Its that time again — the time where you lend me your ear and I talk it off about a particular gaming gem that you might have missed out on. I’ll be talking about a more recently released game — the indie title Salt and Sanctuary, developed by Ska Studios.
It’s annoying, but appropriate, that whenever somebody speaks of this game, they must also mention the wildly successful Dark Souls series, as Salt and Sanctuary seems to borrow just about everything from it: punishing challenge, precise combat mechanics, careful management of equipment, RPG skill progression, and oppressively dreary atmosphere. Now, in my opinion, this a good thing, as these properties mesh together to make a fun gaming formula, and its by no accident that we’re seeing games in this vein springing up all over the place. I’m glad for it.
Now, like many, I have personally sampled the pain-laden platter that From Software’s iconic games have to offer. I have spent at least fifty hours with the first Dark Souls and twenty some with the second, and countless many more hours watching friends fight their way through them as well. I walked away from these experiences with the conviction that the games were truly astounding contributions to gaming — genre defining even — but that they were too fucking damn difficult for me to put up with. The patience and practice it takes to conquer these games, inch by bloody inch, death after soul-crushing death, is a huge personal investment, and I would say flatly that the games beat me, instead of the other way around.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the only reason I tried so hard to persevere was because my friends egged me on. After giving up on the series, a friend told me that I was “playing the game wrong”, because I was playing by myself. Apparently, if the games are played solo — and other games journalists seem to reflect this idea — they are much less enjoyable than when played with friends. Apparently, defeat at the hands of an unloving, amoral universe is okay if you’ve got a buddy to suffer along with you. Which brings me to why Salt and Sanctuary is so special, and why I had a blast with it while I struggled so much with a Souls game.
Salt and Sanctuary has built in Local Co-op.
I did play a couple hours through the game solo, and while I thought the experience was fun enough, there was nothing compelling enough about the title for me to feel like continuing with it. However, some forum rummaging led me to discover that SaS had a local two player component. Intrigued, I asked a friend to play it with me, and within minutes, Salt started showing me just how much fun it had to offer.
There exist many gamers who have to hear all about the great times others have with games like Dark Souls, but who are simply too intimidated by the difficulty to dig into such titles themselves. When you have a friend with you every step of the way, a game like Salt and Sanctuary feels less like a cautious, anxiety-ridden hike through an unforgiving world and it starts to feel more like an challenging, exciting journey that allows you to prove your skills. It’s like visiting a haunted house: unless you’re a masochist, there’s no real reason that you’d want to go in alone. But with a friend, the fear becomes excitement, and the experience becomes fun because of the risk, the feeling of danger. The anticipation of whatever horror comes at you next is the real draw that fuels your exploration.
The game is essentially a Metroidvania in its nature, a term which means, if you aren’t familiar with it, that the game world is a singular, massive area that consists of several smaller open areas that are interconnected by various paths. Metroidvanias have an emphasis on platforming, and feature environments that require careful maneuvers about tricky terrain. Quite unlike Souls, a large portion of the game’s challenge lies in it’s platforming elements, which begs one to reconsider if the game derives inspiration from games more akin to the Castlevania series. To reach new regions, you will have to navigate cliffs, narrow platforms, endless chasms and traps, which can end you quicker than any monster, often to hilarious effect if it happens to be your friend who eats it before you do.
The platforming is fun, and meshes well with the engaging combat. Similar to Souls, fighting requires careful management of a stamina meter, which will deplete every time the player uses an attack, blocks an incoming blow or pulls off a dodge. Button mashing may produce decent results with some earlier encounters, but the game demands well timed movement, punishing you dearly if you leave your enemy an opening. Physical attacks can be chained into combos, and players can also invest in magic or the use of ranged weapons, like bows or guns. Players also have the choice of holding a shield in the offhand or wielding a weapon with two hands, or even wielding a melee weapon in one hand and ranged weapon in the other. The freedom of combat style extends further to one’s worn armor, which can range from heavy mail to simple cloth. Your selection of garb determines, among other things, how much protection you receive from different kinds of damage, as well as stamina use and movement speed when running or dodging.
I can’t mention the combat without talking about how incredibly satisfying it feels when you perform well. Melee combos shake the screen and produce gratifying sound effects when you land hits on the enemy, and the same goes for projectiles and spells. When you die, it sucks, but when you defeat a group of enemies, the game makes you feel like a total badass. The fighting and platforming combine to form an addictive, satisfying gameplay experience that continues to deliver consistently as you journey through SaS’s dreary landscapes.
The main feature for improving your character involves using a resource known as Salt. Salt is gained from defeating enemies, and can be spent at Sanctuaries, which act as respawn points that allow you to purchase/sell items, as well as restock on healing items. Salt can be spent to gain levels, and players can unlock a series of connected nodes on a skill tree, which bestow increased stats or a specific perk, such as the ability to wield two-handed swords. This, combined with the staggering variety of equipment and weapons that are scattered like treasure throughout the game world, allows for a wide variety of builds, and enables you to craft your own kind of character who fits your playstyle. I preferred a slow, but durable fighter clad in heavy armor who wielded big shields, whereas my friend developed a lithe rogue, using swords and guns while relying on dodging to avoid damage. The depth of personal character development is one of the game’s greatest strengths, and very few games do it so well.
