Salt and Sanctuary clearly is crafted from a merging of inspirational sources. It pays great homage to games that have come before it while reinventing them; combining them in ways that both let the genius of those games shine and create an entirely new experience for the player. The two most important influences on Salt and Sanctuary are Dark Souls and Castlevania. Castlevania is the oldest of the three and has influenced much of the design of Dark Souls, as well as giving this game its underlying framework and heavy two-dimensional exploration experience. “Salt and Sanc'” is at heart a Metroidvania-style game. I think calling it a “2D Dark Souls” is a bit disingenuous since it clearly belongs to an already well-defined genre of games. However, that’s not to say that the Dark Souls influence isn’t worn on the sleeve.
Salt and Sanctuary‘s RPG elements make up the primary detail of its mechanics. There is a system for stat progression and skill upgrades. There’s a wide variety of weapons and armor you can find in the game and a huge selection of consumable items at your disposal. These elements are straight out of Dark Souls. You’re given one currency as your main way to level up: salt. This is used at a “sanctuary” to increase your level. When you die, your salt is picked up by the enemy who killed you…much like in Dark Souls (or more specifically Bloodborne).
Unique to this game, however, is what happens when you’re killed by environmental hazards. There are myriad ways to fall to your death or be killed by an unseen trap. When this happens, your salt materializes as a bat that you must kill in order to regain the lost points. When killed by a boss, a small indicator appears above the health bar of the boss. If you’re able to get them down past the indicator, you’re given your salt back. I feel this is almost a better way of handling this problem than Dark Souls’ method. First off, you don’t have to worry about running to your salt’s location and picking it up (causing a small distraction that the boss can exploit, leading to your death again). Second, it forces you to learn how to fight the boss. Each time you die, you need to get the boss down to the indicator again. You need to get to that same spot every time, so it gives you another goal during the fight. Giving you a halfway point in the fight helps break down the bosses’ strategy and learn to deal with their attacks.
Over the course of Salt and Sanctuary, you meet other travelers and gain special powers from them in the form of “brands”. The first and possibly most mysterious character is the Jester. He sits upside down near a big obelisk and talks only in cryptic rhymes. There’s even a boss associated with this character. The boss sits in front of the real Jester’s room, trying to trick passersby into thinking he’s the actual one. Once you’ve acquired the brand from him, you can use it to flip yourself upside down whenever you come across an obelisk. More brands can be collected, each giving you a unique power. This mechanic is taken straight from the Metroidvania genre. It’s almost a staple and wouldn’t truly be classified as such without it. It’s interesting to see this interaction. It gives the game an interesting way to explore the world; especially if you’re coming at it from a Dark Souls perceptive. Ultimately, exploration is what these games are about.
Each sanctuary you find is dedicated to a particular religion. You may choose from three different ones at the beginning, or convert to a new one at an available sanctuary. Occasionally you’ll find an empty sanctuary and have the ability to claim it for your creed. When you’re inside your religion’s sanctuary you can do much more than just level up. You can bring in followers to help you in your journey. These followers can provide you with shops, or smithies. They can guide you back to other sanctuaries or transmute your weapons into new wondrous creations. One of the most interesting of the followers is the Leader. This character can offer you side quests to complete, in addition to your main goal. These side quests are nothing more than collecting some quest-specific loot from enemies that you’ve killed.
The game’s rewards are what really intrigue me. For example, when you’ve completed a quest for a Leader, you’re offered one of several items. These include healing potions (which you also get from the massive skill tree), stamina potions, and elemental buff items for your weapon. Interestingly, when you rest at a sanctuary these are all replenished…much like your “estus” in Dark Souls. If you choose a lightning stone as your reward, whenever you rest you get your stone back. You’re never in a state where you need to wonder whether or not it’s a good time to use this buff item; you know you can get it back. It’s always a good time to use it.
Something I’ve been dreading talking about is the skill system. It’s massive; too massive. When you level up you’re given a black pearl (these can also be found around the world). You use these to choose a skill from an enormous web. This thing is so intimidating when first starting out. You have no idea what to take, where you want to end up, or how to plot out the best path to get there. I ended up just trying to get as many different weapon skills as I could in order to use the widest variety. There are also skills for other things, including raising your stats, using higher weapon/armor classes, and increasing the number of healing potions earned when you rest. Skills are accompanied by “passages”. These are from fables and holy books, and give you a glimpse into the deep lore of the game. It can be overwhelming if you’re set on reading every one of them! Once you choose your first couple of skills, a path starts to become clear. You start to learn what’s important to you and recognize the skills you need. Going for new weapons at the outset gave me great direction, and let me pick up some really good stuff along the way. Although I don’t use every weapon (I tend to stick to swords or axes), it at least gave me a starting direction.
While the mechanics of Salt and Sanctuary are incredibly deep and precise, the art style is another story. I’ve heard many people say that they were put off by it, calling it cartoony or sloppy. At first, I wasn’t that keen on it either. This is especially evident in the character design. However, after some time playing it I changed my mind. Seeing the beautiful landscapes and backdrops, and the designs of the bosses and the wicked scarecrow, I fell in love with the art. It took me a moment to realize that these drawings weren’t cartoony as such, but rather as though straight out of a storybook. There is almost a papery quality to them like they’ve been lifted off the page of a forgotten ancient fairy tale. I realized that the art wasn’t so much off-putting, but lent itself to a particular design that I didn’t see at first.
Salt and Sanctuary is a beautiful, rich experience filled with tribulations and victories. It clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, but it wears them so elegantly. This game perfectly captures the essence of older titles and transforms them into something new. Salt and Sanctuary does an amazing job of creating a deep lore and an interesting world that feels expansive. It at times brings you down into the depths of its nittiest gritty details and then compares them to its wider overarching universe. The characters are wonderfully written. The levels are meticulously constructed, and each fleeting victory is so satisfying. This is one of the coolest games I’ve played in a long time. It hit every note I wanted it to, and satisfied every itch I’ve had. If you haven’t had your fill of Dark Souls, or want to try an incredibly well-developed and interesting Metroidvania game, Salt and Sanctuary is here for you. This game has eaten up way more of my time and attention than I meant it to.
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