Recently I had a discussion with another writer about what it means to say “inspired by”. While I often use it to mean “if people like X, they’ll like Y”, the person who I was talking with felt a good few tend to take it as “if people like X, stick with X because Y is just more of that”. It is a comment I do believe, as I’ve seen some be put off Vermintide and Payday due to comparisons to Left 4 Dead, “inspired” being seen as synonymous as “derivative”. So I’ll try being blunt about it:
Salt and Sanctuary is noticeably inspired by Dark Souls, manages to distinguish its self from that umbrella and is so excellent that I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the Dark Souls series or even the action-RPG genre generally.
Salt and Sanctuary, by two-person developer Ska Studios, is a two-dimensional action-RPG. While travelling as a passenger on a ship transporting a princess, you are attacked by raiders with a dark purpose. As you are cut-down, all the warmth drains out of your body along with your blood. Then you reawaken on an island. After brushing down the sand, getting it out of your shoes and hair, you realize the land is infested with undead beings. Either in the name of the missing princess or to find some closure within the salty purgatory, you stumble on deeper to reach the heart of the land.
Staying true to its source material, this isn’t a game that holds your hand. Rather, it seems to stab your water-wings, push you into the pool and giggle while screaming “you know how to swim, don’t you?” You’ll be told the controls, sure, but nothing else. If you’ve tried to introduce people to Dark Souls, you’ll know that the game handles information with the ferocious determination usually saved for bank details and state secrets.
To continue the analogy, Salt and Sanctuary guards information with the persistence of someone who’s first and last name are nuclear launch codes. Straight off, the game asks you which class you’ll be while keeping hidden any information about what any of the details mean. This is something that can mess you up later as one of the things it decides upon is your skill tree position (by the way, the correct answer is “Chef” or “Pauper;” no really, you’ll thank me later).
Where it goes into out-right frustration is its protection of knowledge about abilities you can unlock, as sometimes they wouldn’t even tell you what they do let alone the controls. I became lost for hours because I wasn’t told I could dash in the air after someone poked my hand with glowing metal, or if I was told then I was hopeless to finding out again. I don’t think playing hide and seek with the mechanics is part of the “Dark Souls flavour”; rather instead a cause for you to look up a walkthrough or rage-quit.
Oh, and before we launch into the main meat of the game, when you are asked which covenant (well, religion) you follow, it largely doesn’t matter beyond some flavour. You ponder on which religion would fit better with the few details you have unlocked, but besides interactions with heretics believing in a different god, it doesn’t impact a thing mechanically. I had hoped for more, thinking on how heavily covenants impacted gameplay in Dark Souls, but I can live without that.
In case you’re looking at this review with a bamboozled expression on your face after a paragraph, yes I did say “dash in the air” earlier. This is where Salt and Sanctuary disrobes from the influential nature of the Soulsian umbrella gracefully. While Dark Souls has you thoughtfully plodding through environments, Salt and Sanctuary demands you to leap, climb and conquer the landscape as well as the denizens. You’ll be earning brands to scar your skin and by doing that, unlocking more ways to navigate the terrain and unlocking more areas to conquer.
50% of your deaths will be due to fall-damage as you slip or get knocked off and get your skull crushed by gravity. You’ll also need to be wary of traps, small little buttons or trip-wires ready to render your body into a red paste. In addition, there are small hidden passages in walls that demand to be found. All these allow the 2D aspect to be less a limitation and more a brand new way to experience stumbling around a grim universe that actively hates you.
Fortunately, the environment reflects the universe’s distaste for your feeble existence as most things are out to disembowel you and use your intestines as a garrote. Unlike Dark Souls, you’ll be more inclined to roll through the enemy via invulnerability frames and execute quick attacks. This tends to make for a faster-paced combat system, even with heavier builds, with some bosses feeling almost like a light version of bullet-hell as you dodge missiles that could near one-shot you.
Both the platforming and combat is satisfying. This is partially due to tight controls and always being able precisely do what you want to do when you want to do it. While the extra movement allows you to dodge attacks or land on platforms easier and extra health potions allow you to recover from unlucky slaps; there is a wounding effect to keep you in check as your maximum health slowly dwindles with each hit.
I wish I could call this gameplay “firm but fair”, but there is one niggling point that claws the back of my mind with spider legs. While in a boss room, you are constrained to the invisible walls, the target of your wrath is not. It usually isn’t much, especially against more melee-focused foes, but some bosses have killed me through ranged attacks from off the map. It isn’t often when this occurred, but when it did it put a huge downer on the enjoyment I was having as I was getting my teeth kicked in.
To help fight against the foes using your head as a football, there is a skill-tree system that is an unusual beast. You put points into the many routes you can take, slowly upgrading your attributes and unlocking access to more and more potent weapons, armour, spells and miracles. As you do this, the game gets a little easier as you become more powerful, allowing you to grind until victory is assured if need be or starve yourself for added difficulty. This is something of a relief for me, but could also prove to be too easy for Dark Souls veterans, as it turned out to be the first Souls-style game I’ve ever managed to complete.
My only grumble about such a tree, besides the intimidating nature ready to gouge your eyes out, is how far and few the crystals that refunded skill points were. This was okay if I made a small singular slip, but if I wanted to rebuild a character I was stuck with either leveling down that concept or making a new character. It appeared like an odd area for the game to leave you hanging, although I guess it was to avoid rebuilding for each boss’s weakness.
This is all layered with an aesthetic that is fantastic to look at. It is grim, dirty and gross in all the ways I want it. It shows disgusting creatures in their entirety that all look and act differently depending on the environment you are plodding to your doom through, which there are a lot of variations. I’d like to give examples but, well, I’d rather not spoil it. The music is also fantastic, always captivating the tension and futile quest you wage.
The final score of Salt and Sanctuary for me is a 9/10. There is a litmus I often use to judge how I feel about a game: How long did I play it until I wanted to go do something else. Even if the first few times I had to stop due to work, usually my patience would cease on a future playthrough. Salt and Sanctuary is the first game in a long while where every time I picked it up, I played it until 6+ hours had passed, unaware of the crumbling nature of time sliding through my fingers as rapid as it did. The first time I had only stopped because the sun was rising and I knew I had to sleep; the second time because I had commitments like a barely functioning social life I couldn’t wiggle out of.
Even with its tendency to not explain anything, to allow bosses to snipe your health away from outside the map and a covenant system mostly there for inspiration hat-tip sake, I was captivated all the way through. 15 hours came and went with a breeze. I fear once it hits Vita (as it has cross-buy) I’ll be lost in a cocoon of warmth for days on end collecting enough salt to give an entire country’s population heart disease, with BagoGames presuming me dead. Maybe they’ll even erect a small tribute in my name on the website…
…Nah, reviewers are a dime-a-dozen, aren’t they?
EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s not true!
A PS4 code of Salt and Sanctuary was provided by Ska Studios for the purpose of this review.