STAFF REVIEW of Salt and Sanctuary (Xbox One)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Salt and Sanctuary Box art To say that the Dark Souls series has made an impact on the gaming industry would be an understatement. They’ve not only made a series that fans clamor for, but have since been synonymous with “difficult” games due to its challenge. Obviously when a new game or genre comes along, many copies also follow suit, and there’s been no shortage of Souls-like games in recent years. While most of these knock offs are simply trying to be a ‘me too’, developers Ska Studios, best known for their The Dishwasher titles, has decided to put some new twists on the traditional Souls-like gameplay mechanics, making for a unique experience that’s not simply trying to emulate its inspirational material.

Salt and Sanctuary begins with you on a ship that gets attacked in the ocean. As you kill the invaders and make your way to the deck, you’re greeted with a massive sea creature that will most likely demolish you in a few seconds (though it is possible to defeat it). Regardless of the outcome, the ship crashes and becomes a wreck on a nearby shore that you awake on much later. As you get your wits about you, you’ll meet an older gentleman that gives you a mysterious item and to let you know that you must find the princess that was aboard the ship as well.

Yes, it’s an overused trope, but it sets the framework of the much larger objective, but doing so won’t be easy. You’ll have hours of exploring and fighting ahead of you, coupled with hundreds of deaths as you learn the intricacies of the mechanics. You’ll be exploring through swamps, dungeons, forests, crumbled cities, underground tunnels and much more throughout your journey. I have to admit, for a smaller indie game, I didn’t expect as much depth and length, but was proven wrong after looking up how much further I had to go after a dozen or so bosses.

To say that Salt and Sanctuary is simply a Souls-like would be doing it an injustice. Yes, many mechanics and design decisions carry over and are similar, but it’s also part Metroidvania and more of a platformer, given its 2D sidescrolling gameplay. You begin by choosing your character, class and other details before being thrust into the world with little to no hand holding at all. And just like the Souls games, which I’m terrible at, I was initially quite awful at this as well. I’m not one for super challenging games generally, but Salt and Sanctuary, just like Souls, is never truly unfair, you just have to take your time and learn what you did wrong, and adjust, learning from your mistakes.

Traversing the huge world on a 2D plane is simple at first, but eventually you’ll reach areas that have vanishing platforms, platforms that can only be stepped on with a special light equipped, and even have sections where you’ll walk on the ceilings for a short period of time. I didn’t expect the world to be nearly as expansive as it was, as it took me by surprise just how big the world really ending up being.

Combat plays the other large part of Salt and Sanctuary’s gameplay. Simplistic to figure out and execute, eventually enemies become much more challenging and deadly, with bosses able to essentially one-shot you if you’re not careful. Luckily, you’ll have access to well over 600 items, weapons, armor sets, spells and more to truly customize your character(s) just how you wish. Being that I’m not as skillful in these games, I initially opted for a safer heavy armor and shield bearing Paladin to try and mitigate some of the incoming damage. While this worked for the most part, I found it was much more efficient to become better at combat and simply roll and dodge out of the way of attacks instead. The same goes for weaponry, as a large 2-handed broadsword did an incredible amount of damage compared to my single handed maces and swords. I’ve dabbled with the magic and spells slightly, but it’s simply not my play style, though I could see it being very overpowered if spec’d properly.

You’ll earn souls, er, salt, and gold for killing enemies, which is used to level up and upgrade your equipment. I completely understand that games like these are very hands-off with the lack of any real tutorial or easing into the gameplay, but I have to say, I did become frustrated early on when I kept dying and losing all my acquired Salt from silly mistakes. Yes, those mistakes were mine, I just wish more of the mechanics were explained more clearly from the early beginnings. For example, Salt and Sanctuary’s version of bonfires are the Sanctuaries, but it’s not explained outright what using one does. Yes, you’ll eventually figure it out, but it took some time to learn how to setup vendors like a Blacksmith or how to fast travel to other Sanctuaries I've previously been to.

Again, just like Souls, you’ll have a stamina meter that is tied to your attacking, blocking, dodging and magic use. Spam attacks and you’ll be left vulnerable, dodge and roll repeatedly and you won’t be able to attack or block for a short period. Even the lesser grunt enemies can take you out if you’re not careful, so learn to manage your stamina at all times.

You’re able to setup two different weapon loadouts, so I began with my sword and shield for when I need to block, then can freely swap to my 2-hander for damage dealing when the opportunity arises. It will take quite some time for you to learn the controls of doing so, blocking and using items, but once it clicks and you don’t have to think about it anymore, it becomes more natural.

Even though there’s a lot of Metroidvania influence within, there’s actually no map to speak of. Even after a dozen hours of gameplay, I still hate this absent feature. I get that it’s supposed to be challenging, but having to do a ton of backtracking and then getting lost simply negates any fun I was having, especially when I die and have to figure out where my body was to recover my salt. Just as you think the world is large, you’ll acquire brands, which allows you to access new areas via special abilities, such as wall jumping, or traversing upside down in a specific area. You’ll be revisiting areas you’ve already been to once you gain these abilities if you’re looking for all of the world’s secrets and bosses. Sure, once you defeat bosses, usually there’s a shortcut of sorts to easily get to another area quickly, but again, you’ll have to have a photographic memory to make use of it.

There are also times where you’ll get to pick a Creed, essentially a faction, granting special bonuses, though be careful, as if you claim a Sanctuary for your own under a rival Creed, locals will not take kindly to this, so there’s always a risk and consequence for your actions. Again, I wish these were explained in more detail, as I found I had to simply experiment with each and figure out not only what each did, but their specific bonuses as well.

Also included are some RPG elements where you can not only upgrade your gear, but a massive skill tree that’s actually quite intimidating to look at and figure out the path you want to ascend in. Seriously, the skill tree is absolutely massive and trying to take it all in took quite some time. This allows you to truly customize your character almost exactly however you wish, it’s just a very daunting visual to take in and understand without any context. Upgrade and level up enough, and you’ll eventually become incredibly powerful, so there’s a balance of challenge and payoff depending on how much work you put into it.

Also, just like souls, you’re able to leave messages in bottles for others to find and read. You could leave helpful hints, or set a trap by luring you into a false sense of security. It’s not game changing by any means, but a great nod to the source material.

Again, I don’t try and hide the fact that I’m terrible at games like this, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve still yet to see the credits roll. I’ve put in hours and hours into it, but I’ve hit a brick wall where I’m close to throwing the controller out the window. I know if I stick with it and take my time, I’d overcome the struggle, as this isn’t the first time I've become stuck, but doing multiple corpse runs only to lose more and more Salt really grates on you after a while. Sure, some will find Salt and Sanctuary much easier, as they may be Souls veterans, or have a build that works like magic for them, but I struggled almost the whole way.

The visuals are very basic, as everything appears hand drawn, though the aesthetic is very dark and brown, which makes sense given the narrative backdrop and setting of a dark and dingy world inhabited by monsters. Audio is very basic, with the groans of monsters and attack animations, though I do wish there was more of a robust soundtrack, as it seems it was the same few tracks repeated over and over.

I completely appreciate and understand what Salt and Sanctuary is accomplishing and trying to be. While some will be turned off by its difficulty, the elation that comes when you finally become better skilled and progress is unlike any other. Salt and Sanctuary isn’t simply a 2D Souls-like, as it has its own creative merits and is its own experience, something that needs to be applauded.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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