A large ship creaks, tossed back and forth over the tumultuous sea. You’re tasked with transporting a princess to secure a lasting peace in a country ravaged by war for centuries. You awaken to dark forces storming the ship: crew-mates are cut down gruesomely as blood coats the walls and creates a hellish scene fresh from a nightmare. Stumbling to the main deck you come across a towering beast, which easily dispatches you. After washing up on a nearby island, your adventure begins – to rescue the princess and discover the mystery of the island.
Salt and Sanctuary is a fascinating game for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it has such a powerful connection to titles new (Dark Souls) and old (Castlevania), and yet manages to create a thoroughly unique and amazingly entertaining experience.
From the start, you aren’t told much about the game. When you fire up your first new game you are given some typical character classes such as Paladin, Knight, Mage, etc. There are some basic starter sets in terms of equipment: a sword and shield perhaps, a staff, a basic set of armor. You customize your character’s look, which I found to be pretty fun (The Jewphin might think otherwise…) Finally, you can choose a single item as a boon before you begin your journey. In my case I chose a Crystal Sphere, which would let me convert any sanctuary to my deity’s faction (Trololo). From there, I was on my way. There are some limited instructions near the start, but Salt and Sanctuary doesn’t hold your hand – if anything it drops you off in the middle of a forest with a sharp stick and a loincloth and watches with amusement from afar as wild animals close in.
Before we dive in any deeper, let’s just break down the title a bit. First, there’s the salt. As you venture through the world dispatching evil, each monster awards you some level of salt, along with some gold. You can then turn in this salt to ascend (level up) at sanctuaries. Sanctuaries are brief respites from the harsh island. Within the hallowed walls you can replenish your healing items, summon blacksmiths to upgrade or sell you new gear, partner with sell-swords and more. If the idea of these sanctuaries sounds like a bore, trust me, after spending some time battling vile monsters, you’ll be clamoring for the nearest sanctuary.
At its core, Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D action/adventure title with fairly simple controls. You attack and jump, you can guard/parry, you can roll away from danger…and yet within these simple actions lies a vast world of skill and timing. A poorly timed dodge-roll could land you on the wrong side of the enemy, a missed parry could be all that stands between you and certain death. Unlike your standard 2D action title, every single enemy is to be treated with caution. Fall too much into routine, grow too confident, and Salt and Sanctuary will devour you whole. This much focus demands a lot of the gameplay; if players aren’t excited to be in combat, they won’t be playing the game for very long. Luckily, Salt and Sanctuary does a great job of creating an engaging and fun combat experience. For all of the comparisons being made to Dark Souls and Bloodborne, I would definitely say that I felt a distinct correlation in the combat with how Bloodborne feels. If you’ve been following the site for a while, you’ll understand just what a compliment that is.
There is one thing that puts a slight damper on the frenzied action in Salt and Sanctuary – the fact that it’s 2D obviously limits your mobility: you lose an entire axis within which to maneuver. The 2D space also allows for enemies to move and respond with speeds that you just wouldn’t normally see in 3D games like the Dark Souls franchise. This can sometimes lead to particularly frustrating encounters. My battle with the Sodden Knight, the first boss of the game and essentially Salt and Sanctuary‘s very difficult final exam on “Do you understand how the controls work”, was a great example of this. The speed with which the lumbering Knight would go from casting a spell to launching across the map with a flurry of blows defied belief. It was a steep learning curve, but it’s nice of them to make it clear early on just what kind of experience you have to look forward to.
Yes. It’s hard. You will die very often, which is probably why Ska Studios built in a small multi-prong candle before each boss battle that lights up for each death. A humorous and clever tribute to your dedication, as if they’re cheering you on (or mocking you…either way you’re spurred to action). Still, the challenge is purposeful – it makes you think more strategically about your fights. Dive in and try to take out a mob of monsters Rambo style and you’re sure to meet with death time and time again. It’s not difficult for the sake of being difficult; it’s a tough-love approach to get you to engage with the game on a deeper level.
If Salt and Sanctuary simply leaned on its strong gameplay, it would still be a solid title. What really takes it to the next level is the depth of the other mechanics within the game. From choosing a deity to crafting, Salt and Sanctuary presents a manageable segment of a mechanic, and then works slowly to reveal the fullness of each aspect of the game.
Take leveling up, for example. When you level up, it’s not a matter of applying flat stat bonuses, nor does it take the Dark Souls route of allowing you to distribute attribute points. Rather it relies on a “Skill Tree” that most resembles the ability tree in Final Fantasy X. You are granted Black Pearls each time you ascend, and can spend them to gain new stat bonuses. At first glance there are a few paths out from your starting point, but when you zoom out you begin to get a handle on just how immense this skill tree is, and the various ways in which you could build and develop your character.
While this may be daunting to some, I found it to be incredibly motivating – it stirred an excitement within me at what the rest of the game has to offer as I explore this skill tree, and has me plotting my future characters with glee.
Crafting is an equally exciting element of Salt and Sanctuary. As you venture through the dark island, you will come across a wide variety of items like fangs, locks of hair, lost poems of soldiers, etc. that will allow you to refine and improve various pieces of equipment. Investing in these upgrades is another great time-sink, as you’ll be searching for the items you need to make your axe more powerful, your shield stronger, etc. Focusing on these upgrades won’t give you a free pass in terms of the difficulty, but it does help to temper the difficulty a bit when you have the right tools for the job.
Another key element of your character is your deity/devotion. This is another one of those things where Salt and Sanctuary doesn’t really explain much, but as you explore the game you discover just how much there is to consider. There are numerous creeds that you can belong to, from Devara’s Light to The Order of the Betrayer. Each worship a different God and have different benefits/items for players, as well as altering the ending depending on the creed you choose. If anything was going to be explained a little more I suppose it should have been the creed system, but then again it keeps in line with the rest of Salt and Sanctuary’s approach to how people engage and play the game – through exploration, trial and error.
Overall, Salt and Sanctuary is a fantastic title. Its amazing gameplay is complemented by a full and rich world of crafting, an intricate skill-tree and leveling system in addition to a well-executed devotion mechanic. All of this for a great price as well: only $17.99 on the Playstation Network. A lot of people start their recommendation for this title with “If you’re a fan of Dark Souls…” I wouldn’t qualify it that way. If you’re a fan of high-quality games, pick up Salt and Sanctuary.
Have you picked up Salt and Sanctuary already? What do you think? Let us know in the comments! Also, look forward to our interview with Ska Studios, which will be posted next Friday!
NOTE: We were provided a review code for this title courtesy of Ska Studios.