It would be far too easy to dismiss Salt and Sanctuary as a copycat. One look at a screenshot, seeing the red health bar and green stamina bar, switchable items, loadouts and currency counter all laid over a generally grimy looking fantasy setting and the first thing you’ll think? Oh, it’s a “Souls Like”. But in 2D. It’s remarkable, really, that in the seven years since Demon’s Souls released on PS3, From Software’s “hard game” poster boy has coined it’s very own subgenre of action RPG, synonymous with brutal, uncompromising difficulty, a total lack of handholding and a community that simultaneously gets off on helping out fellow gamers and newcomers while also feverishly hoping to be able to invade their games and ruin their days. But Salt and Sanctuary diverts in many ways from it’s AAA cousin, providing an incredibly rewarding experience of its own and, for this reviewer at least, takes a lot of influence from another albeit long dormant franchise – Castlevania. So, Castle Souls. Soulsavania? Soulsavania.
Game: Salt and Sanctuary
Developer: Ska Studios
Publisher: Ska Studios
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided by publisher)
I guess, at its heart, Dark Souls is a 3D Castlevania – all brick hard bosses, big open world and multiple branching paths to make navigation easier as you progress through the story, but the 2D nature and platform mechanics of S&S makes that association even more specific. Ska Studios have done a stellar job of taking the best bits from both franchises; the speed and platforming of the ‘Vania games and the heavy RPG elements from Souls. Veterans of both franchises will likely feel well at home from the get go. There is a solid character creation model with plenty of options for base player builds. Fancy rolling a tank? Look at the Paladin. Something with a bit more range? Try the Hunter. Once in the game, the first thing that hits you is the aesthetic. In a word, it’s “Foreboding”. In fact, there is no “Fore” about it – this game simply “Bodes”. Closer possibly in tone to the PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, there is a pervasive sense that the island you start shipwrecked on is… wrong. A lot of this is down to the lore and the names that Ska have given places and enemies – The Festering Banquet, The Village of Smiles, The Shivering Shore. They don’t really sound like holiday destinations, do they? Add to that some genuinely upsetting imagery, from hanged corpses being picked apart by birds, to rotting undead enemies and an early boss called The Queen of Smiles who has the potential to haunt your dreams, and you’ll find a believable, fully well rounded setting, only made better by the haunting soundtrack. A lot of love has gone into the world building here and it shows.
Fortunately that love also extends to the mechanics of the game. Navigating the island is a wholly side scrolling affair – jumps, attacks and item usage are relegated to the face buttons, holding L2 defends while R2 performs an evasive roll and R1 activates your selected item. L1, meanwhile, allows you to switch between two loadouts. This could be shield and weapon, or a double handed hold on the same weapon, or even something completely discreet like a different, heavier weapon or a spell. This allows for a large degree of strategy on the fly and opens up more opportunities as you explore the world and find that sweet, sweet RPG loot. There’s an intuitive approach to the items you can gather here and it’s most often very clear what everything does. This makes it somewhat more accessible than its 3D cousins which often hide the true purpose of items behind purposefully obscure and arcane text. On top of the items, adventuring will also yield salt and gold to collect, both dropped from vanquished foes. Salt is this games equivalent of Souls or Blood Echoes. Collect enough and you can use it to level up or upgrade your gear (if you should find a blacksmith) while gold can be used to buy new items. Interestingly, while death removes all your salt (stolen by an enemy – you can reclaim it by killing that enemy) you keep your gold minus a fee for resurrection.
The “Sanctuary” part of the title comes from the game’s equivalent to Bonfires; rooms which you can claim as rest and respawn points. As expected, using these respawns many of the enemies in the game world (apart from bosses and certain other tough foes) and refills your “Red Flask”, a gulp of which will regenerate your HP. But there are some other, interesting mechanics at play in the sanctuaries. By making offerings, you can call NPC’s to your sanctuary allowing you to make use of their abilities. The merchant, for example, will sell you items, the blacksmith will upgrade your gear and the guide will allow fast travel to another sanctuary. On top of these, each NPC type will also add buffs while you’re in the region served by that particular sanctuary. It’s another strategic layer and really makes S&S stand apart from the crowd.
Make no mistake – S&S is a BRUTAL game. You will die. A lot. It’s easy to get swamped by enemies if you don’t tread carefully and even easier to get complacent when travelling through an area you think you know well. The bosses are a different matter altogether, though – huge and incredibly hard to take down if you’re not familiar with their particular weaknesses or patterns, stumbling into a boss’s lair is a daunting experience but the satisfaction of finally landing the killing blow is a euphoric release that gives you a genuine feeling of progress. It’s also so, so “splashy” with hits on lower level enemies resulting in more gouts of crimson than a 70’s Samurai movie and a satisfying crunchy splurge.
A superbly realised, incredibly challenging game that picks the best bits from popular franchises but ultimately presents them in a package that feels entirely like its own unique experience. Forget the endless runner Slashy Souls, this is a 2D Souls Like done right. Absolutely essential for fans of the genre and for any newcomers looking for an incredibly challenging game.