After developing its first three full-blown console titles exclusively for the Xbox 360, Ska Studios is making its Sony debut in a choice position — with Salt & Sanctuary picked to kick off the PlayStation 4’s six-game Launch Party 2016 promotion. There’s no mistaking James Silva‘s distinctive art style, nor the influences of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, but Salt & Sanctuary still manages to carve 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. It works well, though sometimes it feels a little awkward to go from the face button attacks to the shoulder button to switch.
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 armor) 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 with the d-pad works fine, but the icons are a bit small, and in the heat of battle it’s a little too easy to select the wrong one where all of a sudden you’re hurling a potato instead of drinking a health potion. It’s a small problem that speaks to an overall issue with the graphics.
Atmospherically, Salt & Sanctuary nails it. The world is endlessly oppressive with buildings falling into disrepair and vile creatures trying to take you down 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 with the audio outside of ambient sounds (birds cawing, wind blowing, etc.) and the clang of combat. Music is sparse and doesn’t seem to vary much. Nothing here is bad or actively detracts from the game; it just does little 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 a lot of story elements at play in Salt & Sanctuary, and the game is much more about fighting, exploration and collecting loot — it’s part 2D brawler, part RPG.
As mentioned, there’s a heavy Dark Souls vibe that permeates the combat, though I’d say it isn’t nearly as torturous. Beyond that, there’s also the classic “Metroidvania” world building where 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 where the screen obscures its enemies. 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 the service.
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 I’m all for freedom within a game, I also like some structure to help guide me. Granted, that’s not necessarily in keeping with the old-school mentality, but I’ve never been a purist 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, my 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 (or, more importantly, were) to defeating something.
Loaded with content and replayability, Salt & Sanctuary is a challenging action-RPG/Metroidvania title that should appeal to any Souls fan. Its hiccups, while not entirely trivial, never amount to anywhere near enough to derail the experience.