Sacrifice Review

A Review of the Game
By Witchboy
This game is a brilliant hybrid strategy-action-RPG from Shiny. I played it non-stop during the holiday break, finishing it 3 times. The game is innovative, beautiful and fun, so I highly recommend it. (Below I offer some critical observations, but that’s just because, as always, I am very much interested in the design behind good games; note that overall I really love Sacrifice.)

In the game, the player controls a sorcerer named Eldred, recently arrived in the game’s unique world, who undertakes 10 missions for the world’s 5 gods. For each mission, the god the player chooses to work for dictates the next spell the character can cast and the next creature the character can summon. Once you gain a new power, you keep it throughout the game. So you can effectively build your character by making savvy choices as to which god you want to work for each time.

There is some non-linearity in the game and in the game’s story, in that each time you get to a new mission, you have essentially 5 mission choices–you choose one of the gods’ missions, leaving behind the other 4. Later you often hear what happened in your absence, because you opted not to take the other 4 missions. (In other words, all the missions happen with or without you; if you do not undertake a mission, another of the god’s avatars will undertake it and may or may not be successful.)

You interact frequently with the other avatars of the various gods. They mostly stick to one god. For instance, The Ragman is one of the avatars of the death god Charnel. As the player controlling Eldred, you can make him stick to one god and develop a consistently themed set of powers, or you can alternate and end up with an eclectic array of abilities. (For the first play-through, it’s my belief that Persephone is the easiest play-through; her creatures and powers seem stronger and a bit easier to use for a new player. Her trolls, for instance, regenerate, requiring less micromanagement.) During my first play-through, I changed gods frequently. During my second, I played for Charnel (Death). During my third, I played for Persephone (Life/Nature).

At a core level, the game is all about securing new strategic areas, reinforcing them and slowly expanding your control over a map. The player has 2 forms of magic: spell-casting and summoning. (In the game, casting spells costs mana. Summoning creatures costs mana and a specific number of souls.) You can cast spells (shielding your wizard, healing creatures, et cetera) or you can summon a wide variety creatures and give them orders (guard, attack, defend, follow, et cetera). As the player makes progress, he gains new manaliths, new creatures and a greater supply of mana.

Specific areas of the map are ingeniously made strategically valuable in a variety of ways. (Minor rant: many games claim that the terrain has strategic value when it actually does not–the game might as well be played on a flat plane with a few obstacles to circumvent. It’s nice to see that Sacrifice avoids this to a great extent.) Manaliths–geysers of magic energy–are sources of mana that can be capped and used by one wizard or another. If the player caps a manalith, it’s his, and he can mystically tie creatures to it as guardians. Manaliths are made strategically valuable in a variety of ways: The player heals and regains mana more quickly near a manalith. The player–if he dies and becomes ethereal–usually needs to return to a manalith (or similar spot) to reincarnate. The player’s creatures regenerate and are tougher if tied to a manalith as guardians. Also, the player can teleport to any of his own manaliths and his altar. These things make specific spots of the map matter *mechanically* (not just fictionally). Another example: Villages are populated by villagers, which can be slaughtered for their souls.

One play-style notion to keep in mind is that Sacrifice plays best as an interupt-based game. That is, most of it flows at real-time, but periodically the player should pause combat (cntrl p) to make unit adjustments, attack different targets, can spells, evaluate the health of his creatures, etc. The game works far better when the player uses this method frequently.

Mostly, my play style was as follows: Start the mission securing my own altar and nearest manalith. Run around collecting any unclaimed souls. Survey the land some. Move to the next manalith (trying to choose one at a strategic bottleneck location) and fight to secure it. Use the most recently claimed manalith as a staging point for my next rush. As I would win battles, I would collect the souls when possible and build up more forces. (The game played, for me, more like a squad-based strategy game than a standard RTS.) Periodically, I would teleport to a spot where the enemy wizard was attacking one of my structures to defend it.

The sound effects and art direction in the game are excellent–some of the best all year. The game manages to use recognizable staples of fantasy fiction without being cliché. (The world is really refreshing.) Some of the environmental effects are literally the best I’ve ever seen in a game. (The first time my character and his minions were sucked up like Dorothy in a 200 meter tall tornado–swirling around and around, before finally being dropped from the heavens–I was left breathless; now *that* is a transcendent gaming moment. Similarly, the other high level spells are all accompanied by powerful aesthetics, visually and aurally. Wait until you cast Mean Stalks for the first time.)

One knock I’ve heard regarding the art direction is that it’s often hard to intuitively understand the nature of a unit based on its appearance. This is, in part, due to the fact that not all the units are cliche (or staple) fantasy characters and units. To counter this, the player’s assistant (his familiar) provides information on any new creature in a mission. Also, once the player understands the basic combat model, this problem is mitigated: range-attackers are good vs air units, air units are good vs melee units and melee units are good vs range-attackers. The game’s barrier to entry is hurt somewhat by these things, but after playing for a few hours and coming to understand all this, I restarted and seemed to hit a ‘sweet spot’ from a playability standpoint.

For reference, I have a fairly good system (Pentium 2 450, 256 megs RAM and a Prophet II vid card), and the game ran really well. The world terrain was gorgeous and fast. Not sure how the game plays on older machines.

MINOR ISSUES

I have to point out that if the player is not aggressive enough, some missions become a war of attrition. A battle occurs, an enemy (AI) wizard loses the fight, most of his troops die and he retreats. This should shift the game in favor of the victor (the player). That is, the player should be able to collect the souls of the dead and move on. However, what usually happens is that the defeated wizard sweeps back in (often using a haste spell or healing himself on the fly, so as to stay alive) and collects the souls of his fallen creatures. Then the wizard retreats again, leaving the game at a stalemate; no one has advanced, really. Both sides often end up with the same number of souls as when the fight started. This almost works–if the player is fast enough, he can collect up some of the free souls before the enemy wizard does. I believe that the game would work significantly better if the time required to collect a fallen enemy soul was cut roughly in half.

The game *badly* needs an Unsummon (or Banish) feature that allows the player to dissolve his own creatures at will. There are many times when this is needed for whatever reason. To accomplish it, the player has to use his other units to kill the unit he wants to unsummon, which feels degenerative and sometimes takes a while. I know this would have been a powerful tool (that, hey, could have been exploited strategically), but this could have been balanced if the unsummon feature was another spell or ritual that cost mana and required time.

The manual is poorly organized and cluttered with too much fiction. Spells and creatures are all scattered out, instead of being grouped alphabetically. Some creatures–whose powers the player needs to understand–are not even listed. Not a big deal, but annoying. (More developers should work with the cluebook/game manual writers at Incan Monkey God here at in Austin. Highly recommended. http://www.incanmonkey.com/.)

WITCHBOY’S WISH LIST

I wish weather mattered, strategically. I wish it affect damage types. (Like maybe rain storms could cut fire attacks in half, but double lightning damage radius. Maybe some creatures could thrive in hot or cold weather.)

I wish day changed to night dynamically and mattered strategically. (Like, maybe some creatures could have double strength at night.)

I wish the mission designers had set up more interesting mid-level mission goals. (More mission goals besides ‘kill the enemy wizard.’)

I *really* wish in single player mode I could dictate more about my character–his (or her) appearance and initial attributes, for instance.

OVERALL

Sacrifice is one of the best games of 2000. It’s equal parts immersion, exploration, high-fantasy, story, strategy and aesthetic appeal, and it’s one of my favorite games of the year. Way to go, Shiny. Everyone should buy a copy of this game. (Which includes multiplayer support and shipped with an editor, allowing players to create their own maps.)

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