Dark Souls, released in 2011, affected the gaming landscape in significant ways. At the time, games were pushing aside challenge and difficulty for story, narrative and dialogue choices. This allowed games to be more accessible and enjoyable to players without the frustration of having to reload a save game or checkpoint every time they were defeated by a particularly tough boss.Dark Souls on the other hand was a game that outright refused to help the player beyond a few basic tips and put players in extremely challenging scenarios that proved to be the reason of many a broken controllers. However, the difficulty and the challenge that the game provided proved to be a very appealing mechanic for many gamers. Over the past few years, various studios have taken to this concept and have released games that feature similar mechanics. Salt and Sanctuary just happens to be one of those games.
Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D action role-playing game developed and published by Ska Studios. From the very get go, the game shows off its Dark Souls roots, with tough enemy encounters, challenging boss fights and a very bonfire-esque saving system. Almost every aspect of the game, either it be the atmosphere, level design or gameplay, seems in some way or the other inspired by Dark Souls or Bloodborne. At times, it tries so hard to be like either of those games that it comes dangerously close to being a copycat, wanna-be title. Fortunately, there are a number of notable things that gives it its own unique identity.
In Salt and Sanctuary, everything is dark and gloomy with the muted colours imparting the game with a sense of mystery and make you feel like you are stepping into a dreary, unexplored world. But at the same time the dark and dull colour palette makes it difficult to see where exactly you are going or what part of the world you are in. It doesn’t create that sense of awe or wonder that transitions between areas in the Souls games are able to effortlessly create as most areas tend to look similar in some way or the other. Enemies popping out of the shadows or the ground become hard to detect due to the muted colour, allowing them to get in a few hits before you have the chance to strike back or defend yourself. It feels like a cheap excuse for a surprise ambush and I think a slightly extended colour palette could have really helped the game aesthetically.
In any Souls game, combat is what gives it its unique identity. Players are presented with a large assortment of weapons and armours each with their own unique qualities and moves to allow for different play styles. Salt and Sanctuary is no different. At first glance, the combat may seem extremely simplistic because of its 2D nature, with its lack of free open spaces and three dimensional maneuverability but it is just as complex and skill based. Upon reaching the first proper area in the game, a few tutorials regarding dodging and blocking is provided, and in true Souls fashion, the player is thrust into the world with little to no hand-holding.
Light attacks, strong attacks, blocks and dodge rolls, parries and ripostes and ability to two hand weapons are all featured in similar fashion to the games it takes inspiration from. Owing to its 2D nature, the combat is never too challenging and certainly never rises to the levels of complexity of that of the Souls games but neither does it become a button-mash fest where brute force can get you out of any situation. Irrespective of skill level, taking on multiple enemies is a bad idea and even dealing with low level enemies requires a clever combination of available skills.
There are a few annoying problems with combat though. The game makes it a point to introduce some mechanics that add artificial difficulty to the game. Every time the player takes damage, his maximum health reduces. Dark Souls 2’s mechanic of reducing the maximum health of the player every time on death made the already tough game so annoying that I found it very difficult to get back into it for weeks. I could not appreciate such an unnecessary mechanic in Dark Souls 2 and a very similar thing being repeated here certainly doesn’t help either.
Also the hitboxes in the game are erratic and don’t always work as expected. Against certain enemies, I was able to roll between the legs without issues and in case of some others (especially bosses) I kept rolling into them only to be hacked to death, a problem which was most prevalent against the second boss. Even when I got the timing of the roll right, I got stabbed by the boss and thrown across the arena, losing substantial health in the process. If this happened rarely it would have been fine, but it happened again and again, leaving me frustrated and annoyed.
Bosses in the game share similar traits to their more distinguished counter parts in the Souls game. Not only do they differ significantly in their appearances in the game but they also have their own characteristic move sets. No two bosses can be vanquished using similar approaches and a strategic combination of both timing and defensive and offensive skills are required to overcome them. Almost all of them undergo changes in their attack patterns mid fight, mixing up their moves, severely punishing the player for even the slightest of mistakes.
This makes the fights quite challenging but tactical rewarding at the same time. However, these changes mid fight don’t always feel fair. Certain bosses follow up their combos with completely unexpected strikes leaving you vulnerable to damage in case you have lowered your guard in order to strike back.
There’s also a skill system in place that allows players to customize their characters as per their requirements and play styles. The system ensures players always have the option to go down certain skill routes, without being locked into their chosen character class. This encourages diversity in playstyles and players will most certainly play through the game multiple times to experiment with different classes and playstyles.
Salt and Sanctuary‘s experience system is very similar to that of the Souls games. Whereas enemies in the Souls games yield souls upon death, which acts as currency as well as experience points, enemies here yield both gold and salt. Salt is used for leveling up purposes by offering them to various deities at hubs called Sanctuaries and gold is used to purchase items and in creating and upgrading equipment.
However, both are consumed upon death, with salt being lost requiring recovery by either killing the enemy that killed you or getting it back from a salt covered creature that spawns at the location where the player last died. Also gold is consumed in order to revive you at the last sanctuary rested at. In this game, death hurts plenty.
Speaking of sanctuaries, these are hubs scattered throughout the world, each of which is dedicated to a particular deity. Vendors, mages and companions can be added to them by offering certain statues to the deities and it also allows for fast travel. One can level up by offering salt to the deities of the sanctuary, purchase necessary equipment and refill healing potions. Most importantly though this is a place of safety and refuge away from the dangers of the world.
Level design is something however, that I have mixed feelings about. Every level features shortcuts and hidden paths that lead to some other area and these can be used to travel between areas much faster. It instills in players a desire to explore, to go into dark, gloomy and dangerous areas just to see whether there is a secret entrance to a new area or a welcome shortcut that can be conveniently used to reach a certain area with minimal effort.
However, unlike in the case of Dark Souls or Bloodborne where continued exploration can lead to the player gradually understanding the ideal progression route in the game, Salt and Sanctuary’s progression layout is confusing. I frequently lost my bearings in the maze like layout of most levels, and often ended up in areas with enemies much tougher than I could handle.
There are so many interconnections in every level that keeping track of where a particular shortcut or an entrance to an area is becomes difficult. Whereas in Dark Souls I had a very good idea of how the levels flowed together and where the different locations were, here I was often left confused when trying to figure out my location in the world and where to go next. Combine this with extensive backtracking that is required in the game and the absence of a map, and it can feel extremely frustrating.
Instead of using cut scenes or exposition heavy dialogues, the game makes use of item descriptions and cryptic NPC dialogues to convey the story and offer hints about what exactly is happening in the world. It introduces a sense of mystery to the game and constantly makes the player feel that he is discovering something more about the world as he explores and progresses in the game. However, it would have been more preferable if the game had a dialogue system, that in combination with a skill like charisma or charm, allowed players to extract more information about the world, the various locations and people in it from the NPCs.
Salt and Sanctuary is certainly a well done homage to Dark Souls, which at the same time manages to be its own game. It has a similarly rewarding and skill based combat system, intriguing world and varying boss mechanics. The game is going to appeal to a lot of gamers out to experience content similar to what is offered by the Souls series. However, it could have offered a much better experience if it introduced a few more mechanics of its own instead of attempting to lift most of it from the Souls franchise. Also there are a few irritants like unpredictable boss behaviours and combat issues that hold back the game from truly delivering a sublime experience. Despite its flaws however the game is highly recommended to anyone looking for challenging gameplay and an intriguing and mysterious world to explore.