Salt and Sanctuary is a game that kinda drifted on and off of my radar, and to be honest I'd almost completely forgotten about it before it popped up for pre-order on the PlayStation store. Essentially, it's a 2D 'Souls-like made by a very small team on a low budget, so if I'm being completely open, I wasn't expecting much aside from a quick distraction away from Twilight Princess HD, which I'm also playing at the moment. Well, I finished the game earlier this afternoon and am prepared to eat my hat; not only is the game *very* competently made, it has had me maddeningly addicted over the past few days, eating up 16 hours of my time to complete it and really impressed me with the quality of the experience. It's developer is Ska Studios, a new one for me as I've not played any of their previous games, and costs £15 on the UK PlayStation store.
The game opens with a character creation screen that is very reminiscent of a From Software title. You can choose a race, class ,starting equipment and customise the appearance of your character in a very pleasing fashion; there's even a selection of starting 'gifts' that's taken straight out of the 'Souls games. Once created, your avatar is dropped into a ship at sea, where you are supposedly escorting a princess on her way to a political marriage. The ship is attacked and you have to fight your way to the top deck in an extremely brief tutorial section, before you met with your first boss... kinda. Like the 'Vanguard Demon' in the original Demon's Souls, the job of this first boss is actually to swiftly kill you and send you to the true start of the game, getting washed up shipwrecked on the beach of a mysterious island. It's a good opening, and sets up a rather obtusely-told plot, that by the end is satisfactorily explained; although I'm looking forward to diving back into a New Game+ at some point to complete some of the minor stories of certain characters that you meet during your adventure. The first character you meet though is actually another survivor of a shipwreck, who quizzes you about your religion, and this is the game giving you your pick of a starting 'covenant'. This concept is probably familiar to 'Souls players but with no PVP in Salt and Sanctuary the exact effects of many covenants are quite ambiguous at this stage. The most obvious effect I saw all game was when the sanctuary of one religion gave me some sort of alcohol as a healing potion, which had to be consumed in moderation else a 'drunk' meter started to build. For my first run-through of the game I chose the Iron Ones religion, which basically meant I was on my own where divine intervention was concerned, and this suited me just fine.
While some people have found aspects of the art style divisive (which I'll address later) generally speaking I thought the graphics were great, very dark and moody and reminiscent of a 'Souls game, especially the lighting system which meant that I actually had to use my torch a *LOT* in this game, something survivors of Dark Souls II will appreciate. The torch is also often integral to environmental traversal as throughout the game you earn 'brands', which give you special abilities and powers, which are used to gatekeep parts of levels and stop you blindly wandering into places you're not meant to be until reaching a higher level. The traversal through the environment is actually one of the key areas where Salt and Sanctuary differs from its inspiration, the 3D space (being able to look around and see where you're going) is replaced with some rather devious 2D platforming. The levels are expertly constructed and wrap around in clever and intricate ways, secret passages opening up to previous areas, and newly learnt abilities allowing you to access parts that were otherwise out of reach. There are even several completely optional areas that are well hidden behind some especially perilous platforming and the game really rewards exploration and experimentation.
Like the 'Souls games there is also a strong risk-reward mechanic involving the leveling currency 'salt' (lost upon death and absorbed by nearby enemies) and the safe haven of finding a 'sanctuary'; which is this game's equivalent of the 'Souls bonfire. In this game though, 'sanctuaries' are customisable and by offering idols to the "fire" you can summon different NPCs like merchants, blacksmiths or leaders of your chosen religion. These allies become very important for keeping your character well-equipped, for leveling up your covenant, and for quick-travel between the various sanctuaries scattered throughout the game world. Combat is also excellent, and like 'Souls it relies on a stamina meter to determine your efficiency in attacking, blocking, rolling, parrying, etc. Like it's inspiration the difficulty in Salt and Sanctuary is in the hard-but-fair spectrum, and boss fights in particular are especially challenging but feel fantastic once you learn their moveset and destroy them.
I mentioned that I liked the artstyle of the game, which is true, but where it falls down a bit is in the character's faces; they're cartoony and don't really fit the doom-and-gloom desolation of the rest of the game. It's the only misstep though in what is an otherwise superb presentation. While in general I applaud the level construction, and platforming in a 'Souls title brings a fresh new spin on the genre, sometimes the traversal is too difficult and I found myself dying more to mistimed jumps onto disappearing platforms than I did to enemies and bosses! Also, I found that the game in general is a little unstable at the moment, several times my copy crashed back to the PS4 menu, although I'm sure this will be patched in due time. As has been noted in reviews the game is *very* derivative of 'Souls, and while this is partly a strength and the reason most people will play it in the first place, it is listed here as a slight negative - although personally I had no problem with this.
If you're after a videogame in the 'Souls genre to tie you over until Dark Souls III hits, and you're also up for some challenging 2D platforming and environmental traversal, then you can't do wrong with Salt and Sanctuary. While it's not going to set the world on fire, or leave an impact on the landscape of gaming like the games it draws inspiration from, it's still a very serviceable and competent take on the 'Souls genre with some good ideas of its own and a fantastic sense of style.
I'm back blogging again! It's actually been quite a while since I last wrote on my gaming blog here on Destructoid, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I just got fed up of the constant fiddling with the blog editor, it became intolerable at one stage, but hopefully *fingers crossed* it looks like it's all working again. Secondly, I had originally planned on doing another year of themed gaming, and January (running through February) would have been 'Xenoblade Month' as I was playing through Xenoblade Chronicles 3D at the time with the plan to go straight onto X. Unfortunately, I got burnt out on Xenoblade despite enjoying it a lot, and I still haven't finished it! Anyhoo, to cut a long story short, I've decided against themed months, instead I'm going to play what I want when I want, but try to keep tabs on similar games of series of games I play throughout the year. This review is the first in the "Soulsborne" series, of reviews and articles about 'Souls and 'Souls-like games that I'm playing this year.