Salt and Sanctuary Review – Nearly A Dark Soul
FROM Software’s Souls games have had a lasting impact on the industry, serving as the emblematic series for a movement in games that demands skill and focus from the player. Salt and Sanctuary is an unabashed love letter, albeit in two-dimensional form, to the Souls formula. The developers of Salt and Sanctuary, Ska Studios, don’t try to hide this fact – the levelling system, the weapon upgrading and scaling, the boss introductions, and much more are all transparently tuned to the same key as FROM’s games. Salt and Sanctuary as an homage to the Souls series falls flat in a few areas, as it is unable to mirror the consistently high-quality level design and depth of combat found in Dark Souls or Bloodborne. However, on its own merits, the game is a successful attempt at creating a tough but fair 2D action game with enough variety to keep players interested throughout.
The art style in Salt and Sanctuary is one of my least favourite aspects of the game. The graphics are messy, hand-drawn cartoons that don’t do the impressively varied enemy designs any favours. Instead of showing off the details of the interesting and unique creatures that you will fight, the art style usually makes objects and creatures look like a bit of a muddled mess. It isn’t all bad though, as some particular enemies and bosses still look impressive despite the messy art, and the environments are more than adequate in their variety and detail. Realistic lighting effects add to the game’s overall art design, which can be described as good enough, but with potential to be so much better.
What also adds to the disappointment of the untidy art is the fact there are so many weapons and so many armor sets in the game – weapons and armor that would look that much better if the art style allowed for more distinct details. Alas, the weapons do vary greatly in their move sets, with many weapons having unique special moves, and this is a credit to the meticulousness of the game’s developers. Combat is fun, with the controls being responsive and weapons varying in the timing of their attacks, while magic is as viable an option as steel and shield. Railing off a correctly-timed combination of weak, strong, jumping, magic, and rolling attacks feels great and is made all the more satisfying when enemies explode in a nebula of salt, blood, and gold.
The areas in Salt and Sanctuary are crafted with care. The level design is itself an homage to Dark Souls, with areas connecting together via shortcuts, and many hidden rooms and even completely optional areas with bosses able to be discovered. The mood in these areas is set by the impressive lighting and the darkly coloured art. Like Dark Souls, the music in Salt and Sanctuary isn’t constant. No music plays during regular combat, but sweeping orchestral pieces play during boss fights, acoustic guitar while the character is in a sanctuary, and power guitar chords while the player is nearing a sanctuary.
Two-dimensional games often end up incorporating platforming into their games and Salt and Sanctuary is no different. In the early part of the game, the controls and physics related to platforming can range from passable to extremely frustrating. Later on, as the player earns “brands”, which are new skills related to jumping off walls or through the air, platforming becomes more interesting. Players can return to old areas and use their brands to get to new locations. While brands do make platforming less frustrating and can lead to some enjoyable moments, they don’t improve the mechanic enough to save it from its mediocre nature.
Where Salt and Sanctuary succeeds is in nailing the essence of how difficulty can make a game more satisfying to play. Nearly any enemy can empty your health bar in a short amount of time, either through a rapid succession of strikes or a couple heavy blows. However, the AI is subject to the same rules as the player is and this, combined with accurate hit-boxes and collision detection, creates a game environment where the player hardly ever feels like their character’s death was anything other than their own fault. The player understands why they failed, and this keeps them interested in trying again and again after death in hopes of correcting their mistakes, while the high difficulty makes victory that much more satisfying. This aspect – the combination of difficulty and fairness – is a large part of what makes Dark Souls games so good, and Salt and Sanctuary does an excellent job of recreating it in a two dimensions.
However, one boss battle near the end of the game is so ridiculously unfair and badly designed that I need to mention it here. The developers did such a great job with the rest of the game that it baffles me a little that they didn’t fix this specific boss battle before the game’s release. In short, the fight comes down to luck: whether or not the boss will decide to unleash a particular attack that practically guarantees death for the player. It doesn’t matter what armor your character is wearing or how well you can evade. With the boss sometimes flying off screen to an area completely unreachable by the player, in what appears to be a glitch, it’s no wonder that many online users state that this boss battle was their last experience with Salt and Sanctuary. This battle shouldn’t stop anyone from trying the game, but it stands out as a huge misstep in an otherwise excellent game. Hopefully the developers can alter the boss battle with a future update to the game.
Salt and Sanctuary does a great job of translating the Dark Souls experience to two dimensions. Sure, there are a few aspects that are lost in translation and the game’s platforming could be improved, but Salt and Sanctuary genuinely achieves in replicating what makes the Dark Souls franchise so addicting and so satisfying. The attention to detail from the developers can be seen throughout the game, from the intricate descriptions for every armor set, item, and weapon to small details like the sound of dripping water in caves replicating the game’s main theme. There is a lot to love about Salt and Sanctuary, and a lot to bring players back for a second or third playthrough after they’ve beaten the game, even if they’ve never touched a Souls game before.