” ‘Til death do us part… many times over“. Salt and Sanctuary is a passion project created by a married couple, James Silva & Michelle Silva; founders of Ska Studios. Deeply influenced by the Dark Souls series, Salt and Sanctuary creates an engaging 2D representation of a Souls-like experience and is the best offering that captures the overall tone and feel currently available on Nintendo Switch. Salt and Sanctuary manages to bring its own flavor, allowing you to taste the salt of its brutal challenge, constantly rewarding the player as much as they feel the punish. Combat and exploration are the core elements to its gameplay. For those wanting more than just mindless hack & slash and are looking for a more skill-driven experience that is steadily paced, Salt and Sanctuary might be the challenging action-RPG you are looking for.
Before throwing players into the journey through darkness, they are able to create their own character. While personalization is mostly a plus, it’s here where the one major criticism is found when playing Salt and Sanctuary is worth addressing before moving onto just how good the game actually is. There’s nothing actually terrible with the create-a-character process itself, only its delivery of information; a lack thereof. RPGs are showered with various stats and attributes. Skills or special traits are often tied to specific archetypes and races. Some types of characters may be more proficient in using magic and perform weaker with physical weapons, and vice-versa. Salt and Sanctuary explains none of this to the player having them to do the guesswork. Common classes in RPGs all share the same ideas, but Salt and Sanctuary expects the player to know the differences without detailing why they differ from each other. For instance, two of the eight classes are Knight and Paladin. Wait, don’t they pretty much play the same role? Sure their starting equipment, such are weapons and armor, are different… but how do both of them play? What are their strengths and weaknesses? I’m switching between the different races from various regions so does my choice have an impact in the game or is it just purely cosmetic? Players may also choose a starting item to begin with, but the game still makes their purpose unclear, resulting in a little research needing to be done for those who want to know the nitty-gritty.
Regardless of who your character is created to be, they all share the same attributes: Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Willpower, Magic & Wisdom. It would be nice to know the precise stats for the type of character you’ve chosen. I recommend checking out a wiki for the proper information if you want to get the best out of it. I did. You want me to play a Souls-like from guesswork? Poor design. Thankfully, it’s the only poor design and one that can be rectified immediately. After you’ve chosen your type of eye & hair color, your hair style and name, text displays on-screen starting the story as you begin your brief gameplay segment which lets you choose not be successful in any way right off the bat. You, as the Saltborn, have a duty to save the princess and failure is not an option. This is all that you know at first as the plot develops the further you make progress. Once you’ve been given the freedom to go almost anywhere as you please it’s quite satisfying.
Aesthetically and level design-wise I’m reminded of Castlevania, beside the facts that players may wield whips and toss various projectiles. Players may choose to go in any direction through a world of many interconnected segments with no loading. Forts, castles, libraries, long hallways, creepy dark cellars, forest paths and more all contain their enemies and traps. Along the way there will be NPC’s whom may be spoken to giving a bit more context to the plot and what lies ahead. The world is mostly non-linear in fashion with the occasional glimmering entrance or doors visible either locked requiring a key or inaccessible by navigational means. You may be underground and pull a switch to a door which opens an exit to the outside only to realize it’s an area you’ve traversed frequently before. Creating these new shortcuts to get to specific areas is certainly beneficial to the player, especially considering that there is no map to display. While layout memorization is apart of most gamer’s instinct, this can also be off-putting. Sprawling through a land with no clear objective may feel a tad confusing, but thankfully the level design is pretty straightforward. There are no paths that scream insanity; just the occasional enemy.
Combat is gratifying to master. Reading your enemies patterns and reacting accordingly is essential as generally the player is no sponge dummy. Players will feel the blow from an enemy as their health may drop a quarter or more. Be surrounded by a handful of them and one wrong move may put you in a position of no escape or one where you should run like hell, drink a few potions, and return with a vengeance. Located underneath the health meter in the top-left corner of the screen is a stamina meter which dictates your every action. The cost of simply running around is free. Jumping, performed by pressing B, reduces stamina only a tad and fills up almost instantly making it the one you should be least concerned about, albeit still accounting for stamina loss. The other moves in your repertoire, however, dictate much more.
Pressing ZR will allow the player to roll out of harm’s way, whether it’s from an arrow shot from an enemy above or an oncoming pounce attack, at the cost of enough stamina to make you think when you should perform it. Pressing Y will do a standard attack using up a moderate amount of stamina. Pressing X will do a stronger attack at the cost of more stamina and its animation take just a little longer to display. Salt and Sanctuary isn’t all about performing quick combos, but there are certain links players are able to perform. With most bladed weapons, performing a strong attack directly after a standard attack will launch both the player and enemy into the air, allowing additional attacks to be performs. Any attack may also be performed aerially. Most strong attacks done in the air will perform an attack towards the ground. For rangers, particularly bow users, players can aim their shots with the left analog. Arrows are released after a brief moment so no indefinite arrow knocking.
