I spent a hell of a lot of time playing through Salt and Sanctuary when it initially released on the PlayStation 4, with its take on the Dark Souls formula resonating with me perfectly. Calling it just a ‘take’ on Dark Souls is probably an understatement though, with the game feeling almost EXACTLY like it, albeit from a 2D perspective. Don’t get me wrong, that’s meant as a compliment, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Salt and Sanctuary isn’t the most original game you’re going to play.
It has all the hallmarks of the series though, but that can only be a good thing. Tight combat? Check. A dark, gothic setting? Check. Huge grotesque bosses that’ll stop at nothing to take you down? Check. Death causing you to lose a levelling up currency, but one you can regain it if you defeat the enemy that slain you? Check. Tough gameplay that constantly sees you dying? Double check.
There’s one extra thing that Salt and Sanctuary shares with the Dark Souls series though, and that’s just how bloody brilliant it is. I loved the game during its initial release, and playing it through again in the recently released Nintendo Switch edition of the game reminded me of how much of a fantastic experience it really is.
In what starts off as a familiar set up, Salt and Sanctuary allows you to create your own character with a ton of different customisation options for you to mess around with in regards to both your appearance and your fighting style. Of course, you can spend as long as you want making your character look like a badass, though when you’re in-game it never really matters too much – your appearance will be limited to whatever armour you choose to wear. Still, everyone likes to make their own hero, right?
The story of the game is a little vague and only the keenest of explorers will find out all of the tiny details of the world. You begin on a ship at sea, tasked with looking after a Princess on a perilous journey. Of course, things go horribly wrong when a humungous, vile beast attacks the ship and wipes you out. You awaken at the shore of a mysterious island and thus your adventure begins.
From there it’s up to you to find out what’s going on and if the Princess you were tasked with protecting is still alive. There are plenty of NPCs that’ll progress the story, but there are also a ton of hidden characters that give you small clues as to what exactly is going on. To get the most out of Salt and Sanctuary’s story you’ll have to explore every nook and cranny of a level, working to find those folk who’ll unveil the mysteries of the island. I actually appreciated the secretive nature of the game’s tale and there was a decent amount of back story on offer – I certainly enjoyed seeing how everything unfolded right until I reached one of the game’s two endings.
So those aforementioned similarities that Salt and Sanctuary shares with Dark Souls are there from the get-go, whether it’s the character creation, the mysterious story that the player has to work to uncover, or just the way that combat feels. Combat-wise, you have your standard attack, a heavier attack, a block button and a dodge button. Sure, these actions are common place in video games, but Salt and Sanctuary manages to integrate them in a way that makes combat feel identical to Dark Souls. That’s a good thing, of course – combat feels weighty and offers some great stand offs with your foes that require both brains and brawn.
There’re plenty of different ways to play the game too. Do you prefer a sword and shield combination, focusing on blocking your opponent’s attacks and countering with your own? Go for it. Do you want to try and focus on picking enemies off from afar with magic? Do it. Or would you rather a great sword that unleashes tremendous attacks at the expense of your defensive capabilities? You can do that too. You can even equip yourself with a Greatscissors, my weapon of choice for the latter half of the game. The same freedom applies for armour, with varying stats offering different pros and cons depending on how exactly you like to play.
Levelling up requires you to collect sou- sorry, I mean ‘salt’ from your fallen foes. This salt can then be used to level up your character or improve their equipment. Whilst it shares plenty of similarities with Dark Souls, Salt and Sanctuary does utilise its own unique levelling system known as the ‘Tree of Skill’. It feels a lot like Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid with a series of interlinking nodes set up on a grid, with each node offering a different stat boost or ability.
Although the system worked, it can be difficult for you to cater things perfectly for specific stats early on. Sure, you can follow a set class path that’s designed to suit your playstyle, but you don’t have the freedom to level up individual stats exactly as you please. Of course, once you’ve levelled your character up a decent amount and unlocked more of the Tree of Skill you’ll find that you’re given a lot more freedom – it just takes some time.
