Since its staggered release on the PS4 and PC over the past two months, and with a Vita port supposedly incoming, Salt and Sanctuary has been touted as “2D Dark Souls” by fans and critics alike. I’ve seen a lot of what are now being referred to as “Souls-like” games come out over the past few years, Lords of the Fallen being perhaps the most well-known example, and I’m familiar with the lengthy discourse surrounding the debate between homage and simple clone. Ska Studios, an incredibly small team headed by James and Michelle Silva, is more or less shameless in borrowing gameplay and story elements from the Souls series. I’m not going to weigh in on what makes something an homage or a clone, but I do want to begin this review by saying that if I spend a lot of time comparing Salt and Sanctuary to Dark Souls, it’s because the comparison is crucial to understanding some of the design choices the developers made for their game.
Now, I’m not saying this is bad or good, one way or the other. In some cases, Salt and Sanctuary actually improves upon the elements it borrows from the Souls series. Other times, ideas are carried over a bit more clumsily. When the game does deviate from its Souls-like inspirations, I find it that the theme of excellent ideas and awkward execution continue to hold it down. To be clear, I think that Ska Studios has made a very good game. Unfortunately, it’s not a great game, despite the fact that it very easily could have been. All of that said, I think we can get into just what it is about this game that makes it enjoyable, as well as which aspects put a damper on the experience. Let’s break it down:
Like the Souls series, Salt and Sanctuary utilizes what has popularly been referred to as “minimalist storytelling” to get its plot across. That is, most of the context for the game’s story and lore is found either environmentally, through optional NPC dialogues, or through item descriptions found in-game. If a player wanted to, they could easily plow through the entire game without paying attention to any of this optional content, and reach the final boss with absolutely no idea what was going on or why they were fighting. All Salt and Sanctuary really tells you at the beginning of the game is that you’re stranded on an island, and you need to find a princess.
I’m a great fan of this sort of presentation. On a surface level, it leaves players open to far more role-playing opportunities than if they were shoehorned into an overly specific role, but there’s more to it than that. A game that shoves its story in my face can be downright unappetizing, while a story that I’m left to investigate and discover on my own leaves me hungry for anything I can dig up. When a game respects players enough to let them figure things out on their own, it’s a liberating feeling. I think every kid who’s ever been on a museum tour can agree that the exhibits would be far more interesting without the long-winded explanations from your chaperones.
When it comes to story, Salt and Sanctuary did not leave me wanting. Many of the bosses have especially interesting stories behind them, discovered by investigating the items they drop or the unique weapons you can craft using their essences. In fact, some of my favorite discoveries came from the boss battles in and of themselves. I’ll avoid specifics since many of the names of these bosses alone are major spoilers, but one particular hidden boss near the very end of the game left me reeling with excitement.
Like I said, I wasn’t left wanting for much, and that leads me to my only real complaint regarding the game’s storytelling. Occasionally, and here I’m mostly thinking of the game’s skill-tree, there’s simply too much text-dump to effectively sort through. The fact that it’s all there if you want to read it is nice, but the fact that from the moment you’re able to level-up you’re faced with hundred of paragraphs of flavor text for each point on the skill tree makes it rather daunting. A far more elegant solution might have been for these snippets of lore to pop up in a satisfying text window when a player chose to purchase a particular skill, rather than just leaving them there in a unnavigable mess.
A good story is a good start, but the heart and soul of any game should be the way it actually plays. To simplify a bit, I’ll preface by saying that there are two major components to Salt and Sanctuary’s gameplay: combat and platforming. When it comes to the combat, I’m hard-pressed to find complaints. For the most part, boss battles and other enemy encounters feel extremely satisfying, once you’ve practiced a bit with your attack and dodge timing. I mainly utilized heavy weapons and holy magic in my first playthrough, and felt extremely rewarded by the strategic depth of optimizing my stamina-reliant greathammer in tandem with magical buffs that boosted my damage output, but limited my maximum stamina gauge, not to mention the stamina requirements for dodging. Being forced to actually strategize and plan what armor and rings I would wear, which spells I would use, and whether I should use a striking hammer or a slicing axe to take down a boss left me feeling all the more accomplished when I found a loadout that lead me to success.
