Back when the excellent Castle Crashers released in 2008, the gameplay contained within the adorably-designed package was something of a revelation. You could have a number of characters on the go at a time, playing through the game as each of them in turn as you tried to get them all levelled up to the point of being competitive, while romping through an action-packed, rewarding side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that featured loads of tricky enemies and a healthy dose of comedy.
Five years later, and to say that Sacred Citadel takes a lot of queues from that game, would be a dramatic understatement. Pretty much everything is here, barring the graphical style and the comedy. You’ve got the side-scrolling action, combos that can be fired by mashing the X and Y buttons at random, and power attacks that have to be recharged. You’ve got four different character classes per Gamertag, all of which can be levelled up separately and used to tackle any of the levels you’ve unlocked. Co-op action is in place, where one player can revive another by running over to them and pressing “X” if they fall during battle. Aside from that, loot drops are frequent, and new weapons appear seemingly at random, complete with a statistical pop-up window that could have been ripped straight from The Behemoth’s game.
But hey, more Castle Crashers, right? That has to be a good thing?
Well, it would be, only Sacred Citadel doesn’t do things with nearly enough forethough, style, and panache to even come close to those heady heights of quality. If you play as a warrior, the first few stages will require you to mash the X button repeatedly to down your opponents. Once you’ve levelled up, you can add in the Y button for a bit of extra oomph. By the time you’ve gotten halfway through the game, you’ll have unlocked a spin attack that is triggered by hitting Y four times. Then you realise that – barring boss battles – you can complete the rest of the game by spamming this move over and over again. Other character types don’t have this issue though, although they’re all still incredibly repetitive to play.
In terms of environments, Sacred Citadel makes a decent fist of showing some graphical flair. Icy wastelands and poisonous swamps are rendered well enough, although some of the level design in general has to be brought to task. Light platforming action comes into play early on, but is used so unbelievably sparingly – some levels don’t feature any platform jumps at all, some feature one gap to clear – that you have to wonder why the developer even bothered. The same goes for switches. You won’t see a switch until you get to the third of the four acts, and even then you’ll only see two or three. There’s scope for some light puzzling to be thrown into the mix in order to relieve the arduous and constant battling, but the development team seem to have missed the opportunity.
Also at fault is the checkpoint system. When health drops are so unbelievably rare, it makes little sense for the game to restart you right before a boss, if that boss has just killed you after you’ve downed all your health potions. If you couldn’t beat the guy when you effectively had four bars of health remaining, you aren’t going to do it with one.
Other complaints can be levied at the response times of your characters. With regular swipes and chops, they’re just fine, but if you try to fire a power attack at the wrong point, they just tend to march on the spot for a second or two before doing the deed – which is more than enough time for an enemy to take out your last smidgen of health.
Indeed, the whole experience is a bit of a love/hate affair. You’ll love the 16-bit-inspired soundtrack, and the game could realistically be described as being “Golden Axe with Loot” – so that’ll be a bonus to some. At times, you’ll really get into it, ploughing forward – ignoring the problems – and setting yourself for a dramatic run to the final boss, only to watch as each and every single time, the game does something that is so inherently annoying that it completely rips any drive you had to complete it. Whether it’s a boss that seems to always be unfairly one step ahead, or a standard battle scenario where the game just lobs in six or seven incredibly strong characters at a time, and they all attack one after the other after the other after the other, meaning that you’ve no chance of ever getting away – it always does something.
Some will love Sacred Citadel. Some will hate it. The fact is that despite containing a laundry list of problems, the game isn’t terrible. There’s promise and potential there and just a little bit more work with regards to the game’s frequent and sharp difficulty spikes, and a little more variation when it comes to combos and well, the game as a whole, would have seen this getting some very decent scores.