(Reviewed on PS4)
With all the major Dark Souls 3 hype running around the internet, this little homage released last month received quite a bit of the spotlight for being the game to satiate the hunger for those clamoring for From Software’s AAA title. It was heavily streamed on Twitch after its’ release and was exceptionally well recieved. However, with Dark Souls 3 now released, will Salt and Sanctuary be swept under the dank bloodied rug? I sure hope not, as this game is so much more than just an homage.
Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D side-scrolling Action RPG from Ska Studios that wears its inspirations on its sleeve. From the menus, to the gothic fantasy setting, to the upgrade systems and a whole lot more, this game is dripping with the Souls series. Honestly, while this game is exceptionally fun and a wonderful representation of the 2D ARPG genre, I’m surprised From Software hasn’t had a little word with the guys at Ska! Salt replaces Souls as currency/experience. Sanctuaries replace Bonfires as safe havens. You get a lovely message saying ‘Obliterated’ when you die instead of ‘You Died’ (expect to see this message a lot in this game) and one saying ‘Vanquished’ when you beat a boss instead of ‘Victory Achieved’. Naysayers may call this plagiarism, I call it paying respects.
While Salt and Sanctuary borrows a lot of it’s mechanics not only from Souls, but forebearers such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as well, it still manages to make a style all of it’s own. Platforming has a lot more emphasis in this game than it does in any of the Souls games, meaning that there’s a whole new plethora of ways to your doom through missing jumps or standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. The only thing I wish Salt and Sanctuary DID take from Castlevania or Dark Souls is their incredible soundtracks. While the music here isn’t outright bad, it’s practically non-existant. The creepy tones and occasional mild backdrops are fine, but nothing spectacular.
The setting may have similarities to Salt and Sanctuarys’ inspirations, but the visual style has some important differences. There’s an element of puppetry to the visuals in this game that gives it a more welcoming feel than other games like it, though if I were to have one small niggle with this game, it’s that the humanoid characters in this game have very odd looking heads that don’t really match the style of the rest of the game. This gives the characters a little more personality than your player characters in Souls games, but I find it a little jarring against the other, more Limbo-esque designs. The monsters, weapons and armors and in this game are all wonderfully rendered with sharp visuals and fluid movement, but it’s the locales that really steal the show for me. While they might be a bit formulaic in terms of fantasy settings (Castle, Forest, Swamp, Cave, Cathedral etc etc), they are able to retain individuality from one another with a flow between the different areas that works to perfection. The soft lighting in particular is a shining example of how other 2D games should look to progress in 2016.
Speaking of the monsters in this game, the boss design here is completely on point. There are well over 20 boss battles in Salt and Sanctuary, and no two of them look even close to the same, or more importantly are fought the same way. If there’s one thing that this game needed to take from its’ primary inspiration, tactics-based action combat is definitely the thing it wanted to take, and it does it with aplomb. It’s strange for many to think back on 2D games and think that they can have the same level of minute movements that a 3D game can have, but if you run in guns blazing to attack enemies, let alone bosses, in Salt and Sanctuary, you are going to die. A lot. Make no mistake, like Dark Souls before it, this game is HARD. Venture into the wrong area too quickly, attack that one extra time you think you can get away with (and can’t), or jump onto a platforming hazard too quickly, and you’ll soon start seeing the aforementioned ‘Obliterated’ message many, many times. It’s rare that you feel that the game is being unfair to you when you die, an important aspect of this style of gameplay, with 90% of deaths being because you misread an enemy movement or jumped poorly, though their are occasions where enemies will hit you and you fly off the platform you’re on, killing you instantly and providing mild frustration.
It’s very easy in S&S to make a character entirely your own as well. The number of different weapon classes, spell types, and armor classes is staggering, and the game’s skill tree (which looks relatively similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X, interestingly) allows for you to explore how you want your character build to be, as well as allowing hardcore players to delve into the world of min/maxing stats to their specification. I’ve played through the full game twice, once as a Greatsword-wielding Knight, cutting through enemies like butter, and once as a Blood Mage spouting black energy from a boss-acquired stave. Something wonderful that Ska has achieved here is making the game brutally punishing while still allowing the player to ultimately feel powerful.
Salt and Sanctuary is an exquisite renaissance of the 2D Action RPG that I played through a second time immediately after finishing it. The inspirations for the game are very clear and are rendered in such a way that shows love for the material rather than plagiarism, extracting almost all of the Souls’ series best features while infusing them with some Castelvania style platforming and a unique visual style. It deserves to stand alongside its influences as a strong title in its’ own right, to a point where labelling it ‘indie’ doesn’t do it justice. If you’ve looked at Dark Souls 3 and found it intimidating, Salt and Sanctuary may well convert you to this style of play. This is definately a game that will leave you begging for more brutality and punishment, for sure!