If there is anything I love more than setting my mouth on fire with a spicy taco, it’s punishing myself with a game via a difficulty wall that requires patience, skill and timing. Seeing as I’ve done absolutely everything in Bloodborne, and Dark Souls II is a bad Dark Souls game, I needed something to quench my thirst for punishment. This is where Ska Studios’ new release Salt & Sanctuary aims to satiate my lust for another masochistic game, especially while I waited for Dark Souls III.
Salt & Sanctuary is a 2D platformer/RPG developed and published by Ska Studios which boasts difficulty similar to that of the Dark Souls series. The game starts immediately after the character creation screen (which is like a blend of Dark Souls and Terraria in terms of its design), you find yourself on a ship being boarded by something that can only be described as a Cthulhu-type creature who was a product of incest. From here you are defeated and you find yourself on the shores of an island, and this is where the game takes place. Storytelling-wise, Salt & Sanctuary is strikingly similar to Dark Souls. It doesn’t give away too much, and explains things very briefly via character dialogue. To aid in this there is also a feature called the ‘Beastiary,’ which serves as an encyclopedia, that briefly explains the backstory behind the various enemies you encounter, including bosses.
The game itself plays very solidly and it is easy to see how much of an influence Dark Souls has had on the development of Salt & Sanctuary. Like Dark Souls, you have your base builds, ranging from melee-based Paladins and Knights, to more range and buff-focused Sorcerers and Clerics. I started with the basic Knight build as I wanted the experience of working for my prayers and spells. When it comes to character development and the progression of builds, this is where Salt & Sanctuary aims to differ itself from Dark Souls. Instead of just spec’ing into certain stats, players are given a skill tree named ‘Tree of Skill.’ To allocate points to stats and skills, you need to have an item called a ‘Black Pearl’ (No, not the ship from Pirates of the Caribbean). These pearls are generally obtained through levelling of your character, which is done in the same manner as Dark Souls, relying on the player to garner enough Salt to level up (bring up Bastion on an Overwatch forum and you’ll be drowning in salt). Each type of equipment you use (swords, heavy armour, maces etc.) have classes which determine their strength and overall effectiveness. These classes are unlocked by allocating Black Pearls into the class option in the Tree of Skill. The amount of pearls required works in conjunction with the class number, salting from one and climaxing at five. What should also be noted is some point allocations can be reversed with an item called ‘Gray Pearls’, but these are by no means easily obtained.
Salt & Sanctuary has its own take on the traditional bonfire system that Dark Souls is known for. The player is given an item to build Sanctuaries. These are pretty much bonfires but they bring something else to the table. In Sanctuaries (which serve as resting points, checkpoints and respawn points), you can choose to have the area aligned to your current creed (creeds are mandatory), allowing you access to the various benefits you may receive from being ranked up in that creed. Benefits can vary from extra healing potions, mana potions, or even allowing you to have a reliable weapon buff that replenishes its uses every time you rest at a sanctuary. This isn’t the only difference that Sanctuaries have to bonfires though. Throughout your perilous journey, you will more than likely encounter items like a Stone Merchant or Stone Cleric. These stone statues are how you can engage in trades; offering them to your sanctuary will cause an NPC of that title (cleric, merchant, blacksmith etc.) to set up shop in your current sanctuary. In doing so, these NPCs will also provide the player with certain buffs, depending on which NPCs are selected.
The further you get through Salt & Sanctuary, the more it becomes its own game and less like a 2D spinoff of Dark Souls. Over the course of the game, you receive brands which grant unique abilities such as the Vertigo Brand which gives the player the ability to use obelisks that are scattered across the lands. These allow you to traverse the terrain upside down for little while which is both fun and useful. There are a total of five brands to collect and all are vital towards progressing through the game. Ska Studios have done a superb job in this regard as the ways in which these mechanics have been implemented is nothing short of genius. At some points multiple mechanics are used and it’s left up to the player’s skill to traverse the platforming.
