When you first step onto the island to begin your horror filled journey in Salt and Sanctuary, there’s a lot of white, as if the entire world is covered with salt or ash. You’re able to see pretty much everything in front of you, from the broken carriages to abandoned campsites, until you check out your first castle, wrapped in darkness and filled with all manners of ghouls. It’s here that the game teaches you, early on, how important the unknown actually is.
Developed and published by Ska Studios, the people behind The Dishwasher series, Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D action hack and slash rogue-lite. While escorting a princess to take part in a marriage that could end a long standing and devastating conflict, your ship is attacked. Soon after, you’ll find yourself shipwrecked, and end up being dragged to a nearby sanctuary by an unnamed monk. He tells you that you looked to be the only survivor, meaning it’s up to you to venture through the unknown island, filled with dangers and death galore, find the princess, and end the unnamed war before it’s too late.
It’s a distinct variation on rescue-the-princess-save-the-world that I honestly didn’t see coming, but you’ll quickly forget about your original goal due to the addictive exploration. Bosses are hidden in dungeons, but they’re not always at the bottom of a well or at the top of the tower, and you’ll have to diligently scour the area looking for your next challenge. From evading traps and enemies, picking off the weaklings, to resting up at various shrines and sanctuaries, and gathering experience points in the form of “salt,” there’s a lot to do and explore in even the simplest of dungeons. While collecting salt, upgrading your equipment, and leveling up your character, you can switch up your weapon loadouts, look for hidden passageways to different parts of the map, and hunt for hidden treasures and mini-bosses.
Perhaps the amount of content may be a bad thing, however. Without spoiling too much, there’s at least a dozen significant bosses and dungeons to explore. There also isn’t a map or compass to tell which way you are traversing throughout the world, so you’ll oftentimes walk into a dungeon that you’re not prepared for, only to hurry out at the first sight of a nearby enemy. It’s exhausting to think about. Whenever I beat a boss, I would back out to my trophy menu and see that I had several bosses left until I was anywhere close to the endgame. The game kept going on and on. Salt and Sanctuary can seem like a succinct experience if you do take advantage of the fast paced nature the game can lead toward, but newcomers such as myself may want to cautiously venture onward through this macabre, salt-filled land.
You don’t have to carefully step through this depressing world, however. You can fly through the game, creating a build that relies more on speed and strength than magical attacks and careful planning. Or you can put more skills in speed and magic, awkwardly maneuvering through the tricky, engaging level design and zapping down aliens with a bright flash of lightning or fire. The customization further prepares the player for the challenge ahead, as upgrading your character’s skill tree and weapons with the salt and materials you’ll come across open up new abilities and ways to play. Multiple playthroughs also allow you to further max out all of your character’s abilities.
A 2D action rogue-lite such as Salt and Sanctuary also requires some knowledge and patience in regards to several of the more frustrating platforming elements. You’re only granted one jump, so use it wisely, and I often felt it killed the momentum of my playthrough, adding to the frustration rather than the challenge of the game. Several times I was too nervous to jump and progress forward, for fear of losing an immense amount of experience. Don’t just leap into the darkness, hoping to latch onto the ledge ahead of you, as an ill-timed jump could mean the loss of a precious amount of salt in a virtually unattainable section of the map.
But this patience can also translate into a satisfying combat loop, picking off the weaker enemies before the trickier variations rear their ugly heads. The game is difficult and challenging, yet it never felt brutally unfair. Even when dying as you are about to vanquish a boss, or coming across a tricky enemy a few levels above you it felt conquerable. The game teaches you to understand from your mistakes in a fair way.
While the world is covered in a grey, dark shadow, splashed with red splotches of blood, the various areas of exploration look good enough to fill in the space so the world doesn’t feel too empty. What really matters is what’s going on in those environments. You’ll walk by a galley with dangling bodies or a row of pikes and see the heads of former adventurers. Sometimes when you waltz through your sanctuaries a stray hero is taking a brief respite, and you’ll see the head of that same hero dangling from the entrance of your next destination. Enemies can fall for the same traps as you, and they’ll follow you through the various rooms, and some will even follow you to your next boss fight. It’s a great dynamic environment that will challenge your patience and diligence.
If you’ve been paying attention to the review and the coverage of this game, you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about Dark Souls. Truth be told, I haven’t played a whole lot of Dark Souls, so I came into Salt and Sanctuary aware of the similarities, but also pleasantly surprised to discover how it incorporated different elements from games such as Rogue Legacy and Castlevania. Smaller similarities, such as the menu presentation, the journey of a nameless hero, and the collection of salt, really stack up. The game is great on its own; while I appreciate any homages to the brutal, crushing difficulty of Dark Souls, I would think even more highly of this game.
Salt and Sanctuary is a great game with crushing difficulty, cool battle systems, and a dynamic world that’s fun to play in. While it may feel too big for its own good sometimes, the breadth of in-game content and achievements means can take advantage of its replayability soaked in salty gore.
+ Satisfying difficulty and combat
+ Dynamic world
+ 2D platforming action
–Lots of Dark Souls similarities
–Breadth of content can feel overwhelming
–Platforming elements can be frustrating at points
Salt and Sanctuary is a great roguelite with a difficulty level that teaches through defeat rather than punishment for the sake of pain.
Liam Crossey is the Executive Editor of Features for The Game Bolt. Follow him on Twitter for too many retweets.