Welcome back everyone. Today we’re covering Salt and Sanctuary by SKA Studios, released as a timed PS4 exclusive in March of 2016 before making its way to Steam in May. The tl;dr description is “2D Dark Souls with platforming,” but I’d not be giving the devs proper credit if I stopped there. In S&S, you play as a lad or lass escorting a princess across the sea for a diplomatic marriage. As things tend to go in this game, your ship is boarded and you are left on the shores of a mysterious island. Now, in theory you’re out to find the princess, but the game kinda forgets about that and lets you focus on exploring the place.
Leveling up looks much spiffier here, no?
From there, it’s the same basic formula: Cool locales, challenging battles, and cool gear to build your character into a deity-slaying badass. As the title would suggest, you upgrade your character with Salt, and you’re always on the lookout for new Sanctuaries, which feel like bonfires crossed with a reasonable extension of the Covenant system in Dark Souls. See, Sanctuaries are controlled by different Creeds. You’ll often find empty Sanctuaries you can take for yourself, but just as often you’ll get to a new safe haven and find someone else has already set up shop. Thankfully, they’re okay with someone from another Creed crashing on their couch and raiding the fridge for healing items. Even so there’s just enough drawbacks to make you consider converting such places to your own Creed with a rare item or just wiping the place clean in a tough brawl. The lack of multiplayer (outside a limited split-screen option) is a jarring change, but I feel everything else makes up for it.
Speaking of which, I really appreciate that the devs made several such changes to make the game more accessible while still giving the player a thorough ass-kicking if they aren’t careful. There’s more shortcuts between areas that reward exploration with a swift route to whatever area you’re currently having trouble with. There’s always a Sanctuary or mini version very close to the boss rooms, and boss rooms are marked by a candelabra. This means the process of “try, try again” is a bit easier than in Dark Souls. Salt is taken by enemies that manage to kill you, but any bosses that do so only need to be hit for ~25-30% of their health to get it back. Another good change is that most of the “apply X damage to weapon” items can be gained fairly consistently. And last but not least, the fact that you have 2 currency types (with their own rates of loss on death) means you won’t forgo items with useful effects (including “Apply X damage”) on the grounds you need the levels more.
As for presentation… If you’ve played SKA Studio’s Dishwasher games, the art style will be very familiar, but this world is bleak enough for it to work here too. The sound effects are suitably clangy, burny, and “oh dear that sounded painful” to enhance the combat, and the world is beautiful in a mournful way, like Aquatic Adventure with the color washed out.
The skill tree is nice too. Rather than having weapons and spells be locked to specific stats, you grab the skill that applies to the weapon you need. For example, a magic sword you can craft from the remains of the second boss takes the second level of both the Magic and Sword skills, and it’s a greatsword so you’ll need the 3rd level in Sword if you want to wield it one-handed. It’s also good that things that synergize well sit near each other. For example, Dexterity and Strength based upgrades extend outward from Sword and Polearm skills, which benefit from both, while Hammer and Knife/Bow/Whip skills are as far away from each other as possible, same with Magic and Prayer upgrades.
That brings me to the world building. Here lies another fine example of taking a good system and improving on it further. Creed-related NPCs will properly explain what their premise is in an attempt to recruit you. Non-creed related NPCs actually move around such that you’ll run into them when they have more to say rather than happening across some new dialogue as you retreat to an old hangout. There’s a bestiary to help explain what the heck enemies like “The Queen of Smiles” are supposed to be, further fleshed out by descriptions on the items you transmute from their severed limbs. Even the individual slots on the Skill Tree have lore! Thanks to this, there’s very little exposition to dump in the player’s lap, and it feels more like they’re learning about the world as they’re exploring rather than being spoon-fed.
Enough of the darned swords!
On the complaint side, I shall open with saying that bosses get a little predictable in how they’ll behave as their health decreases. Every boss I’ve seen thus far has a slow, exploitable attack in their earlier phases that gets a lightning fast “gotcha!” follow-up later in the fight. It makes a long fight take even longer and some of the follow-up strikes can be hard to judge. For example, when the Queen of Smiles is nearly down, she’ll throw out swords like before, then charge across the screen while pretending to be a windmill in a hurricane. I still don’t know what makes the difference between safely dodging and getting punted, so more indicators for attacks like that would be helpful. Continuing on, respec options are more limited, with a handful of tokens that let you refund individual spots in the skill tree rather than have a fresh start. Also, and I know this has been said before, but a map would be handy. One of the first areas has like 6 exits, with their destinations varying noticeably but the paths leading to them looking remarkably similar.
Anyway, that’s Salt and Sanctuary. If you like the idea of a challenging RPG, but find Dark Souls too tricky for it’s own good, give it a go. It’s $18 on Steam, and I’d say it’s worth the price of admission.