I have a rather large love for the Souls franchise; in fact, I would probably go as far as to call it more of an obsession insofar that I also hunt down games that are referred to by mainstream media as “Souls-like”. I won’t lie when I say that the lion’s share of these are terrible attempts at replicating a formula that have entirely missed the point of the formula itself (Lords of the Fallen, looking at you), but occasionally a game comes along evidently takes pointers and inspiration from the Souls franchise then alters and manipulates it into something new. Enter, Salt and Sanctuary (reductively known by some games “journalists” as the 2D Dark Souls).
The story of this game is one of implication. Essentially you start on a ship on the way to rescue a princess but the ship is attacked and everyone dies except you. The player character wakes up on a mysterious island all alone, an island that is full of horrible abominations and non-player characters that are quite messed up themselves in various ways and are just as lost and stranded as you are. The plot of the story from there is driven along mostly by the very limited dialogue and in item descriptions, or through architectural narrative. In short, if you want to have an explicit story to follow, you’re out of luck. However, there story in Salt and Sanctuary that is surprisingly in-depth if you wish to look for it.
In terms of gameplay, the title really stands out as a unique title of it’s own, even if this uniqueness is owed to it being made up almost entirely of a combination of other great game mechanics. The exploration, for instance, really takes a lot of pointers from classic Metroid gameplay. The game is laid out across both vertical and horizontal directions that are traversed in 2D, with a large amount of areas inaccessible until the player locates a particular ability needed to push forwards.
Some of these areas can contain some very challenging platforming segments that can very easily become frustrating, so time and patience is required to explore the world fully and find all of it’s secrets (although, that being said, one of the abilities later breaks a lot of this). My main gripe with the exploration aspect is the lack of a map. Given the nature of the game, it’s obvious why they chose not to include one, but the type of exploration required in this game really does need more of an indicator of progression as no map and barely any helpful NPCs make it very easy to get lost.
Now for the combat, which stands kind of in the middle of good and bad for me as it can’t seem to make up it’s mind as to what system it wishes to use. On one hand, there is some deeply immersive combat revolving around two attacks, a block and a roll. The standard attack can be repeatedly pressed for a string of attacks, which can also be used in the air. This does work, for the most part, but there are elements of the combat that don’t consistently work. One such issue is the dodging aspect of the combat, which does not work as effectively as it should in this particular set of parameters. The invincibility frames are indistinct, the dodge does not roll quite far enough on occasion for it to be effective and the recovery frames before another action are laborious. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue, if not for the bosses.
There are quite a few bosses in Salt, with almost every location the player explores having at least one, which are large and powerful tests of the player’s knowledge of the game’s various mechanics. Some of the bosses are fantastic, introducing some brilliant new challenges for the player, such as avoiding two figures to attack another third figure on the screen. Then there’s the other kind of boss in the game that are unimaginably cheap. As the perspective and mechanics are set up in a certain way, there are bosses in the game that can attack from off screen with homing attacks that can kill the player in a single volley. The end result is a lot of cheap deaths that could not be avoided as the dodge wouldn’t go far enough, can’t recover before the next attack, and if the attack came for off screen, there wouldn’t be enough time to avoid it anyway.
The economy and progression in the game is all centred around the Salt that you acquire, with Salt being dropped by every enemy that can be used to level up your character as well as for weapon and armour upgrades. As in other “Souls-like” games, your Salt will be dropped when you die meaning you have to get back to the same place and slay the creature that has your Salt because if you die again it is lost forever. The risk/reward balance of this mechanic is prevalent throughout the game, but there are times that the cheapness of some of the traps and enemies unfairly eschew this. Furthermore, if you do successfully use the Salt at a sanctuary to level up you earn orbs to place on an extensive skill tree to enhance your character. It’s robust, but lacks some of the nuance of its source material.
Other mechanics in the game include: various sub-quests offered by NPCs met in the game; the ability to negate progress through the skill tree with dark orbsl various allegiances you can forge that both give different benefits to the player and alter the appearance of the sanctuaries; and idols that can be used at sanctuaries to summon shop-keepers, blacksmiths or other helpful characters to them. But then there’s the actual currency, which is only seemingly used to revive the player after death. This is a particular bugbear for me as a player as this seems like an unnecessary insult to injury for a player that has already almost lost their Salt and progress, it’s an additional punishment for the player that serves no real purpose other than seeming humiliation.
Aesthetically, Salt and Sanctuary perfectly nails the tone of the gameplay in a way that feels wonderfully cohesive. The over-exaggerated character sprites are offset by screen-filling monstrosities and smaller creatures that are as comically disproportioned as you are. The locations are varied and unique with every area having it’s own thematic tropes used to create a tense atmosphere. The light in the game is used to create a foreboding tone throughout and, with a few exceptions, is used to restrict the player’s view of the path ahead in fair but challenging ways. The music is used sparingly, but effectively, with all of the boss themes being suitably epic whilst still being unmistakably macabre. In fact, my only notable issue with the aesthetics of the game is that the locations, although varied, rarely feel like a continual journey. Instead they mostly feel like disconnected set pieces, which isn’t too much of a complaint, but does detract from the cohesiveness of the game as a whole.
So, can I recommend Salt and Sanctuary? It’s a tentative, but still resounding, yes. The game itself is atmospheric, (mostly) mechanically solid, and a true adventure from start to finish. If it wasn’t a little dodgy with some of its boss designs, had it’s controls tightened a little (especially that dodge), and had a sodding map added, I would easily place this as one of the best games that’s attempting to imitate the Souls continuum. As it is, it can’t stand up to Souls, but it is a great (if frustrating) game that deserves your attention.