Released: Mar 15, 2016
Salt and Sanctuary is an RPG indie title created by Ska Studios, the developers of games such as Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. Salt and Sanctuary is very much in the same vane as these two games, but takes itself a bit more seriously in both gameplay mechanics and tone.
Salt and Sanctuary begins with a character creation screen where you can pick your class, and appearance. Starting the game puts you on a boat where your escorting a princess across the sea. The ship is set to sail to a neighboring kingdom where she will be married to their king, ending a long war between your land and their's. You don't reach this kingdom however, as you are boarded by brigands in the night, and then shipwrecked by an eldritch beast called the Unspeakable Deep. (If your familiar with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this beast will be quite recognizable). You'll find yourself washed up on a foggy beach where you meet an old man. The dialogue choices you make decide your creed, which is an important part in creating a build. He sends you on your way with the key to the sanctuary ahead. Pushing forward puts you into the first area called The Festering Banquet, which puts me in a good place to talk about level design.
The Festering Banquet is a dark, bloody castle full of hostile undead. The game lets you learn the combat mechanics by throwing these easy enemies at you, until you reach the first boss. (Technically the Unspeakable Deep is the first, but he's optional) Not only does the area serve as a training ground, but as an explorable dungeon with hidden treasures. There are multiple hidden items hiding in this area, sometimes unobtainable until later in the game. Every area in the game has this alike, either hidden walls or obstacles blocking you from secrets. This encourages players to explore the map for items that will help them on their journey, or make things easier on their ever decaying psyche. (Did I mention this game is difficult?) Anyways, areas of the game, aside from leveling up, serve as the main sense of progress. Each place offers secrets, bosses, and experience to gain, also salt.
Salt is the consumable that allows you to level up. I can only assume because it fits in with the sea theme of the game? Maybe? Regardless, you get salt by killing enemies and level up with it at a sanctuary. This grants you a black pearl to upgrade a stat in The Tree Of Skill. The Tree Of Skill is expansive, giving you many ways to form your combat style. If you want to be a spear wielding mage, you can. Want to be a heavy armored musketeer? You can. The possibilities with the skill tree are endless, making the game highly replayable.
Regardless of whether your choose to be a greatsword wielding paladin, or a pot brandishing chef (that's a real thing in S&S), combat is both challenging and fun. As you encounter more enemies with different mechanics, you must adapt to their attacks. For example, Clay Phantoms charge up high damaging scythes that home in on you. This makes the Clay Phantom a high priority target, but if you rush to kill it you may hit too many times, surpassing the damage threshold. This causes the Clay Phantom to respawn as an invincible enemy which forces you to wait till it despwans. After facing the Clay Phantom multiple times you will learn to be patient with your hits, preventing the second one to spawn. Most enemies also fall under a certain archetype, some being tanky than others, and some doing extremely high damage. The most memorable enemies in the game however, are the bosses.
Bosses in Salt and Sanctuary vary from being awesome, too wellâ€¦ not so awesome. Take the Sodden Knight for example, the first real boss of the game. He is a simple yet well made boss. He starts in his first phase with relatively predictable moves (with a couple surprises), and then adds on to those in his second phase. Getting him to half health will cause his eyes to glow with electricity as his attacks become faster, and more erratic. Combos he threw at you earlier in the fight are now harder to dodge and predict. Through either trial and error you'll fight The Sodden Knight until you beat him, or farm more salt to level up. On the other hand we have bosses like That Stench Most Foul which is just a bad boss all around. The Stench has a huge hitbox, easy to avoid, generic attacks, and a small amount of health. This boss serves no lesson or challenge, simply run up to him, and spam attacks.
Speaking of spamming attacks, let's talk about combat. The 2D world of S&S simplifies a Dark Souls approach to fighting wonderfully. Rolling, parrying, blocking, light and heavy attacks all feel exceedingly well made. Combat is simply fun, and that's big part of why I enjoyed playing S&S so much. However, for as much as I can praise Ska Studios for this system, its more in depth mechanics could use some polish. Weapons and spells are not balanced, at all. Heavy weapons, specifically greatswords, are just too good. In terms of melee weapons, they outclass everything. Spears, maces, daggers, scythes, they're all inferior to greatswords. Daggers in particular seem almost unusable to the average players, doing abysmal damage and no knockback. Though slower to develop, Magic can be equally as overpowered late game. Dragon Fire was spell that was notoriously overpowered, almost being able to one shot bosses. While Dragonfire has been nerfed, greatswords seem to still be in their prime, quickly becoming a problem for non heavy builds in the endgame.
The final thing that I would like to touch on for this review is the story of S&S. It's quite easy to go through the whole game and realize that this game actually has a narrative. This is due to how Ska Studios tells the story, and builds their world. Going through the bestiary, reading flavor text, and listening closely to NPC dialogue is how you'll truly learn what is going on. I won't spoil some of the bigger reveals, but rather look at my favorite piece of lore in S&S. To start we have to look at a boss that appears later in the game, The Forgotten King. This boss is actually in fact three bosses, The Forgotten King, The Forgotten Knight, and The Forgotten Judge. The fight itself isn't important, rather their relation to the religion only known as The Three. The Three is a religion based around three gods, and in this quote that can be found in the game Â The King creates laws by which all men must abide. The Judge decides which men have broken the King's laws. The Knight carries out the King's sentence against guilty men”, it becomes apparent that the three bosses we find in The Crypt of The Dead Gods, (also a hint to their status as gods) are in fact The Three. I personally love this kind of storytelling through small hints. It makes me feel as though the world around me is connected, not just a platform for me to chop up undead knights and monsters.
I really do love Salt & Sanctuary. It has held my attention for over a year, regardless of how many times I've completed it. I do find that some things hold the game back from being perfect, like rushed bosses and lackluster areas. Over multiple playthroughs it is apparent that things plague the end game and sour the experience a bit. The overall art style is also hit or miss with people. Personally I really like the rough style of character sprites, but many find it ugly. That being said, I still highly recommend this game to anyone interested. It's a unique mash up between a 2D platformer and an RPG that you won't find anywhere else.