Too many times do we hear games and their difficulties being compared to Dark Souls, so much so that it begins to hold little weight with each and every passing comparison. Salt and Sanctuary is one such title, and with that in mind, I gave off a light sigh and booted it up with some hesitation. How wrong was I to doubt its worth. Salt and Sanctuary is one hell of a stellar experience, and although some comparisons can indeed be drawn to Dark Souls, this is a game that deserves to stand out on the merit of both its own character, and personality.
Salt and Sanctuary wastes no time in getting you into the thick of it. The stage is set instantly, showcasing our protagonist aboard a soon-to-be-sunken ship. Moments later, we see the sailor shipwrecked on a dark, grim island. Surrounded by evil of all shapes and sizes, it falls to you to find sanctuary and ultimately survive. Now, from here on out, you’re on your own. That’s that. I’ll admit, at first, I felt way out of my depth. There’s some glass bottles scattered all over that provide some subtle hints and gestures, but that’s all there is.
This is a game in which you’re expected to follow your instincts, and although this hands-off approach doesn’t seem all that appealing on paper, in practice, it works sensationally well. If you’re anything like me, it’s going to take a little while before everything clicks, but believe me, when it clicks, you’ll find it hard to put down the pad. The game does a good job at feeding you into its mechanics early on. You’ll find a sanctuary first; the game’s Souls-version of bonfires. Here, you’ll find replenishment, a save point, and some useful wares.
The latter of which can only be purchased from the game’s vendors. Though, there’s a kicker. They’re not preset. Instead, you’ll need to summon them to the sanctuary. To do this, you’ll need to obtain offerings that can acquired through natural progression. Each sanctuary that you visit can only house four vendors. So it pays off to carefully consider which vendors you want present in each sanctuary. There’s no shortage of vendors to summon, each bringing their own unique wares and benefits throughout your journey.
I’ll advise that you make your offerings intelligently. I say this because although the sanctuaries are decently spaced out, getting to and from them can be grueling due to the wide variation of monsters that sit in wait. It helps to have immediate access to the vendors that offer you the best of benefits; typically a shop owner and a blacksmith. Later on in the adventure, you will indeed find an offering that allows you to summon a traveler, which enables you to travel from sanctuary to sanctuary, relieving a lot of needless backtracking.
Hell, you can even summon a vendor that allows you to play in co-op. Though again, this will take up a sanctuary’s vendor slot, so choose wisely. That being said, before you’re afforded the ability to do any of that, you’ll need to align yourself with a creed. Creeds are factions that will bestow you with traits as well as access to specific vendors. Certain sanctuaries will already be claimed by other creeds, and here, you can claim the sanctuary for your creed, or convert from your creed to the one that’s occupying it. This does come with consequences.
Should you leave one creed for another, or desecrate the sanctuary of a creed that is not of your own, you’ll find hostility in one form or another as a result of your actions. It’s a surprisingly deep game. Sanctuary alters can also be used to level up and access your skill tree, which is something you can do at any sanctuary, regardless as to who occupies it. Leveling up and filling out your skill tree is relatively easy to get to grips with. To level up, you simply need to kill monsters. This will often reward you with varying amounts of salt.
You can also find salt in packets and in bags, which get added to your inventory and need stamping on in order to retrieve the content of salt. When you’ve acquired a mass of salt, you can take it to the sanctuary and level up. Each level up will require a growing amount of salt, and to the game’s credit, it does a wonderful job at balancing out how much you’re rewarded as you dive deeper in. Once you’ve leveled up, you’ll be given pearls that can be spent in the skill tree. Here, you’ll have access to traits and abilities that bolster your person.
This ranges from the likes of increased strength, health, stamina, and so forth. You’ll also find the ability to unlock the capability of holding powerful weaponry, which is a must later on. The skill tree is remarkably varied, and appears to go on forever. Nevertheless, it’s as deep as it is to ensure that you have the options to build a character that suits your play-style, meaning that you can pursue some truly unique and vastly powerful builds. Further to all of that, you’re never tethered to a single route on the skill tree whatsoever.