Salt and Sanctuary’s difficulty lies not just in how unforgiving the environment and enemy encounters can be, but in the way in which it punishes you for death. While most games would slap you on the wrist and send you back to the last conveniently located checkpoint, SaS will make you go out back and pick out your own whipping stick, thereafter proceeding to beat you bloody with it. The Sanctuaries are often few and far in between, and death will cause you to lose all of the accumulated Salt and Gold you’ve gained while slaying enemies. Salt itself is your real ticket to becoming stronger, and it becomes more and more difficult to accumulate a useful amount as the game progresses, so losing your stockpile can be a real setback. The only way to get it back is to put down whatever monstrosity was responsible for your demise; screw that up and die again, and your precious Salt is gone for good. This might sound frustrating to some, and it definitely can be, but the presence of heavy consequence actually adds great flavor to the game, making any and all threats seem legitimately dangerous, and makes the game world feel exciting.
The sound design is sparing, but nonetheless impressive. Music is rare, soft and subtle, very minimalist in it’s approach until the players encounter a boss, in which haunting choral wails announce your ensuing ass-kicking while you try your damnedest not to get obliterated. The music is effective at either settling you into a somber, wary mood or getting you pumped up for an encounter with an impressive foe. The sound effects are good, too, particularly when you hack or bash away at an enemy.
Also worthy of praise is how the game looks as well. The environments use careful choice of dark, muted color schemes that produce the impression of a quiet, ruined realm, a colossal grave that should not be disturbed. Area designs range from misted forests, to abandoned towns, to decrepit palaces, and you’ll never know quite where you will end up next. The horizons often produce impressive vistas, and make the world feel vast and alien, while making your character feel quite small.
I have to admit — I really am not a fan at the bizarre, squashed faces of the player characters. The game provides you with ample options for selecting different hairstyles and other facial features, but honestly the strange, squinty, cartoony look of the character’s heads feel out of place for a game that appears so majestically serious and dark in comparison. It sort of ruins the aesthetic of the game a bit when your personal hero looks like they were supposed to star in an episode of Hey Arnold, but by some grave mistake, they instead ended up stranded in the bleak fantasy world of Salt and Sanctuary.
The game is probably still not going to appeal to casual gamers. Those who want to enjoy a good story and presentation with some complementary, accessible gameplay to make the experience more interesting may balk at a game like this. You will bite the dust many a time, especially going against bosses, and this will frustrate some people more than it will others. However, I plead such players to listen when I say that I thought the game felt fair in the ways it killed you off, and your subsequent attempts will go smoother than the last. I put this in contrast to many times I felt during Dark Souls that the game was unfair in how it killed you off.
More specifically, i mean unfair in that trying different approaches and learning the patterns of difficult enemies varies in its helpfulness, instead of guaranteeing eventual triumph. For many games who owe a sizable portion of their identity to being “difficult”, you fare better after the consecutive attempts you make — or at least you should. If there are situations in a game where my death count continues to rise and I am making *zero* progress in a particular area, the game loses a lot of my respect. I once read a journalist say the same thing, and I paraphrase here: “The game doesn’t respect the player’s time and effort, and makes them feel like they are wasting it”. There *is* such a thing as too difficult. These moments do exist in Salt and Sanctuary, but I felt these occurrences of “unfairness” were rare, instead of frequent. And if you are coordinating your efforts with another player, the retries you’re going to need should be minimized.
The game has some more serious weaknesses I feel I should mention. The way your character becomes more powerful has a lot to do with the equipment they wear, but the way your stats come into play is obscure, and if you don’t have familiarity with a similar game, you’ll end up mismanaging you character growth and having more trouble with encounters than you should. For example, some weapons “scale” with a stat, like strength, or dexterity. Scaling is how much a particular stat improves the weapon’s damage, and different weapons have varying levels of scaling. A particular type of sword might have a “C” scaling rating for dexterity, and a “D” scaling rating for strength. This means that, as you invest in the strength stat in your skill tree, the weapon will do more damage — but not as much damage than if you had invested in dexterity instead.
But, the game never tells you this. The only reason that I knew this was even a thing at all was because of the time I’d spent mucking around with From Software’s titles, as their weapon mechanics worked this exact same way in their own games, and Salt and Sanctuary felt far too similar for me to NOT assume that the weapons would work the same way. Other players who lack such experience might be a little pissed when they realize, hours into their first character, that they’ve been investing in the wrong stats for their favorite type of weapon.
The game drops the ball in this department in many other aspects: there is no available guide to tell you the things you need to know. What is the difference between magic and miracles, and how do I use them? What are the trade offs for choosing a different pantheon of gods? How do I summon my coop partner in the first place? These questions and many others are never directly answered, and instead players must turn to the internet to learn how to play the damn game. I understand that nobody likes a long, boring tutorial, but completely omitting a system to teach players these mechanics is not a solution either. I think it was realistic for Ska Studios to believe most of their audience would have played Dark Souls at some point, but that does not mean the responsibility for providing an understanding of how the game works internally wasn’t theirs.
Again, I’d reiterate that when playing single player, I don’t find the game to be nearly as enjoyable. The same goes for any similar game of the genre, where I feel the harsh penalty for death makes for a poor solitary experience. The case I’m making is that this type of game is a true joy to behold with a friend by your side. The same is also true for other titles that bears a resemblance, but unlike a Souls game, the multiplayer is simple and easy. Dark Souls require an obtuse, difficult-to-understand-let-alone-use system, one that requires research, extensive coordination and help from external apps or mods. Salt and Sanctuary only requires that you plug in an additional controller.
If you’re looking for a good Coop experience, look no further than this. No, actually, I’m begging you. Give Salt and Sanctuary a chance, you will not regret it. Those of you who aren’t a fan of Dark Souls and other asskick-y games of the sort, I implore you to leave your comfort zones and grab a buddy to play with — you just might find one of your favorite games of all time.