Just imagine if one night, at some kind of party for successful game franchises, that a drunken Dark Souls started making moves on the older, more experienced Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
They spend the night giggling and flirting, and even though they know they’re incompatible – they’re in different dimensions after all – they end up having a night of passionate yet sordid sex. Having been more than a little tipsy when they did the deed however, neither of them thought about protection (and let’s face it, no one likes DRM), and so nine months later their troubled but rather adorable lovechild is born. Its name, you ask? Salt and Sanctuary.
Developed and published by Ska Studios, notable for creations such as The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and Charlie Murder, Salt and Sanctuary has been touted as the 2D Dark Souls. It’s a valid comparison: both share a steep learning curve and feature a similar levelling up process revolving around a resource obtained by killing enemies; they even have combat systems that are not too dissimilar from each other despite the difference in dimension and a comparable weapon upgrade process. Often diverging the feel of Salt and Sanctuary away from Dark Souls however, are the platforming and game progression elements that feel ripped out of the seminal Castlevania title, Symphony of the Night.
After creating your character with a menu that will feel very familiar to anyone that’s played any of FromSoftware’s Souls titles, you begin the game in dire circumstances, and after a brief encounter with a gargantuan creature you’re plunged into the depths of an ocean only to be washed up on mysterious shores. Within minutes of play, underlying concepts of Dark Souls shine through; the notes left on the floor offering assistance, a vague and mysterious story, and more fundamentally, the brief areas that provide respite on your weary travels. Whilst the Dark Souls titles feature a safe central hub that is accessible via bonfires dotted around the environment however, Salt and Sanctuary offers….well, Sanctuaries. Each sanctuary you discover can be claimed for your chosen creed – a religion or way of life that doesn’t seem have much of an impact on the game – by placing an item on an altar, and as well as granting you a fleeting moment of peace away from the combat and other perils of the world around you, they can also become home to up to four helpers by offering up numerous stone figurines.
Eight types of stone figurine are available overall, bringing characters such as a blacksmith, merchant or sellsword along with their respective functions and bonuses to the sanctuary you use them in. One of the more useful figurines for example, the stone guide, summons a helper that not only allows you to fast travel to any previously visited sanctuary, but also grants an item find bonus to the region in which the sanctuary is situated. With the number of stone figurines in the game being limited however, some particularly more than others, you have to use them strategically to maximise their benefits. One issue I did have with the helpers though, is that whilst many of them offer you items to buy, they rarely have anything actually worth purchasing. This means that you’ll build up masses of gold on your adventures that you’ll probably just end up losing when you die repeatedly against a troublesome boss. Granted, as I’ve stated, gold doesn’t really matter as it is pretty much worthless, but losing something you’ve earned is aggravating nonetheless when it’s not for want of spending it.
Whilst summoning helpers to any given sanctuary is undeniably advantageous, enabling you to purchase and upgrade your equipment as well as bolstering your skills, there’s another function of the altar that eclipses their usefulness: levelling up. Just as souls are essential for developing your character in Dark Souls, Salt is essential for developing your character in Salt and Sanctuary. It’s obtained the same way too, either by defeating enemies or crushing containers of it that come in various sizes. Unlike Dark Souls though, you don’t spend salt to directly increase a specific stat. Instead, you merely purchase black pearls which can be placed on the “Tree of Life” to increase the stats and learn the proficiencies you require for your build. It’s a nice system that really drives you to focus on how you wish to develop your character, as specialising in more than one weapon type for example, whilst possible, is wholly inefficient. The only real problem is that with only four base stats to put points into, and with levels fairly easy to gain until you reach level 80 or so, you’ll probably reach a wall in your main stat fairly quickly, meaning the benefit on putting any more points into it won’t feel as rewarding as you’d like.
However you choose to develop your character, once thing is certain, playing Salt and Sanctuary a mostly a huge amount of fun. Backing up the beautifully designed visuals that ooze charm and atmosphere, drawing you into a desolate world are some wonderfully responsive controls that make controlling your character a breeze. The combat, which replicates the control scheme and tense feel of the Dark Souls series perfectly has a great feel to it and is rather visceral. And there’s just so much depth to the game that once it’s got you hooked you won’t be able to stop playing until its completed, and then you’ll probably go straight into new game plus. Fans of Dark Souls will also be particularly pleased with Salt and Sanctuary‘s abundance of bosses that are all quite unique yet consistently grotesque. Unfortunately though, the difficulty of them is a bit all over the place, with some bosses like a pesky Witch feeling very cheap as she reels off a number of spells in quick succession that can sometimes result in a swift, unavoidable death.
Being 2D, your movement options are a little limited in Salt and Sanctuary, and in order to compensate for this fact the sizable map has a lot more verticality to it than any world featured in the Dark Souls series. Areas are a sprawling maze of stairs, ladders and platforms, in which you must partake in combat before running and jumping to find your next opponent(s), and locations inexplicably link to each other in numerous places. Unfortunately though, it’s this multi-tiered and interconnected nature of Salt and Sanctuary’s map that often makes it a nightmare to navigate. Apart from the troublesome issue that falling a great distance unsurprisingly results in death, which is not always your fault seen as the game sometimes requires you to drop down to platforms that are lower than you can actually see, the fact that there’s no in-game map for you to quickly look at to get an idea of where you are in the world is highly frustrating. It’s likely that a few times after beating a boss and obtaining a brand – a literal scar burned onto your flesh that somehow grants you a new ability, enabling you to access new areas – you’ll have no idea exactly where you’re supposed to go next, meaning you’ll either end up consulting the internet or running around the game world like a headless chicken looking for a path you’ve not taken before.
Despite Salt and Sanctuary‘s issues, it remains an enjoyable and rather addictive adventure overall. The fusion of solid platforming, engaging combat and deep character development creates an experience that feels somewhat fresh despite its roots in tried and tested genres, which is quite an achievement. Fans of its clear inspirations, Dark Souls and Castlevania, will undoubtedly be the ones mostly enraptured by its offerings, but the thrills it offers should also appeal to those that have never played those games before providing they can deal with the few frustrations that it also brings to the table.