You can quite literally spread out (from the first unlock point) to increase whatever stats that you want to increase, and unlock whatever additional benefits that you want to unlock. This does indeed feed into the weaponry and gear that’s present throughout the game, and with hundreds of goods on offer, you’ll find no lack of equipment to wear and wield. Practically anything can be leveled up in this game, naturally increasing the stats of your gear and weaponry, independently. Like I said, it’s a very deep game, but it’s accessible too.
Usually games that have deep systems tend to go over my head, but in Salt and Sanctuary, it’s so well relayed and so well laid out, that even a genre newcomer can dive on in and fully understand everything within, as and when it’s introduced. Much like anything else here, upgrading your gear comes at a cost. Each piece of equipment has an upgrade path, and to follow it, you’ll not only need currency, but very specific items too. These items can be tricky to find, but this alone encourages you to explore the game’s vast and interconnect world.
How you take on this world is down to you. Though I will caution against ever feeling too comfortable here. The game has a nasty habit of kicking your ass and giving you a wake up call, frequently. General rule of thumb? Continuously level up and stay on-par with the game’s increasingly difficult enemies and areas. Salt and Sanctuary is a side-scroller, in which you’ve move left and right throughout its deviously dangerous environments. Enemies of all shapes and sizes will patrol these areas, constantly giving you a tough time.
Should you bite the dust, you’ll lose whatever salt that you held at that time (unless you’re able to go back and retrieve it – a one time deal) and will lose a small portion of gold. The gold that is deducted is taken by an NPC that will carry you to the last sanctuary that you visited. However, all enemies will be respawned upon visiting a sanctuary, so it can indeed be quite tricky to go back and retrieve your salt from your last point of death. The game’s growing difficulty is, as aforementioned, only alleviated if you put in the time and effort.
I found that early on, I would constantly die and lose all my shit as a result of attempting to run before I could walk. Taking a step back and reevaluating my play-style certainly helped here. I began to tackle each and every foe that stood in my way, amassing a great deal of salt for leveling up as a result. My character build was knight-like, and my weapon of choice was a great sword. This allowed me to utilize mass damage attacks at a safe range, but slowed me down due to all of that weighty equipment. This is where diversity comes in.
If you want a quicker and more agile build, or something more fantastical, pursue this via the skill tree and adjust your gear. Naturally, your chosen build will affect how combat plays out. Should you follow my path, you’ll frequently run low on stamina. Without stamina, you’re wide open to attacks and lack the ability to do pretty much anything. It does self-replenish, mind, but even so, having a clunky build gives you less freedom to move and attack quickly and in rapid succession. That all being said, there is a balance to its systems to appreciate here.
Do you trade swift movement for bulky attacks? Or, do you lean on a build that can avoid attacks and get in a few attacks of your own whilst your enemies recover? Choice is by no means exhaustive here. The gameplay itself is fluid, responsive, and varying. There’s a great mixture of platforming, combat, and general traversal. My only gripe is that there’s some platforms that appear to be glitched, leading to some deep drops and a cheap, unfair death. It’s especially irritating when you’ve got a large amount of salt, and no way of getting it back.
Outside of that, there’s little to groan about, save the occasional enemy that can clip you through platforms – again leading to some frustrating ends. The combat is quite swift, and even here there’s a good amount of depth and understanding to pick up on. The game’s enemies are varied and vast, and almost always formidable, especially in packs. Whether you’re chopping through goblins and zombies, or taking on undead wizards and towering knights, you can guarantee that the game will never hold back. Then, there’s the bosses.
The game is chock-full of gigantic boss battles. These foes are not to be taken lightly, and can wipe you out in the blink of an eye if you’re not too careful. The aim of the game here is to play it safe and assess your enemy’s movements and attack patterns. This, ladies and gents, is key to your survival. You’re free to hold two weapon loadouts, and swap between them on the fly. I found it handy to hold a shield with my great sword, allowing me to absorb the weight of incoming attacks, and give me just enough leeway to get a quick swing in myself.