If combat and boss encounters are its greatest strength, one of Salt and Sanctuary’s glaring weaknesses is the exploration and platforming. Just as players level-up their stats and gear to open up more combat options and depths, by encountering various NPCs throughout the story, players gain new “brands” that allow them to utilize new techniques to explore the environment in new ways. While this is certainly a good concept in theory, and hearkens back to other 2D games in the same vein as Castlevania (pun intended), the execution is just so bafflingly backwards as to make me wonder how it could have been overlooked. In theory, a game’s mechanics should become more complex and more interesting as the player progresses. Salt and Sanctuary does the opposite.
The first brand player’s receive allows them to invert their own gravity in certain areas. This is a unique, fun mechanic that opens up a lot of new possibilities for exploration. Unfortunately, the rest of the brands the player will collect are major let-downs by comparison. In order, the player will gain the ability to wall jump, then to traverse special fog platforms. Neither of these are particularly innovative mechanics, but they do serve a specific purpose. The next brand received is one that allows players to pass through previously impassable red walls. It’s a mechanic that serves no function beyond that which a locked door and a key could already provide with much less to-do. Compared with the ability to invert gravity, it’s a massive disappointment, basically a lazy way for the developers to check and make sure the player has been to a certain area before visiting locked-off zones. The final brand is an admittedly cool but again, standard air-dash that allows them to cross larger gaps.
Ideally, every subsequent brand the player gained would be far more interesting than the last, and increase the challenge and depth of their exploration. Instead, the first brand they receive is simultaneously the most compelling as well as the most underutilized, serving as a progress checker once an then being relegated to more or less novelty usage. The air-dash, meanwhile, has an entire zone of the game dedicated to making one repetitive jump after another that provides no real challenge whatsoever. In fact, the most fun I had using the air-dash was when I realized it gave my character far more invincibility than the standard dodge roll in combat.
This is one of Salt and Sanctuary’s most disappointing failures, if only because I can imagine how great it might have been with just a bit more vision. Rather than uneventful and irritating platforming sequences breaking up engrossing and unique boss encounters, why not synthesize these platforming elements to elevate the depth of the combat? With as many massive and monstrous enemies as Salt and Sanctuary has to offer, why was I never given the opportunity to invert gravity, fly up to the ceiling, and attack some towering titan’s weak point? Why, instead, does almost every boss battle take place in a large, empty room?
OVERVIEW AND CLOSING
Did I enjoy playing Salt and Sanctuary? Absolutely. Was it worth the money? Undoubtedly. Will I play it again? Quite possibly. Given the absurdly small team that worked on this game, Ska Studios has managed to put out a very good product with an impressive scope. In fact, I think that Salt and Sanctuary’s sheer size may be the case of most of its problems. With as much content as the game has to offer, over 20 bosses and easily over a dozen hours of playtime for a complete run, I find myself forgetting most of the areas. It’s an admirable accomplishment, to have made a game as vast as this one is, but I can’t help but feel I’d have been more satisfied if the game were scaled back 25-50%. While some enemies and areas are exceptionally fun and memorable, they’re spaced out between long sequences of indistinguishable hallways that serve little purpose other than making the game bigger.
The first few hours of Salt and Sanctuary were some of the most promising 2D gameplay I’d experienced in some time, on par with other Castlevania-inspired games such as Odallus: The Dark Call. Unfortunately, the most captivating features of the game all seem to be front-loaded, with the second half of the game becoming repetitive almost to the point of tedium. For a game in the RPG genre, which should lend itself to replay value, this can potentially be an Achilles heel. To its credit, Salt and Sanctuary manages to deliver just enough excitement to mitigate the boredom and kept me playing to the end. In fact, during the final segment of the game I had almost recaptured the sense of wonder I’d started with. Unfortunately, at the end of the day Salt and Sanctuary still suffers from a case of surplus content with a deficit in variety.