Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PS Vita, PC
Salt and Sanctuary is an easy game to describe. It’s a conversion of From Software’s “Souls” formula to a 2D Metroidvania style game, and that’s going be enough to hook most people. But the devil, or in this case the horrible undead Lovecraftian monstrosity, is in the details.
The two genres mix well, but in the parts where they don’t developer Ska Studios either created something greater than the sum of its parts, or forgot about it and let the flaws linger. The result is a game that is pretty solid simply because its concept is so good, but whether or not you enjoy Salt and Sanctuary will largely depend on which genre you were originally a fan of and how its core concepts changed when merging with the other.
As in the Souls franchise, story takes a back seat to action. You are a sailor. You fight a monster. You wash up on the shore of a strange place that looks like the underworld got a fresh coat of nineties indie comic paint. Narration is brief and only serves to shove you toward the next bit of action, which is never that far away. You can read item descriptions and talk to NPCs to really dive into the lore, but it’s entirely optional for speedrunners or people who are itching to get to their next fight.
The world of Salt and Sanctuary is huge and open and exploring is one of the main draws of the game, but since the narrative of the game is pushed to the background your rewards for exploring are largely mechanical. You’ll fight stronger enemies and get better gear as you traverse the massive 2D map, but you never quite have a feeling that you are going in the “right” direction.
The game doesn’t hold your hand either. Hints on where to go are sparse and you are expected to just bumble around until you trip into the right path. That’s supposed to be half the fun, and for fans of the Souls franchise it is, but for Metroidvania fans it’s bound to be frustrating. I kept looking for a mini-map to tell me where I had been and where my next point of interest was, but that was a service Salt and Sanctuary was not interested in providing.
Combat is about what you would expect form a Souls game, in that attacks and dodges use up stamina, and hits from enemies take off a ton of health. Unfortunately, the classic wind-up time on Souls game attacks is also here, and it feels horrible in a sidescroller, where you expect fast and responsive controls.
This is alleviated a bit by a combo system, reminiscent of 3D action games, that allows you to chain hits together, sometimes even launching enemies into the air for some Devil May Cry style. But this system and the stamina system don’t play well together. Your combo creativity is hampered by the fact all your combos tend to end prematurely, putting you back in neutral and asking you to land that slow start-up blow once again. When combat goes well it feels satisfying, not only because every enemy in the game is super hard but also because kills and successful strikes have this nice heaviness to them, punctuated by exaggerated blood spurts. But when combat goes wrong it feels like you never had an opening to begin with, and you’ll just watch yourself get wailed on till your inevitable death.
Death, of course, is a key mechanic in Salt and Sanctuary, just as it is with any proper Souls game. Defeating enemies gets you salt which is used to upgrade your equipment and abilities at sanctuaries (oh I see what you did there) but dying causes you to lose all your salt, forcing you to defeat the enemy that took it from you to get it back.
More Options. More Moving Parts.
But Salt and Sanctuary expands on this simple XP loss and gain by adding a ton of extra systems on top of it. You level up on a gigantic tree which looks very reminiscent of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. You can customize the residents of each sanctuary to provide different services, from blacksmithing to fast travel, and these are further complicated by the game’s take on the Souls religion system.
Your available builds are many and varied, even beyond the scope of what Souls games have to offer. If you want to play a heavy knight, brandishing an oversized sword, you can do that. If you want to play a faster and nimbler Bloodborne style hunter with a gun and quick melee weapon, you can do that too (pointy hat included!) You can dive into the game’s magic system and specialize in spell casting. You can keep enemies at bay with a spear. You can even use a Castlevania-style whip. The options here are staggering and you’ll get plenty of replay value simply by trying out new characters and builds.
The graphics are a mixed bag. Anyone who has played previous Ska Studios games, like The Dishwasher or Charlie Murder, will recognize the comic-book stylized ultra-violent black and white with splurts of blood red motif. However, part of what made those previous games so memorable was that the fast-paced violence stood out among your surroundings.
In Salt and Sanctuary, everything is muted and dark despite the color pallet being extended. Shadows creep in on the sides of the screen and backgrounds fade into fog. It expresses a gloomy and desperate atmosphere, but it also makes it difficult to see what you are doing or where you are going. Even enemies will sometimes pop out of the shadows with little alarm, and this feels more like a cheap interaction between the graphics and gameplay rather than a planned stealth ambush.
Salt and Sanctuary is undeniably fun and has a lot of good ideas. It’s the type of game that can keep you playing for hours and hours, only to go through it all again in New Game+ or with a friend in local co-op. But the flaws are a nagging annoyance that never quite goes away, preventing the game from being perfect. The frustration from not having a map alone is enough to make you throw down your controller in anger multiple times in a playthrough.
That being said, the controller never stays down long. You might go to bed angry at Salt and Sanctuary, but you’ll wake up forgetting it all and jumping right in again. If you can weather this love/hate relationship, you’ll find an impressive 2D conversion of the Souls formula here, but it’s understandable if that’s not a relationship you have any interest in.