Combat will indeed vary based on your build, so it pays off to get to grips with your character early on. Should you drop the use of a shield, you’ll want to barrel roll through an enemy’s attacks to avoid the weight of its force. Nevertheless, the controls are precise at all times and before long, you’ll find yourselves attacking, dodging, and parrying your way to success. One thing I will commend the game for, is that although it can be brutally unforgiving, that sense of accomplishment when you nail a boss or a tricky platforming section, is like no other.
There’s some useful items that you can pick up along the way too, for use in and out of combat. The benefits of each item is clearly displayed in the inventory, allowing you instant understanding of their uses. This is where item management comes into view. You can only use the items that you have equipped, meaning that if you want to douse your sword in poison or fire, you’ll need to explore your backpack and ensure that your useful wares are set to your immediate inventory. Once done, you can browse and select them on the fly.
Like I said, Salt and Sanctuary is a deep and ambitious game. You’ll want to spend some time getting used to its systems before you head into the unknown. Death will come often if you don’t make use of your inventory’s aid. Much to be expected from a game of this type, special stat-boosting runes and rings are there for you to utilize, each coming with distinct pros and cons. Don’t let all of this overwhelm you, because in truth, the game is very accessible, if indeed tough by nature. It just takes some time getting into the swing of things.
Now, as alluded to above, Salt and Sanctuary’s world is one large interconnected mass of land. There’s some metroidvania elements present too, being that you’ll learn new tricks that will allow you to access previously blocked off areas elsewhere. That said, each new area that you overcome, typically houses a shortcut back to your previous area. So even without the use of fast travel, so long as you succeed in your journey, getting to and from any given sanctuary isn’t usually too much legwork once these shortcuts are opened up.
Whatever the case, that’s the crux of play. You’ll move through the game as you lay waste to its wide enemy variation, pick up useful wares to better your character, visit sanctuaries to bolster your efforts, level up, apply skills, and rinse and repeat. Thanks to how remarkably well the game’s many systems feed into one another, it never gets old. Death will haunt you at every turn, but that sense of needing to overcome the freakishly large behemoth that wiped you out at the drop of a hat, only encourages you and pushes you to improve and return.
It’s not just the general traversal and the combat that does this, but the game’s world design too. The island has heaps of secrets and locked doors that are just screaming to be uncovered. This alone makes you want to see everything that’s on offer, constantly enticing you to find new keys and new areas as the hours pass you by. It helps, of course, that Salt and Sanctuary is so gorgeously detailed. Furthermore, it’s detailed in such a way that mystery and intrigue are relayed so often, you’re constantly stuck for choice as to where you should go.
This sense of wander only ramps up later on when you unlock new abilities and recall previous areas in which these new abilities can be put to use to seek out even more areas. I cant stress how much this game deserves to be played. I did enjoy the game’s social aspects, which provide a nice touch. Whilst you wont see other players in the world, you will occasionally see other players in a sanctuary, minding their own business or working to better their stats. Then there’s the game’s message system, which is light, but marvelous.
The game incorporates a message in a bottle-like mechanic, known here as the Journey Bottle. This allows you to put messages in a bottle, and leave them behind for other players to locate in their independent adventures. It’s a great way to signpost help for other players, or indeed, trick them. I’m fairly certain I’ve been conned a few times on my run, but even so, it’s only ever brought a smile to my face as I picture the player doing the same as they left the bottle for me to find. Now, onto the game’s stunning visual and audio deign.
Salt and Sanctuary sports a mucky 2D aesthetic. The game’s environments are constantly distinct, treating you to new, highly detailed, and exciting (yet always daunting) locations to move through. There’s a lot of gore present too, with your character and your character’s weaponry and gear being splattered in blood as you mow through your enemies. It all comes together wonderfully. This is all upheld by a solid soundtrack, which, alongside the game’s sharp and exceptional audio cues, ties the whole adventure up neatly, and nicely.
It would be all too easy to compare this to the Souls series, but in truth, Salt and Sanctuary deserves a spotlight entirely of its own. It’s a dark and twisted journey that constantly relays a remarkable amount of depth, variety, innovation, and detail. Its greatest achievement, however, is not that of its outstanding structure, but its ability to frequently entice its players, despite how often it screws them over. This, is a punishing must have.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.