A group of adventurers are attacked while relaxing in a tavern and must flee a town that has been set ablaze: does this sound familiar? Indeed, as the opening of Sacred Citadel mirrors the events of the first stage of Guardian Heroes, co-op brawler fans can look forward to a number of nods in reverence to classics of the genre. Southend Interactive, who previously created a well-received XBLA puzzle game called ilomilo, has developed a side-scrolling hack-and-slash PSN game that lovingly pays homage to fantasy beat-'em-ups. While a choice of four character classes, magic abilities, levelling-up, plus upgradeable weapons and armour may rekindle memories of Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, it is an assorted smorgasbord of retro and modern greats that Southend eulogize.
Rupert Ochsner of Deep Silver has been open in explaining a focussed intention to harken back to a golden age of brawlers, and over four acts, with twenty stages, Sacred Citadel affectionately recreates that retro experience. Unfortunately, Deep Silver is not as successful at achieving its other lofty ambition of balancing depth with accessibility to newcomers, as a generous levelling-up system over-empowers the player through too gentle a difficulty curve.
The story is familiar fantasy fare, set in the land of Ancaria. The villainous imperial family of the Ashen Empire, led by a wicked commander called Gatebreaker, have attacked Sister Telari and the peaceful Seraphim at their citadel in the mountains. Hope lies in the hands of four dim-witted adventurers, fortune-hunters that are initially more interested in shiny loot than a heroic rescue, who must save the Ancarian resistance from Tolkien-esque adversaries, such as the orc-like Grimmoc warlords and a mysterious merchant. However, four selectable heroes still only results in three-player simultaneous co-op, in a world which achieves its atmosphere by expanding a universe that has already been established in the ARPG Sacred 2: Fallen Angel. It also serves as a plot link to the forthcoming Sacred 3.
Sacred Citadel's gameplay attempts to avoid the repetition inherent in the genre by adding variety using interactive backgrounds and set-piece events, where you dodge erratic mine carts or giant crossbow attacks. You can knock enemies into fire or toxic ooze, crush them beneath a huge weight, and pummel them with swinging logs. Your foes are a diverse bunch, ranging from short crustaceans to hovering dragonflies, including agile wolves and shamans that can resurrect a hoard of worshippers. By using Power Attacks, like a smart bomb, players can manage groups of enemies. These feel similar to the segmented magic bars in Golden Axe II, as they are broken into three progressively powerful parts, however in Sacred Citadel you build up the meter by damaging enemies. Therefore, when all three segments are full, a Safiri Warrior's devastating dive-bomb can knock-out a pack of enemies, but filling only a third of the Power Attack meter is still useful if you control a Khukuri Shaman, as it replenishes the health bar of all participating players.
Fans of the Bizzarian beasts in Golden Axe will be pleased that you can ride creatures, although they initially seem clumsy like a Batman: Arkham Asylum titan. However, as a number count signifying mass damage strikes enumerates how much you have weakened each enemy, their power is appreciated. Similarly commandeering tanks may represent a simple shift in the action, but its dual cannons work well in the penultimate stage's citadel war zone. Sacred Citadel also includes a plentiful supply of mini-bosses, but it is the main boss battles that are the game's highlight. These include a multi-tiered final showdown with Gatebreaker, but become especially entertaining when you rumble against the screen-filling Mossback and insightfully named dragon, Queen Digestya.
Each of the four selectable characters control similarly, but feel different. The Ancarian Ranger wields a bow for ranged combat, but the heavyweight Safiri Warrior is a close-range slugger. The Khukuri Shaman is nippy and nimble, while the Seraphim Mage utilises spells against groups of enemies. The D-pad is used for selecting Health, Rage, and Power Attack potions, but the pace of analogue movement is still swift, especially when mixed with a sprint button. Combat involves a mix of weak melee and heavy secondary attacks, with numerous combos unlocked as you progress, including slow-motion finishing moves. A blend of double jumps alongside a fluid right stick rolling dodge prevail at evading enemy blows, but the timing is not as tight or instrumental towards progress as the 'Gleam' dodge in Double Dragon: Neon. Sadly, Southend's hard work at investing variety into the controls is squandered as you can button mash your way past most enemies, although mindlessly bashing buttons is not advised as it results in monotonous gameplay.
Sacred Citadel may not have sprites, but it manages to be visually evocative of an old-school brawler through its vivid use of colour, to the point that stages like Crystal Fields and The Bridge in Act 3 almost look cel-shaded. The backdrops present a variety of locations that journey from lush green forests, to a sunken city of undead sailors, and a snow blanketed mountainside shortcut, which leads to the citadel fortress. It also has an expressive sense of detail, as enemies splatter into chunks of meat when thwarted, gangs harass innocent villagers, and high priests sacrifice members of their cult in background animations. Enemy design is just as imaginative, taking inspiration from film. One foe resembles the fawn from Pan’s Labyrinth and snow footprints lead to a hostile Yeti cave that draws complimentary comparisons to the Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back.
Initially the game’s musical standout is its main theme, which was composed by Inon Zur. The in-game tunes are subtle in how they reflect each setting, with eerie tunes for haunted areas and swamps, as well as didgeridoo tribal music for worshippers in the Crystal Fields. Best of all is early on in the game, where one tune drifts into what sounds like a tribute to the Wilderness music from Golden Axe, which is a clever way to pay a compliment to that classic.
At $14.99/£11.99 Sacred Citadel is at the steeper end of the PSN pricing scale, costing almost twice as much as Double Dragon: Neon's initial release price (note, Sacred Citadel has a special offer price of £5.99 in Europe at the time of review). However, with a level-up system where you increase character attributes (attack, defence, dexterity, and power) and upgradeable weapons, there is a layer of depth to this title. Collecting enhancements in armour is particularly satisfying, as it visually strengthens the physical presentation of your character, in a similar manner to the Capcom title Knights of the Round. Items like Rage, Power, and Health potions are littered throughout stages, or can be purchased with collectible coins, similar to upgrading primary and secondary weapons, which can also be imbued with elemental effects. The most fun is found in your first play-through, with lenient difficulty spikes being easily managed by hoarding three health potions, which fully refill your meter, like the snacks in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The first full completion of Sacred Citadel takes just over four hours, with the final Act 4 levels initially feeling like a long grind, until the speed at which you level-up relaxes the soft challenge. Both three-player local and online multiplayer encourages a second play, but a powerfully upgraded level 32 character will blitz through all twenty stages in less than two hours. Sacred Citadel would have benefited from a harder difficulty challenge to unlock, or alternate path routes, but neither option is available. However, each act has a separate town area with time, score, and health-based challenges set by a bookkeeper, which helps add some basic incentive to repeat stages.
Sacred Citadel mixes large dollops of admiration towards classic retro hack-and-slash games in a hot pot, which adds depth to its flavour with spicy upgrades, a varied combo move-set, intuitive controls, and level-up attributes for each of the four unique characters. Boosting your hero's capabilities is well implemented, but the recipe is weakened as it over-empowers the player and the broth is watered down as a result. Therefore, it becomes moreish, but monotonous, if you choose to progress by mashing buttons. However, through a fondness for the side-scrolling beat-'em-up genre, Southend Interactive has concocted a fun arcade PSN snack, which is even tastier in local and online three-player co-op.