The side-scrolling beat-’em-up was a staple of the arcades. Games like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Golden Axe could be found just about everywhere you looked back in the day. Now, thanks to games like Castle Crashers and Double Dragon Neon, the genre is starting to make a bit of a comeback.
Following this trend, Southbend Interactive has released Sacred Citadel, a side-scrolling brawler with RPG elements set in its Sacred universe and retailing for a mere $14.99. Boasting slick, cell-shaded graphics, three-player coop and tons of action, the game looks to carve a niche for itself in a rebounding genre. Does it succeed it hitting that sweet spot between nostalgia and innovation?
30 Second Review
(+) Beautiful cell-shaded graphics
(+) Satisfying combos and combat
(+) Characters compliment each other in coop
(-) Coop can get a bit frantic
(-) Difficulty can ramp up quickly, and bosses can seem cheap
Onward to adventure and…. Wait, what were we doing again?
In Sacred Citadel, the Gatebreaker is looking to gain two artifacts that will let him lead the armies of darkness against the Seraphim in the Citadel… or something like that. To be honest with you, story is usually not the strong suit in games like this one, and that is definitely the case here. The premise is just an excuse to get four different adventurers together to fight against evil:
- The Safiri Warrior, a fierce, straight-up brawler.
- The Ancarian Ranger, who is both at home with hand to hand and long range attacks with his bow.
- The KhuKuri Shaman, who uses magic to aid her party and weaken enemies.
- The Seraphim Mage, adept at using elemental magic to attack her foes.
Each character carries a unique secondary weapon and uses a different form of power-based attacks. Each also dual wields any primary weapons in the game and unlocks the same set of combos using the light and heavy melee attacks as you level up. You will also find weapons, armor, potions and crystals to help you battle the hoards of enemies you face throughout the game…
And that’s about as complicated as it gets. Let’s face it; the side-scrolling beat-’em-ups were never the most complex games on the market. They were built for learning the patterns of your enemies and having fun, and Sacred Citadel does not try to reinvent the wheel. The game provides more than enough of the prerequisite enemy types, combos and overwhelming odds for you and up to two comrades to beat the bad guys senseless. The game controls exceptionally well, with various combos that can give you a leg up in combat, blocks which, if timed just right, allow you to release a devastating counter attack and a dodge that will get you out of most scrapes. There are elemental weapons you can pick up that will randomly create status effects when used on enemies, such as poison that will continually reduce health or ice that will freeze them temporarily. You can also use ride-able beasts, a coal-powered tank and even environmental hazards like a log tied to vines or falling rocks to wreck havoc on your opponents.
Then there are the power attacks. The more damage you deal out, the higher your power bar builds. There are three levels to each character’s power bar, each with its own unique skill. For example, the Shaman heals her party at level one, gives a rather nice magic buff at level two and creates an electric attack that damages all enemies for a time at level three. These abilities really come in handy in boss fights; as you get toward the final bosses, it is almost imperative you have a Shaman on the team for healing alone. Of course, the Mage’s ability to turn minor enemies into easily-killed chickens (as in the animal, not scared enemies) is both useful and hilarious.
That does bring me to one other point: there is a lot of humor in this game. If you go into Sacred Citadel expecting a dark RPG storyline, you are playing the wrong game. The graphical style helps add to this lighter atmosphere. Southbend Interactive decided to use beautifully crafted cell-shaded levels and characters instead of the more polygonal style, and the result is a game that is both stunningly detailed and, at times, comically over-exaggerated.
With 3-player coop, well designed beat-’em-up gameplay and beautiful level design, it would be tempting to think that Sacred Citadel was just about the perfect game for those interested in scratching that Golden Axe itch. The game is not without its problems, however.
The Chinks in the Armor
One of the biggest issues with Sacred Citadel is the degree of difficulty can ramp up rather quickly. Combat will seem rather simple at first, but it will not be long before you will find yourself using healing potions and hoping the next enemy you kill will drop food so you can survive. This challenge is offset by the fact there is a bonus level at the end of some of the chapters where you can power level, but that takes time. The enemies in the first area were so much more powerful than me that I had to keep them stuck in combos where they could not attack, and almost everyone I killed let me rank up a level. The game also does not level with you, meaning once you have become strong enough to survive these bonus levels, you are overpowered for all but the end bosses in chapter 4, and if you have the DLC, chapter 5. Any gear you see dropped by anyone but those final bosses will also be useless.
One possible reason for the difficulty spiking the way it does is the game seems to be built around the idea of playing coop. While the coop functions rather well, the cell-shaded graphical style can actually become a bit of a hindrance to teammates. I played both chapter 4 and the DLC chapter 5 as a Shaman with someone else playing as a Mage, and we found it was rather easy to lose track of where our characters were as the battles became more frantic. I imagine it would only get worse if you have three people playing.
So when you have two or more leveled-up characters, the game should be a breeze, right? Only to an extent. As any veteran of this style of game will tell you, beat-’em-ups are all about learning the patterns of the enemies so that you know how to best fight them. Most enemies can be killed while taking very little damage if you learn how they attack. That is not the case of the last couple of bosses, however. The boss battles at the end of chapter 4 and the DLC chapter 5 are tedious and, at times, cheap, for two main reasons: both bosses have some attacks that are very difficult to avoid, and both will heal when you get their health down low until you destroy the items healing them. Had I not been playing as a Shaman and had access to her ability to heal, I am not sure I would have been able to beat them solo.
I do have one other complaint, though this one is more of a minor issue. Food and money dropped by enemies can be picked up immediately, but weapons and armor can only be picked up when all the enemies for a particular section have been killed. I can see why they did it; it keeps you from accidentally picking up inferior weapons or armor in the middle of a fight. The issue is there are many lulls in sections of combat where you are waiting for off screen enemies to jump into the fray, and yet you cannot try to pick up any of the weapons or armor dropped by previously-vanquished foes. You cannot even look at the stats to see if you might want the loot. In the end, it does not affect gameplay much, but it is an annoyance.
Bashing Through the Foes
Despite these problems, Sacred Citadel is still a fun game. If you have fond memories of games like Golden Axe, you will find much to like about Southbend Interactive’s offering. Even if you are not familiar with the side-scrolling brawlers of the arcades of yore, you can still have a lot of fun teaming up with a friend or two and fighting off wave after wave of enemies. Besides, the $14.99 price point makes this game more than worth picking up if you are looking for some mindless fun. Sacred Citadel gets a 7.5 out of 10.