Art inspires art, this has been a staple of creative work since the dawn of intelligent existence. If something inspires you, it is more than likely to affect any future creations you build. Dark Souls is a series adored by millions, myself included. It has had its fair share of other video game ‘homages’, some of which are successful, some others not so much. Salt and Sanctuary borrows a tremendous amount from the Souls’ series, but this time, it places the known and loved mechanics in a new dimension: two dimensions. But does ‘Salt’ live up to its influences and properly handle the transition to the 2D realm?
The game starts out much like any Souls game, you find yourself facing off against a seemingly unbeatable creature, and inevitably find yourself waking up in an afterlife limbo of sorts. The story is vague and mysterious, with loads of item lore and whatnot, similar to Dark Souls. The story is there, but it’s not prominent, not very creative, and not interesting. Unlike the Souls stories and characters, there really isn’t anything very memorable or striking. They do throw in the themes of death and sin, much like the Souls series, but it just fails to grip in the same way. So much is nearly identical to the Dark Souls series I am going to refrain from stating this any longer in this review. If I don’t, you’ll be tired of reading about it, and I’ll drive myself insane with repetition.
At the core of the game, you are presented with a 2D platformer with an emphasis on exploration and backtracking like in the various other ‘Metroidvania‘ games we are familiar with. It then puts a Dark Souls twist on that formula by adding the risk and reward mechanic. Killing enemies will grant you ‘salt’, which is then used to level your character up and upgrade equipment. Die and you must travel back to the scene of your death and defeat whoever or whatever may have ended you in order to regain your salt. If you are unable to defeat your foe, you lose said salt. Unlike Dark Souls, you also gain gold from kills which can be used to buy weapons and items. This mechanic almost seems unneeded as you still lose a percentage of gold upon death.
There is an abundance of weapons, items, and armor to satisfy any loot hunter. Each with its own level and skill requirement; you’ll need to take advantage of the game’s massive skill tree in order to mold your character into the build you desire. Differing from the Souls games in this aspect, levels unlock skill points of sorts, which can then be used to purchase everything from higher dexterity, to the ability to wield different types of weapons. This skill tree is almost staggering with its complexity. I honestly feel I’ll never fully take advantage of the tree, but I’m sure some people love this sort of depth to a leveling system.
The combat is well done for a 2D platformer. With various weapon-specific combos and even a parry mechanic, the game may not hold up to 3D combat, but is surely one of the best combat systems seen in a platformer. The game also allows for weapon ‘transmuting’ which changes not only the attack style, damage, and speed of a weapon, but even the visual appearance itself. This is something few ‘triple A’ titles include, and to see it in a game from such a small team is impressive, to say the least.
Boss fights are the highlight of your journey. With loads of different boss types, the game assaults you with extreme difficulty at times. Mix that with the limits of a 2D playing field, and you can find some bosses using seemingly cheap attacks that almost take advantage of the player’s limited movements in order to win. While some bosses are unique, the names of most aren’t very creative and lack the same impact of those seen in the Souls series. One of my biggest complaints with the boss fights and the combat generally is the shock wave that seemingly every slam move seems to create. From a massively hard slam, to what seems like a gentle tap, generates a massive shockwave that launches the player into the sky and more than likely down a hole leading directly to Satan himself. I cannot count the times I was bested by a boss simply moving his foot to the left. These shock waves also seem to affect the player whenever they feel like it. At times, a roll seems to avoid it while other times it seems to hit you despite being twenty feet above it and bursting into flames due to the speed you are traveling.
Salt and Sanctuary also has a co-op feature, and playing this game co-op is a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience. That’s not to say solo isn’t great as well, it just amazes me how much fun I had while playing with a friend. Sadly, this is currently only a ‘local’ co-op mode, but rumors and whispers are speaking up an upcoming patch to add online functionality as well. The game can be played via the PlayStation 4’s SharePlay feature. Successfully getting the feature to work with the game’s wonky character and profile system is on par with a root canal, after you get it working you’ll see why an online patch is an absolute must. Along with co-op, partners can also fight player vs player locally as well. Player messages placed around the game world also mirrors that of Dark Souls. With a bit more options and shown as a message in a bottle rather than a scribbled sign, messages have actually helped me find secrets and avoid ambushes.
Visually the game is moody, dark, and slightly glowy. It is actually a good bit darker than Dark Souls, making the torch a necessity, much like originally planned for Dark Souls 2. While this can sometimes become a burden, the darker areas are placed in order to challenge the player. But in areas with low light and high neon glow, it can blend items, enemies, and backgrounds together, making some items and pitfalls easily missable. The monsters are strange, interesting, and have a fairly vast range of style and attack to them. Some seem almost out of place, such as the Xenomorph style creatures in one area, but overall the design and style of the game is something worth admiring.
The audio design is sadly passable at best. While sound effects and monster noises are fine, the soundtrack is severely lacking. With what appears to be only two songs played on repeat throughout the game, I found myself muting the music about two hours in. This massively let me down, especially when considering how much I enjoyed the music of Ska Studio’s previous titles. While the soundtrack isn’t ‘bad’ per say, it just lacks any real depth or set pieces.
Overall, while it may come across to some as ‘ripping off’ the Dark Souls series, it presents the mechanics in a new and interesting way. No one else has tried to place a Souls style game into a 2D world, and Ska Studios managed to pull it off brilliantly. If you enjoy Dark Souls, Metroidvania style games, or even better, both, then you won’t be disappointed in Salt and Sanctuary. It adds a fantastic and enjoyable chapter into the inevitable sub-genre the Dark Souls games have created. And after beating the game in just over thirty hours, the price of £15 is a steal.