Salt and Sanctuary is what you’d get if you took Dark Souls, mashed it flat and turned it into a 2D game. It’s about as Dark Souls as you can get without actually being Dark Souls. It’s not just inspired by various DS gameplay mechanics, it outright steals some of them.
Even the bleak atmosphere and the fragmented storytelling, requiring some virtual archaeology to uncover, is suspiciously reminiscent of the way Dark Souls does things. It even has a somewhat similar “summoning” type of multiplayer system. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just surprised they got away with it. Let me explain why.
As the game starts, you’re immediately presented with the character creation screen, which plays a haunting, sorrowful score while you tweak your character. It’ll be very familiar to any Souls fan. You can choose to play a male or female character from a selection of different homelands and can customise your look to your liking. You must also choose from one of several character classes, which affects your starting stats and determines your starting gear and items. You can also choose an item from a selection of starting “gifts” – most of which will be mysterious to you until you’ve spent some time with the game. Gee, that all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Once you’ve created your character, the game explains your mission to protect a princess who might be able to end a war or something, and then dumps you on a ship that’s under attack by pirates. You slash your way through a handful of them and reach the main deck, where you’re confronted by a boss that looks like the bastard lovechild of Cthulhu and a Xenomorph. This boss is waaay out of your league and it’s obviously a fight you’re not meant to win. I suspect that, just like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, it’s possible to beat this boss the first time, and you’ll probably get something pretty cool for it – but it’s more likely you’ll just die.
After this severely one-sided battle, you wash up on the shores of an unknown land. Your first encounter is with an old man who asks you which of three gods you worship. You have to pick one in order to activate the “sanctuaries” – which are basically the equivalent of Dark Souls‘ bonfires. Each god gives you different healing items which restock whenever you rest at a sanctuary, another Dark Souls-ism (yes, I’ll stop pointing them out now). There are probably more subtle benefits to each god that I haven’t uncovered yet.
These sanctuaries are a huge part of the game. Not only can you rest and regain your health items there, but you can also populate them with merchants and other useful NPCs by finding their corresponding stone statues. These characters allow you to purchase items, upgrade your weapons and armour, create new gear, warp between sanctuaries and undertake challenges.
The sanctuaries are also where you do your leveling up. Each monster you kill gives you a certain amount of “salt”, with which you buy level-ups. If you die you lose any unspent salt you’re carrying, but you have one chance to reach the spot where you died and reclaim your salt. In the interface for leveling up you buy your way across a huge board full of nodes that represent different stat increases and proficiencies with different types of weapons and armour. There are no class barriers limiting movement across the board, so you can create any type of character build you want, such as a pure warrior or a pious miracle caster who keeps a pistol handy to help spread the faith.
The meat of the game, the combat, starts out deceptively easy for the first few minutes, but quickly ramps up the difficulty. Just like the Souls games, you have to learn enemy attack patterns, discover which attacks to block, parry or dodge, and you have to be quick-thinking and flexible enough to do this when several types of enemies and environmental hazards are coming at you at the same time. It’s not a game for the easily frustrated, that’s for sure – especially the spectacular and unique boss fights, some which might seem impossible the first time you try them.
Luckily, other players can leave messages in bottles giving you hints about enemy weaknesses, upcoming traps or juicy secrets… DARK SOULS! Sorry, it slipped out. The game also has a Metroidvania element to it, in that there’s no linear path through the game. The world sprawls off in all directions and some areas are inaccessible until you acquire special abilities in the form of “brands”. These brands are given to you by NPCs – who are usually behind bosses.
Coincidentally, the one gripe I can level against the game stems from those Metroidvania elements. The game world is huge. Huuuge. As such, a map would’ve been handy. The Souls games don’t have maps, but I find it far easier to keep my bearings in their three-dimensional worlds. In a 2D game of this scale, it becomes hard to find your way around – where you’ve been, where you haven’t, where that locked door was, where you saw that conspicuous magical platform you couldn’t access before.
Salt and Sanctuary is available on PS4 at the moment, but PC and PSV versions are on their way later this year. And although Dark Souls III is mere days away as I write this, if you’re a PS4 owner with a Souls itch you can’t wait to scratch, this will definitely tide you over, as it did me.