Video Game Review: Salt & Sanctuary
Their troubles are over, yours on the other hand… not so much.
Since its initial release on the PlayStation 4 in 2016, Salt & Sanctuary has migrated across multiple systems with its latest stop coming on the Nintendo Switch. Anyone familiar with Ska Studios’ other work — most notably The Dishwasher games and Charlie Murder — will recognize James Silva‘s art style immediately. While there’s more than a whiff of Dark Souls to be found, Salt & Sanctuary still carves out its own identity, one bloody slash at a time.
Despite putting a number of options at your disposal, the game never feels complex thanks to a smart UI and relatively simple controls. Each loadout has two attacks — for instance, a sword features a slash and a stab, while a bow and arrow can shoot standard or flaming arrows — and you’ll have two loadouts that can be swapped on the fly.
On defense you can block, roll and parry. All are pretty standard, but the implementation of a stamina meter prevents you from simply blocking or constantly rolling away (or flailing wildly for that matter). That makes the ability to properly time parries all the more valuable as, when done successfully, these leave opponents open to massive damage/one-hit kills. While the timing feels a little off sometimes, it never comes across as requiring superhuman anticipatory skills, either.
Actions vary based on your equipment, meaning swinging a two-handed sword will be a much longer, more draining action than slashing away with a dagger. It’s also reflected in your movement. The less encumbered you are (read: lighter armour) the more swiftly you’ll move and the more effective your roll will be. It’s all a balancing act that promotes experimentation and should provide ample opportunity to find the right blend for your style.
An equipment slot rounds out your real-time options, and though you can carry tons of stuff, only six items can be ready for use at a given time. Toggling through them works fine, but the icons are a bit small, and in the heat of battle it’s easy to select the wrong one, and all of a sudden you’re hurling a potato instead of chugging a health potion.
Atmospherically, Salt & Sanctuary nails it. The world is endlessly oppressive with buildings falling into disrepair and vile creatures trying to take you out at every turn. While the contrast of muted grays and red blood has certainly been done before, that doesn’t diminish its effectiveness here. Add some truly disturbing boss fights and there is a lot to like about the artistic design.
Where the issue mentioned above shows up is during combat. Due to the general darkness of the world it can be tough to pick up visual cues (such as traps) or spot monsters essentially spawning into existence to fight you. Worse than that, dropped objects emit a sparkling shine, and during large-scale fights those stack up and obscure enemies, making it easy to absorb cheap hits.
There really isn’t much going on with the audio outside of ambient sounds (birds cawing, wind blowing and so on) along with the clang of combat. Music is sparse and doesn’t seem to vary much. Nothing here is bad or actively detracts from the game — but neither does it do much to elevate it.
Shipwrecked on a strange island, your customized character must find a way to confront the unseen forces that hold dominion over the island to grant your freedom (or perhaps something else). There aren’t many story elements at play in Salt & Sanctuary, and the game is primarily about fighting, exploration and collecting loot — it’s one part 2D brawler, one part RPG.
As mentioned, there’s a heavy Dark Souls vibe that permeates the combat, though we’d say it isn’t nearly as torturous. Beyond that, there’s also the classic “Metroidvania” world building in which certain areas will be inaccessible until you acquire abilities or items. The combination is well implemented, and it creates an experience that never really feels derivative of its inspiration, which is no small feat.
Combat is challenging but usually feels fair, other than those moments when the screen obscures threats. Defeating foes earns salt, and turning salt in at the sanctuaries levels you up and allows you to unlock nodes on the massive skill tree to improve your stats and gain access to better weapons/gear.
Die with salt in your possession, however, and you’ll lose it to the monster that killed you. If you can return and kill them you’ll get it back, but die too many times and it’ll be gone for good. Each death also carries a monetary penalty with it — the more you have the more you’ll be charged for resurrection.
As good as the moment-to-moment action is, Salt & Sanctuary does have its faults. Most notably that it doesn’t provide a lot of information to the player in regards to where to go and what to do. While we’re all for freedom within a game, we also like some structure to help guide us. Granted, that’s not necessarily in keeping with the old-school mentality, but we’ve never been purists in that regard.
Other elements are pretty obtuse as well, and although some clarify as the game progresses (faith, for example) others remain a mystery. Of those, our biggest gripe is there’s no good way to accurately gauge enemy strength without engaging it, and other than bosses there’s no feedback to indicate how close you are to defeating something.
Loaded with content and replayability, Salt & Sanctuary is a challenging action-RPG/Metroidvania title. Its hiccups, while not entirely trivial, never amount to enough to seriously affect your enjoyment.