It's not possible to dodge roll out of the way from comparing Salt and Sanctuary to Dark Souls. From ladder sliding to punishing deaths, the similarities are apparent right off the bat. However, beneath the From Software-esque surface lies a unique experience that blends together action RPG elements from its influences with new ideas. The game was developed by Ska Studios, a two-person team, known for titles such as Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher series. It is available now on Steam for $17.99.
Salt and Sanctuary's approach is to storytelling is as obscure and ambiguous as the Souls series. With a few lines of text, it is explained that your character's mission is to escort a princess to complete a marriage alliance that will bring peace to an on-going war.
The first obstacle you are faced with is to protect the princess from pirates pillaging your ship. Despite all efforts, the task is a lost cause. Shipwrecked and marooned on a desolate island, you must traverse unfamiliar lands filled with all sorts of monstrosities. From this point, most of the story is ingested through item descriptions and bits of lore sprinkled here and there.
Depending on the player's choices, slight differences in the story will occur. This aspect is heavily impacted on what creed you decide to align yourself with. Each creed has its benefits and will also affect the game's ending, so choose wisely.
In short, Salt and Sanctuary's gameplay can be surmised by its title. Most of the time the "salt" (metaphorically speaking) will flow from the blood, sweat and tears you'll shed in battle. While sanctuaries, bonfire equivalents, act as checkpoints allowing you to rest, increase devotion to a creed and upgrade weapons.
The actual salt physically represented in the game is essentially the souls you collect in Dark Souls, which are then used to level up. Combat once again treads familiar ground. You guessed it. Dark Souls. In most cases, scenarios usually follow variations of this format: slash, shield, roll. Executions performed through parrying are difficult to time but end in a satisfying bloody mess. Players are rewarded for patience, studying enemy attack patterns and utilizing ideal equipment are key. In once instance I found myself beaten down and bombarded by the magical blasts of a witch guarding a lake. Countless futile attempts were made until I gained my composure, paid close attention to the behavior of her arcane attacks, and slashed with my great sword appropriately, resulting in a proud triumphant victory.
Character customization has as much depth as it needs to. At the beginning of the game, you'll be able to choose from eight classes and tweak some characteristics like hair style and eye color. Upgrading equipment follows the same style as many other RPGs, spending collected item drops from fallen enemies. In addition to items like rings, charms acquired fill weapon sockets, which imbue an equipped tool with a special attribute (Poison, fire, etc.).
Character progression is akin to Dark Souls with stats like strength, endurance, and dexterity. The skill-tree used to distribute points to stats is an interesting idea but looks cluttered and unnecessary compared to more streamlined designs of other RPGs. However, it is nothing more than a small complaint and becomes easily manageable with time.
Although it seems to ride the coattails of Dark Souls' success, it's difficult to criticize a game that pulls it off so well. Boss fights will induce Ornstein and Smough levels of frustration while each and every of its over 20 locations implement an interconnected level design the likes of Hidetaka Miyazaki (Director of Dark Souls). A nice touch to the multitude of branching paths is the freedom of choice players have in tackling areas. Zones can be completed in a variety of different orders and revisited with ease through shortcuts. Although this aspect alleviates some pressure, it can be overwhelming and hard to keep track of the countless corridors in a 2D space.
Despite similarities, the game finds some of its own identify with the handful of brands acquired throughout the game. Brands are abilities that add to the player's movement or are used to unlock certain areas. From walking on walls to dashing mid-air, brands add to the game's variety in a meaningful way. However, it's sad to say they aren't used as often as one would hope. Some of the game's shining moments come from the sparse amount of puzzle solving levels that utilize these abilities. For the most part, it seems like Ska Studios played it safe. Instead of giving people more of their capable creativity they tend to lean heavily on the roots of inspiration.
The art style of Salt and Sanctuary is gloomy, to say the least, but that's not a bad thing since it fits well with the game's atmosphere. The hand-drawn aesthetic of character faces lacks charm but sticks to Ska Studios's style seen in previous games. From castles and dungeons to caves and forests, all act as detailed and interesting backdrops to your brawls.
Enemies can range from menacing and grotesque to spooky and comical. A personal favorite is the Drowned Porcelain, a tiny creature donning a white mask appears out of nowhere and chases you with a knife.
Sound design is also a high note, including epic boss fight tracks and heavy rock interludes while clanking around armor-clad. In a specific portion of the game, the sound of organs blared while leading up to a boss fight. Diving into the unknown, I was filled with feelings of anxiousness and excitement. While some moments are eerie, others convey serenity. The game does well to capture the vibe and mood of certain areas throughout the adventure.
If you're a fan of Dark Souls you'll be a fan of Salt and Sanctuary. It doesn't quite fill the shoes of its predecessor but gets pretty darn close. What it lacks in, it makes up for with its own distinctive mechanics, if only they were utilized more. With over 20+ hours of content, not including optional areas and high replay value, you'll be hard pressed to find games of similar quality and caliber to From Software like this one. Salt and Sanctuary provides a well-rounded balance of combat, platforming, and level design but lacks ambition in some areas.
|+ Solid combat||– Teased creativity|
|+ Clever level design|
|+ Art and sound direction|