By William Haderlie / April 21st, 2016
|Title||Salt & Sanctuary|
|Release Date||March 15, 2016|
|Genre||Action RPG Platformer|
|Age Rating||ESRB M for Mature|
Let’s get this out of the way up front – this is a 2D Dark Souls with platforming elements of “Metroidvania” games. Everything about this game, from the environment and enemy designs to the menu construction and the leveling mechanics, is all straight from the Souls franchise. So it would be a stretch to even call it an homage; you could change the name of the currency Salt to Souls and you wouldn’t know the difference. But, that is not a bad thing to me at all, there was plenty of room there to create something new within that framework. Initially it will seem like entirely a From Software title, but when you start getting further in the game, some of the “Metroidvania” influence creeps in. But those influences are welcome, jumping and traversal has always been a weakness for the Souls series (and Bloodborne).
At the start, you can customize your look with fairly high variety, particularly for a 2D game. But the look, race, and gender are only cosmetic: your major decisions are your starting class and starting relic. For my starting class, I went with the most basic class of all: Pauper, starting at level 1 with no perks. This is how I play the Souls games as well, so I kept with tradition. It did allow me to go any direction I wanted, but I didn’t see as much of an advantage to doing this as I do with the other franchise games. Wanting to play without using any internet help, I didn’t really know what any of the items you could choose did, so I went with the Crystal Orb. In hindsight, for future characters, I will go with either the Ring or the Amber Idol (for a speedrun I would go Amber, for a regular run I would go Ring). That’s not to say that the Crystal Orb was useless (they are rare items in the game), it’s just that I only ever used one of them once just to see what would happen when I converted a Sanctuary.
The story is mostly told through very optional dialogue with the NPCs that you run into. But very little is explicitly told. You start on a ship where you are apparently escorting a Princess somewhere, but mid voyage you are alerted to monsters attacking your ship. You are at your starting level and equipment, so if you do happen to make it through the hold and onto the deck of the ship the boss monster attacking is more than likely to tear you apart. Once again, like the influencing titles, the boss is difficult but can in fact be killed for a large boost of salt to give you a few extra early levels. Regardless of whether you win or die, you will wake up stranded on a beach, and you will be prompted by an NPC to choose a Covenant to worship (out of three). You are given an idol for that Covenant, and you take it up the hill to your first Sanctuary. They serve basically the same function as bonfires from Dark Souls, and like that first game you can level at any of them. But one cool addition is that you can use idols that you find in the world to summon up to four vendors to a Sanctuary which worship your deity. They do their standard vendor tasks, and they also provide buffs that are active in the local area around that Sanctuary.
Destroying monsters will earn you Salt, and most of the time they will also drop gold that you will need to actually step on in order to collect. Salt is your currency for leveling up, and more Salt is needed for each level you raise. It is also a currency used for upgrading or transmuting weapons (along with other rarer materials), but initially you will be using it primarily for levels. One way in which this title differentiates itself from the Souls games is the massive Tree of Skills (skill tree, but actually in tree form). What it most reminded me of, actually, was the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Gaining levels earns you the leveling orbs (you can also rarely find them in the world), and then you use those orbs to obtain stat upgrades. Certain specialty skills require more than just one orb, though (for example, Swordsman 2 costs two orbs instead of one). If an enemy kills you in the world, they will take all of your Salt, and you will spawn at the last Sanctuary (or mid-point candle which are usually next to a boss) and will need to return to that enemy and defeat them in order to get back your Salt supply. Those creature (other than bosses) are more powerful now than they were before while they’re holding your Salt. But if you defeat them, you will get your Salt back in full. If you fell to your death, a bat like creature will be where you jumped or fell to your death, and you will have to defeat it. The only permanent punishment for death is that you lose 10% of your gold for each revive, other than the possibility of you dying on the way to regain your Salt, in which case you will lose all of it. Yes, this should all sound very familiar.
Ska Studios has been known for their very cool enemy and character designs ever since their very first game. And in this one Michelle Silva exceeded herself beyond her previous work. While reminiscent of several boss fights from the other series, they still had their own personality and aesthetic here. They were also designed mechanically well to be difficult but fair. That can’t have been an easy task for a 2D game to balance. Hitboxes are certainly easier to do for a 2D game, but balancing all those weapons and dodge distances for each boss fight must have taken a lot of work. I didn’t have any of them bug out on me or any bugs in the entire game for that matter. There are a ton of bosses in this game, but many of them are optional. I actually explored enough in my first playthrough that I ended up beating every boss but one. The only boss I didn’t defeat was that first ship boss, which I’ll get to it on my second character as New Game+ skips that fight. But I did explore a lot, and while most of the videos and guides that I read after beating the game suggested that they beat the game around level 50… for me I was level 85. Not that it was easy, though, it still remained a significant challenge.
My first time finishing the game took me 18.5 hours. I could have done it shorter with more experience, or taken longer to explore more. So this is a difficult game to accurately state a length for. Speed runners can finish this game in about an hour, though not easily. But that’s not a feasible figure for 99% of people. I’m a veteran of Souls games and “Metroidvania” titles, so I would say that my 18.5 hours is probably on the low side for most people’s first time: 20-25 is probably a realistic figure. Replay value comes from not only doing speed runs, however. It also comes from playing a new build and a new Covenant from the beginning or taking your previous character through New Game+. Much like the standard idea of NG+, the enemies are stronger and drop more Salt, you maintain all of your inventory and levels of your previous playthrough, but you miss any keys and Brands that you obtained on the previous run so you can’t destroy the continuity. Brands are your skills that allow you to traverse into previously inaccessible areas (such as the wall jump, or the jump dash, and so on).
Honestly, as a reviewer, I often do not have the time to go back to games I’ve already reviewed once I’m done with them. This game, however, I will be playing for a long time to come. My character Brunhilda may be level 85, but if I want to fill out that Tree of Skills, she’ll need to be around level 500. And she was a melee fighter focused on top damage but still able to move around quickly to dodge. I didn’t focus on armor or any Magic or Prayers, so I’ll try those other styles with a new character. This is also a prime candidate to eventually go back for the Platinum trophy, as I already have 70% of the trophies. It’s hard to believe that a title this huge will fit on the PS Vita, but when it does arrive it will be Cross-Buy, so I’ll probably end up playing it all over again on my Vita. The shocking part is that this is a $17.99 MSRP game, and that seems like a crazy low price to me. Yes, the game is 2D, but this is every bit as deep as those other franchise titles that I mentioned.
The music is minimal but in an intentional way. It’s very subtle and adds to the overall oppressive atmosphere of the world, let alone that you will often want to use audio cues as to where enemies are coming from or when they are readying an attack. This title is not easy, but I cannot recommend it enough. It’s perhaps a little easier (not much) than the From Software titles, but you still have that same sense of accomplishment for defeating bosses or clearing areas and that same stress for carrying a lot of Salt and looking for the nearest Sanctuary so you don’t lose it. The platforming was done well enough that it adds to this style of game instead of detracting from it. So, now that From says they do not plan on making any more Souls games, I would not be at all dismayed if Bandai Namco gave the reigns to Ska; this game is that good. Their other titles were really good, but they took the next step with this game.
Review Copy Provided By The Developer
Action RPGPS VitaPS4PSNSalt & SanctuarySka StudiosSony