With Dark Souls 3 a fewshort weeks away, Ska Studio’s release of Salt and Sanctuary was just the perfect amount of “kick-you-in-the-privates” level of gameplay to whet one’s appetite for difficult and unforgiving gameplay. Salt and Sanctuary is a two-dimensional side scrolling action adventure game that skates a very thin line between a love letter to Dark Souls and hewing a little bit too close to the reference material.
Storyline in Salt and Sanctuary, as they are borrowing heavily from the Demons’ Souls world, is purposefully vague. You are a bodyguard helping transport a princess across a sea to a neighboring warring country in an attempt to cease hostilities through arranged marriage”¦only your ship is assaulted by raiders and you’re knocked out during the fighting. Just like most of the other Dark Souls games, this intro area of you getting attacked on the ship is before you learn any of the controls in the game; you’re meant to fail, but it is possible to complete the section if you know what you’re doing. Salt and Sanctuary really begins with you capsized on a bizarre island full of monsters with your goal of rescuing the princess.
Salt and Sanctuary is unapologetically a side-scrolling Dark Souls game. If you’ve ever played any of From Software’s Dark Souls or Demons’ Souls titles, then you’ll know everything you need to know about Salt and Sanctuary. Checkpoints are “sanctuaries” where you light a fire in the middle of the room and get back a series of oddly named healing potions that need to last until you get to your next checkpoint. Enemies drop “salts” as opposed to souls, which are your currency to make your character stronger. Storyline is given to the player in bizarre dialogues with other non-player characters which generally don’t make a lot of sense. It would be simple to go on and on about how much Salt and Sanctuary lifts from the Souls games.
However, it makes far more sense to talk about what it does to differentiate itself from Souls. Firstly, instead of just leveling up and adding a point or two into your character’s Strength or Dexterity, there’s an extensive talent tree where you can map out upgrades ahead of time. Interested in the ability to fire handguns or cast spells? You can see exactly how many points you need to put into your Dexterity or Magic in order to unlock what you need. While this sounds good, the upgrade path is an unforgiving one. If you spend the first half of the game deciding you’re going to go with the traditional “sword and shield” route only to decide to go into crossbows in the back half, you’re going to be out of luck. There is no overall “reset” of all your upgrade points, and you only get a handful of “gray pearls” to take back single individual points.
Another interesting mechanic Salt and Sanctuary uses is the Sanctuary vendors. Throughout the game, you find totems in the world that represent different classes of vendors or merchants, such as a blacksmith or an alchemist. Each Sanctuary can have up to four of these vendors in place, and not only do they have different abilities and baubles for you to purchase at your sanctuary, but also give you a bonus around that area such as having a merchant at a sanctuary increases the amount of gold dropped by creatures or a mage that will sell you spells to increase your magic resistance in that area. There’s even a vendor called a sellsword which allows you to play the game in co-op with a friend (local only, sorry, no multiplayer)! It’s a clever twist, but choose wisely which vendors you place at a sanctuary; I hadn’t found a way to remove one once you place one there.
Salt and Sanctuary has a bit more in the way of being a side scrolling platformer in the vein of a Castlevania or Metroid style game. In your journies, you’ll find multiple avenues you can travel, but there are places where you just can’t jump high enough or have the right set of items in place to access. Here, those areas are kept away from the player through a series of magical “brands”, which is a computer controlled character literally taking a brand from a fire and burning a magical sign into your skin. These brands give you the power to double jump, to walk across open gaps, even reverse gravity, which unlock portions of the map you were unable to access earlier.
Bosses. Of course there are bosses galore which will stomp you into the ground repeatedly until you figure out their pattern or discover their secret. There aren’t a lot of “puzzle” bosses in the game (bosses that require more than you just beating on them to kill them; i.e. a special item, weak spot, etc); most times, you see a boss, you whack on it for a while, and it dies. That’s one of the major gripes about the boss fights in Salt and Sanctuary. Given the 2d plane, there aren’t a lot of options as far boss fights go. Generally speaking, you sidle up to a boss, wait for it to attack, roll through it to the other side, and whack on it a few times. While the artistic designs are really well imagined and there are some truly unique ideas for fights (hello, Tree of Men fight), there really aren’t much to most of the boss encounters.
It may sound like I’m being harsh on Salt and Sanctuary, but I played through the game to completion and enjoyed the hell out of it. I missed out on Bloodbourne, so I had a hankering to have a game kick my teeth in. For tiny Ska Studios to only charging $15 for what is in fact a full 50+ hour Souls game is amazing. If you are at all in love with that style of gameplay but are a little tired of the Souls series, the 2D platforming re-imagines the series in a wonderful way. All in all, Salt and Sanctuary is an amazing success.