"I actually enjoyed the game more than my scores would indicate."
Sacred Earth - Promise is a hybrid game that combines visual novel-style storytelling with JRPG gameplay. It stars a dragonkin woman named Priel who reminds me somewhat of Kei from the Dirty Pair anime and manga. Aggressive, boastful, and a shameless glory hog, Priel prefers to strike first, ask questions later, then flaunt her awesomeness when all is said and done. She used to be a Vanguard (the game's equivalent of a police officer) but was kicked off the force for being more trouble than she was worth. Priel hopes to get back into the Vanguard's good graces by winning a combat tournament with the reluctant help of her even-keeled sister Perrine. Little do the sisters realize that they're on the verge of uncovering nefarious conspiracies and running afoul of powerful foes. Hopefully, they can save the day without Priel causing too much collateral damage. The game itself is only about 4-6 hours long, so saying any more about the story would give it all away.
Although billed primarily as a visual novel, Sacred Earth is not a passive experience. It features board game-style progression, some traditional JRPG-style exploration, and a fast-paced, turn-based battle system that relies on chained combination attacks initiated by properly timed button presses to keep combat fresh. The combat reminded me of Legend of Dragoon's Additions system, albeit far more forgiving.
Dungeons are explored via a simple board game-style interface, with spaces for battles, hazards, events, etc. Some spaces feature forays into areas where exploration is handled traditionally. In other words, you walk Priel's sprite around to find treasure chests, solve puzzles, and encounter enemies. The game utilizes several nontraditional stats that make battles and exploration more strategic, but nothing is too complicated to get used to.
The key thing to remember is that you're thrust into challenging situations with limited resources, including limited opportunities to heal. The core mechanics, again, work more like a board game than a traditional JRPG, so players need to think differently and resist the urge to proceed on autopilot. The keyboard interface for playing the game isn't bad, but some of the button mapping took some getting used to and there is no option to change it. I tried playing with a gamepad, but that was like trying to put a viciously defiant cat into a bathtub.
The game has four difficulty levels to choose from: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Nightmare. I played on Normal and experienced sharp difficulty spikes between dungeons. For example, I got through the first dungeon fairly smoothly without ever skipping a battle but was mercilessly raked across the coals by the first battles in the second dungeon. I enjoy a good challenge as much as the next person, but I do not enjoy constantly getting one-shotted by a singular strong enemy or rapid-fire assaulted by a cluster of weaker enemies before my party can even perform an action. That's just irritatingly cheap and made me want to shelve the game many times. If Normal gave me this many headaches, I shudder to think what Hard and Nightmare would be like.
Visually speaking, Sacred Earth's anime-styled graphics get the job done with minimal fanfare, save for the visually striking cutscene stills. The 2D sprite and tile graphics for the visual novel, board game, and traditional exploration environments are functional, if pixelated, with the best sprite work reserved for the large animated battle sprites. However, some of the graphics used as backgrounds for the board game dungeons and visual novel sequences are inconsistent. Some look like video game environments, whereas others look like stock photos, lending an unpolished feel to the game. Sacred Earth's music is nicely composed, but I'm not compelled to go out and buy the soundtrack. The music consists of bread and butter tunes inspired by classic 16-bit JRPGs that enhance the adventure but aren't very memorable beyond it.
Although it seems like I criticized Sacred Earth throughout this review, I actually enjoyed the game more than my scores would indicate. Yes, the game was often cheap and unrefined, but it had a certain je ne sais quoi about it that made me want to keep playing in spite of its foibles. Sacred Earth's ending sets everything up for a series, so I hope future installments polish this diamond in the rough to a lovely shine.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.