The art style of this game is exactly what it should be. Landscapes are dreary and have little to no colour. It’s almost as if someone put this game through a dull
Instagram filter. This adds to the decaying and lifeless feel that Salt & Sanctuary aims for. On the locations based on the surface, there is generally a thick fog or mist, making the environments seem lifeless and haunted. To this end, Ska Studios have done a superb job of recreating a Dark Souls experience in the style of a 2D platformer. Something also worth discussing is the great use of lighting. Even though they aren’t necessarily required, torches greatly aid in your adventures. Darker cave regions especially utilise the lighting as some enemies produce light as well as your torches. The graphical fidelity and art style of the game go hand-in-hand with the immaculate level design. Areas link up in unforeseen ways, much more so than the lackluster Dark Souls II.
Boss fights are something which the Souls series is notorious for, so it is no surprise to know that there are a multitude of available encounters for players to sink their teeth into. Generally speaking, boss fights are varied and well designed… for the most part. As a whole, every boss fight is challenging and fun, however, there are a few notable bosses which are not designed very well, like the Kraekan Wyrm in the Castle of Storm or the Kraekan Dragon Skourzh in the Crypt of Dead Gods. The Kraken Wyrm spends 75% of the time off-screen spitting fire which deals a ludicrous amount of damage. Now I’m all for a challenging boss fight where one wrong move on your behalf will more than likely kill you, but barely being able to damage a boss is just plain wrong for the player. The boss’ move set would be more acceptable if the boss spent more time on the ground, but the way it was when I fought it, it was just plain toxic. Moving on to the second fight, the Kraekan Dragon Skourzh. As a whole, this fight is fine and the boss looks awesome, however you often have to roll two or three times to get to the other side of this boss, and if you don’t do enough rolls you either get stuck in the boss (causing the attacks to still hit you) or you are slingshotted back the way you came and are still hurt by the moves. Now I reiterate an earlier point I made, I’m all for a nice arse-beating from a boss, but this little issue can make the fight border precariously on unfair and imbalanced.
Salt & Sanctuary features a multiplayer function whereby one friend can grab a controller and you can you engage in good old-fashioned co-operative play. Activating this feature tweaks a few things, for starters enemy health values and damage values are slightly increased as a means to balance out the combat. To access this function you simply have to choose to allocate a Sellsword in any of your Sanctuaries and you are granted the ability to ‘hire’ a Sellsword which is where a second player can choose from their list of created characters and slash enemies in your world. While this multiplayer is fun for the most part there are a few issues here. If you decided to create a new character purely for helping out another character, you will more than likely find that there are certain items that the host player receives that you do not, and while it does make sense as you don’t really need key items as a Sellsword, playing through the game by yourself on the aforementioned character will not be very
successful, as key items (literally, keys) do not actually spawn if they need to be picked up off of the ground. At the early stages of the game, there are a few workarounds like killing bosses in a different order than intended. However, at areas like Hager’s Cavern, progression is impossible as the area boss is locked behind a door which requires a key, and this key does not spawn if it has been picked up while that character was a Sellsword. This issue is legitimately game-breaking because one of the bonds required to complete the game is locked as a result. On to the next point which regards the PvP system. By crushing an item called an ‘Egg of Wrath’, which changes the current Sellsword from a helper to an enemy. Exploring this with a friend, I discovered something very broken and stupid about the PvP in this game. Greatswords, greataxes or pretty much anything with the word ‘great’ as a prefix is are completely overpowered and there is no real counter to it. From my experience, attempting to parry one of these weapons leads to misfortune and dismay, so people who don’t like super slow and tanky builds are instantly at a disadvantage. Now I know what you’re thinking, just roll to the other side and hit from behind, right? You’ll be pleased to know a majority of these weapons also have move sets which cover all possible avenues for attack, meaning you pretty much have to just run away from anyone using these types of weapons. Though the vision and mechanics are great from Ska Studios, the above balancing issues are definitely something that needs to be looked at. Additionally, I also noticed that the game tended to crash a lot when in multiplayer mode, but even when in single player mode the game still crashed fairly often.
Salt & Sanctuary superbly captures the great elements of Dark Souls and translates them into a 2D platformer. With its unique art style to memorable bosses that aim to challenge any who tread the ground before them, Souls fans are likely to feel right at home. However, there are a few glaring problem like balancing issues in boss fights and PvP, to game-breaking glitches regarding essential key items and issues with the game crashing. A majority of these issues are easily patched though, so downloading this game is still highly recommended.
Reviewed on PS4