Eight hours in, and my skull has been bashed in more times that I care to count. My latest death is at the hands of a the Kraeken Cyclops. He’s actually wiped the floor with my face thrice. I keep going back, because I will be DAMNED if that big, cleaver wielding Darkheart wanna-be gets the best of me! The game is Salt and Sanctuary. It has me in its grip, and I refuse to stop until I wrench myself from its grasp and dominate it!
Before reviewing this game, my Digital Crack cohort Reaper warned me: “It’s a 2D version of Dark Souls. It’s gonna kick your ass!” Since two of the games that have truly beat me senseless have ended in Souls, that was a warning I took seriously. Well, let me say that what Reaper said was quite prescient. Salt and Sanctuary is indeed a 2D rendition of Dark Souls, but with a dash of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night thrown in.
The game begins with a screen where you customize your character and choose one of eight starting class. The classes include standard dungeon-crawling stalwarts such as Mage and Thief, as well as offbeat members such as Chef and Pauper. Once a selection is made, you appear in a boat, fending off some invaders. I used my newly-created Paladin and dealt with the mobs, then went topside to be greeted and swatted by some Cthulhu-esque mega-baddie named Unspeakable Deep. I then washed ashore on some nameless land alone. After speaking to some hermit nearby, I settled on a religious affiliation based on questions he asked me and was told to set up a sanctuary nearby.
Thus begins the pleasure and pain that is Salt and Sanctuary. Your newly-minted character must traverse this new land, killing baddies, earning currency and reagents, and upgrading levels and gear whenever possible. The land is hostile and unforgiving, filled with creatures that are very willing to pound you into a fine paste. Similar to the Souls games, death means you lose salt, the main upgrade currency in this world, as well as any progress since your last bonfire/sanctuary visit. And death will visit you frequently. In fact, you may want to clean out the guest room for it, because death will be a very frequent guest!
The game is very Metroid-vania-esque in its presentation. There is lots of platforming, combat and exploration in this game. Secret areas abound, and you will find checkpoints as you explore. The standard enemies have many varied attacks, and there are quite a few environmental traps strewn across the landscape to frustrate you further. The stamina meter has been implemented Souls-style, and will frustrate people who try to simply button-mash their way around. Folks with hypertension may want to steer away; this game’s difficulty and mechanics will test your blood pressure.
Fortunately, not every area is immediately hostile. Sanctuaries are safe areas where you can rest, level up, and upgrade your character. Your character upgrades are handled via a skill tree similar to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. Further upgrades are available via brands, special abilities that you find in the game world via NPCs and can fundamentally the game’s mechanics. These brands unlock special abilities, such as the ability to use obelisks and special attacks. Other items found in-world allow you to unlock sanctuary perks like a blacksmith for upgrading weapons and armor, a guide that allows you transport between areas, and a sell-sword that allows a local player to join for local co-op gaming (no online co-op, unfortunately). Sanctuaries belonging to other deities cannot be upgraded, but you can convert to them if you feel a bit blasphemous. Be careful when you do, however. Becoming an apostate to your original deity may affect you later on. Don’t be surprised if you reach a sanctuary further into the game, only to be met with followers of the deity you abandoned. They will not greet you warmly.
The lack of true online multiplayer is a shame. Local co-op is great, but the ability to ask for help in the online space would be useful. The ambiguousness of the items you collect during your travels can be seen as a detriment as well, but it actually lends itself well to the environment. The land you are in is hostile, and the slightest mistake will kill you instantly. You must learn how to survive on your own. Occasional hints are scattered throughout the land, but they don’t explain too much. The boss encounters are even more heartless than the world, pitting you against beings whose attack and defense patterns you must learn and adapt to if you want to survive. In fact, every aspect of this game requires the player to plan, learn, adapt and overcome. If you want mercy, you will not find it here!
The game’s presentation is great. The land you play in is actually very well designed and rich in story. Metroid-vania elements abound, like areas that are inaccessible to you until you fulfill a requirement later on. The amount of backtracking may initially seem like a drawback, but hidden shortcuts make any backtracking tolerable. Every nook and cranny you explore drips with legend and lore. In one instance, a random NPC will offer insight into the events occurring throughout the land. In another, scattered notes clue you in on the spiritual forces driving the inhabitants, with verses from fictitious tomes to punctuate the text. These elements add greatly to the game’s immersion.
The graphics are cartoony but dark, excellent representations of the world you are in. There is no musical pomp to guide you through; the only aural cues you receive are environmental. From the plodding sounds of your steps to the satisfying thuds of your strikes, music is muted and atmospheric until you reach an area boss, when the music ramps up to punctuate the gravity of the situation. The controls are tight and on point, a blessing when you have to traverse the platform-rich areas you play in. Trust me; the multiple deaths you will rack up are not due to the controls. Like the Souls games, you have to “get good” to best this game.
Will I ever “get good” enough to best this game? I’m not sure, but I am determined to try. As much as this game has beaten me up, the game is so fun and engaging that I am not ready to call it quits. I WILL beat that big one-eyed bastard and find the next area and challenge. I’m sure I will definitely be turned into a coarse mist at least 18 times along the way, but I will persevere and (hopefully) defeat them all. I make no guarantees, though.