree, and yes, you can level up these as well, by finding the correct rune for each CA, and either socketing it into your gear, or “learning” it (right-click). The trick is to know when to stop eating runes: as CAs increase in level, so do their cooldown time, meaning you pack a punch when executing an art but it takes a while to do it again. The best way to increase your fighting abilities would therefore be to socket them. Meaning you need proper gear, and there’s no way to create a socket at a blacksmith: those guys only know how to put stuff into holes - not how to create them. And now we’re back at the loot problem…
For my vampiress build, the CAs weren’t all that compelling. My wolf companion always died in two hits, whether it was a low or high level summon. Blood bite proved to be useless too, so I ended up with using a few over and over again (Ripping Claws, Blood Bats) - maybe not unlike D2. There’s enough meat here to go back and try out different classes and their CAs, as I’ve seen the Deamon and Battle Mage have a whole slew of completely different CAs. Magic wielders don’t need to quaff mana potions: there’s only the CA cooldown time, making this another difference compared to D2. In the end, I like the uniqueness of the system, but would prefer a “proper”/classic skill tree instead. The biggest downside of the system is that in order to learn new arts, you have to find the correct rune. Luckily, you can trade in runes of other classes.
Sound and Music
What music? Well, it’s there, and when hacking at enemies, it sometimes spins up a dramatic tune, but it’s mostly generic and only ambient. There’s no real comparison to Diablo 2’s magical soundtrack that I still listen regularly without even touching the game itself.
The voice acting is very goofy, but perhaps fitting, as the game tries (and succeeds to) be funny now and then - listen and laugh. Your character will say something when entering miserable looking villages or encountering enemies. In all, it does add to the atmosphere of Sacred, although I did miss good music.
Again, no comparison. There are cut-scenes - let’s keep it at that. Diablo 2 is a masterpiece in storytelling, music, and cinematics. it would be rather unfair to compare it with that. In the end, that’s not the reason I would pick up an hack & slash game anyway.
The Ancaria Sacred campaign kept me busy for about 16 hours. The first hours were a bit difficult, but after acquiring CAs, the game became a bit too easy. There are five different difficulty modes (bronze/silver/gold compares to normal/nightmare/hell), for those who wish to replay it on a higher level. The last few hours were a bit of a drag, especially if you forget to enable waypoints. So, is Sacred better than Diablo 2? In the end, I’m glad I played it: it’s a rather unique world with a strange skill tree implementation that still puzzles me to date. It doesn’t quite come quite near the level of greatness Diablo II is, but it certainly tried well enough. I might actually prefer the huge open world, quests, visuals, and quirkiness of Sacred. Sadly, the core hack & slash mechanics, the loot and reward system, is a bit of a missed opportunity to me.
The Random Battles Blog concludes more or less the same:
Sacred was a good game for its time and the world is super vast but it just drags on a bit too long. The enemy variety is pretty nice but I just wish the vast world was fleshed out more and given more scripted parts. A good game and I certainly enjoyed it more than the recent Diablo III but in my book middle of the road action RPG.
Now, should I try another class and take on the Underworld campaign?