Anyone wielding a shield need not worry. Blocking can be done by pressing and holding ZL. Damage is still taken, but reduced greatly. Pressing the standard attack while block will perform a parry and if timed correctly from an oncoming attack will allow the player to perform a deathblow maneuver by pressing A while the enemy is temporarily in a stunned state. This doesn’t guarantee an immediate kill, but it is quite effective. Players are able to equip multiple rings at once and are able to switch between two different gear loadouts by pressing L. This means you can wield a shield and ax for close-range combat and then swap to a spear or crossbow on the fly…for enemies that fly. Pressing left and right on the D-pad will scroll between the different items in your pouch which can then be activated by pressing R. Scrolling may limit movement in dangerous situations, so it’s good to know when to have a potion or throwing dagger readied. Holding down on the D-pad will light a torch, handy for unlit areas.
In fact, connecting any kind of hit on enemies feels gratifying to various degrees. Numbers pop up letting you know how much damage they’ve taken and the moment of their death creates a blood-spraying explosion that’s just nice to see as they fade out. When you’re not destroying barrels and other decor for random drops and mostly gold, enemies drop both gold and salt. Displayed in the bottom-left corner of the screen are two types of currency acquired which are spent in different ways. Both are also precious. First, Gold is used for purchasing an assortment of equipment and items from merchants, however a certain amount is also deducted from your total when you die as a priest would need the funds to carry you back to the latest Sanctuary. In fact, sanctuaries are pretty much your only safe-havens found in the game and are where the second type of currency, being Salt, are important to spend. Here, players are able claim the sanctuary as theirs should they so choose.
Players are also able to regain lost health, spend salt to level up (multiple levels in one go if players have enough salt), spend points on learning and upgrading skills, and even offer a statue to the altar allowing specific types of merchants who have their own skills to be available at all times for that specific sanctuary. While most of the world don’t have unique towns with particular vendors, sanctuaries do allow players to choose which vendors they’d most rather have around, presuming they have the exact type of statue to offer for their desired vendor. Anything bought with gold certainly has an expensive price tag for the amount of gold players usually have available. Don’t die: that’s good advice, right? It’s not just the gold that’s reduced when you get your taste of death. You lose the salt you’ve acquired. Players are given the chance to return to the spot/enemy who took their life to reclaim everything, but should you die during the process, it’s gone for good. There is a ring players are able to choose when creating a character that generates more salt when an enemy dies. You might even want it if you’re going to tough out through the 20+ bosses found in the game. Bosses are somethin’ else, too. They’re brutal and dying seems just about inevitable. However, once you learn their pattern, they do something new or add an extra move you weren’t expecting as their health lowers. Prepare yourselves. You can do by that knowing what you would like to be proficient in.
If you’ve played enough to not warrant a restart and feel like you’ve chosen the wrong character class, you need not worry. Ultimately, players can choose to be the type of character they want to be using the skill tree. Each new level the player reaches they are granted a perk point. These stack per level if the player chooses not to spend them right away. The types of skills aren’t out the realm of regular skills. Players are able to spend points by increasing the stats they wish you excel in, such as Willpower to increase stamina allowing more moves to be performed consecutively before becoming fatigued, or Wisdom which governs the effectiveness of prayers, for example. That’s not all, players will find additional weapons and armor through the travels all with different levels. However, there is a level requirement pertaining to each type in order to equip them. For instance, a Level 2 Heavy Armor can only be used if the player has the skill for a Level 2 Heavy Armor, regardless of the player’s overall level. Naturally, multiple skills can be filled out as necessary where it doesn’t become a problem. Choosing what you wish to be better at is part of the freedom for developing your character.
There is an option to allow local co-op which is a pretty neat feature to have in a game like this. Even when playing solo, you get the sense of there being other adventurers in your world. You’ll see a wandering “player” come to your sanctuary, pray, even talk to your vendor, and then be on their way. Sometimes they sport an awesome set of armor or weapon you wish you had. There are also bottled messages found within the world, as if players who died or came across something worth noting left behind for others to find. You may even find a helpful exploration tips. There are hidden areas which hold some items. Some may be in plain sight while others are blended in with the environment. Exploration plays a role to some volume.
The art style of Salt and Sanctuary is something I can see be divisive. Its washed out, non-vibrant look may not appeal to some. There’s not a definite shortage of color used, but some environments are kind of monotone. I think this fits the tone of the game, but it does mean certain elements are more difficult to make out. Enemies can blend with the scene and it’s not because they’re trying to be camouflage. Traps may be triggered as even they can be difficult to see. It’s not a problem in most of the areas, but they sneak up occasionally. In a game that provides a challenge, it may be frustrating the first time you come across a new spot. The visual tone of the game also feels like you’re watching a film in some sort of way. There’s no flickering or dust effects (thankfully), but its softened look does have an appeal. The different layers in the foreground and background, as simple as they may seem, truly make the world large and believable going hand-in-hand with the open-ended design. Text can be difficult to read in handheld. I also wish text from dialogue is written out and having a sound effect for it instead of displaying all at once. It’s makes the NPC’s feel emptier as if they are a signpost, but that’s just a personal nitpick. The music is ambient enough. The best way I can put it is that it’s goth metal. There aren’t any memorable tunes, but it is appropriate. Overall, the game is fantastic. The lack of clarity in character creation and menus in-game need polish.