Whilst ‘salt’ is very important to the game, the titular ‘Sanctuaries’ also play a big role too. I know I’m constantly comparing aspects of the two games (and yes, I know it’s a cliché simply saying so), but the Sanctuaries you visit in the game share a similarity with the bonfires of the Dark Souls games. In fairness though, Salt and Sanctuary actually improves upon the formula – the student has become the master it would seem. At each Sanctuary you’re able to level up, learn new skills and make an offering. These offerings allow you to introduce an ally to the Sanctuary, be it a merchant, a blacksmith or even a traveler that’ll allow you to fast-travel between the previously visited Sanctuaries around the game world.
Adding a twist to the Sanctuaries are the various ‘Creeds’ on offer. These Creeds are similar to factions, each worshipping something such as ‘The Three Gods’ or even gold. It’s up to you which Creed you join, though you’re able to betray them and switch to a new Creed if you please. In fact, the entry requirement to the ‘Order of the Betrayer’ requires you to have defiled another Creed’s Sanctuary…
Your Creed choice will change the residents of each Sanctuary, with different goods and perks available depending on which Creed you’re a member of. You can switch around and see what suits you best, or you can stay true to ‘The Three’ like I did and have them take control of every Sanctuary in the game. Admittedly, it won’t vary the game up too much from a gameplay perspective, but it certainly adds an extra bit of personality to your playthrough.
Of course, arguably the most important aspect of the Dark Souls series are the boss fights – an area in which Salt and Sanctuary positively delivers. I don’t want to go into too much detail with the kind of monstrosities you’ll be facing off against as I believe that they’re better introduced as a surprise, but there’s a great variety of boss battles that come in all different shapes and sizes. Each battle feels unique too, with bosses utilising a variety of move sets that’ll change up the more you damage them. The satisfying feeling of finally defeating a boss after constant failures is unrivalled in this kind of game, and believe me, there are a fair few challenging beasts to vanquish in the game that’ll offer as much relief as they do joy when you do finally take them down.
Visually, the world of Salt and Sanctuary looks outstanding. It has adopted the dark, angsty style that gamers who’ve played any of Ska Studio’s previous releases will recognize, and it works perfectly with the gothic vibe of the world. You’ll explore caves, castles, dungeons, woods – there’s a great variety of locales that you’ll battle (and die) through. Thanks to the 2D nature of the game there’s a strong emphasis on platforming, adding something to the game that helps it stand out a bit more when compared to the Dark Souls series. There’ll be endless platforms to leap between and some areas will be inaccessible until you’ve earned specific power-ups which brings a certain Metroidvania vibe to the game that proves it’s not just a carbon copy of FROM Software’s beastly series, but rather one that does more than a fair share of things its own way.
You can see a lot of care and attention has gone into creating the game’s environments. They’re littered with detail, be it the silhouettes of your surroundings in the foreground or the remains of a haunting town in the background. Every area you visit feels alive and wonderful to explore – even if you can’t always take it all in peacefully thanks to the sheer amount of hazards and enemies that are out to get you. Lighting has been utilised perfectly too, setting an atmosphere that’s equally haunting as it is enchanting. You’re going to die a lot, but you can take comfort in the fact that you’ll die surrounded by beauty. There’s a particular view from ‘The Far Beach’ that’s simply unmissable too, so be sure to check that out when playing through the game…
Whilst the visuals are stunning though, there’s no denying there’s a darkness to them. Now, this isn’t a problem when played on a big screen, but when playing on the Nintendo Switch’s portable mode it can make it a little difficult to make everything out. It’s not a game-breaker and it’s not impossible to play with – I actually played through the entirety of the game handheld too so I can vouch for this – but there are certainly more than a few occasions where you might have to squint a little just to make some detail out. At least everything runs perfectly on the Nintendo Switch though, with it maintaining a constant framerate that ensures the game’s action never falters.
Gamers who don’t want to take on the beasts of Salt and Sanctuary alone can tackle it with a friend, though the fact it’s limited to local co-op is a shame. You’d think it’d be more fitting on the Nintendo Switch given the convenience of simply using a Joy Con each, but unfortunately even that’s not supported here – you’ll need two proper controllers, I’m afraid. It’s still fun though and it’ll certainly make tackling the game a ton easier, though it does feature some elements such as having your partner automatically teleport to your location that can be easily exploited.
Developer: Ska Stuidos
Publisher: Ska Studios
Release Date: Out Now
Format(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC