I must confess. I have never played Dark Souls or any games in the Souls series. Oh, I know all about them. I’ve followed the series from a distance, in a way. I know the Souls series is so popular and the conventions it has mainstreamed has inspired an entire new genre. I know the term Souls-like is becoming more pervasive and generally combines elements of high difficulty, permanent death, the ability to retrieve lost items from your previous corpse, big intricate worlds with a plethora of giant bosses, etc. I know Steam has a dedicated Souls-like category and even Wikipedia has a page about it. Yet, through all that I have never actually played one of them. That is why I wanted to play Salt and Sanctuary so badly. The original game has been out for a few years now and is commonly described as Souls-like in two dimensions. I figured it would be the perfect intro to the conventions of the genre (although I also know there has been a lot of pushback against creating a new genre with these criteria). So, with an open mind, I decided to dive right in and see what all the fuss is about.
As Salt and Sanctuary opens, you begin by creating your character in a manner that's becoming quite routine these days. After that, with a very little fanfare, you are immediately thrown into action. You find yourself on a ship under attack by a kraken you are unable to defeat. The boat is destroyed and you end up shipwrecked upon a forsaken island. Your quest is to save the Princess you were escorting on said ship, who has also washed ashore somewhere. You are given very little background about this world as a whole and then just shooed out into it.
This was personally a big disappointment to me. I crave a good story in my single player games, or failing that, a strong sense of serious progression to keep me going. Salt and Sanctuary, while beautiful, is as dark and depressing as it gets, so for me it needed a strong story to suck me in. And there isn't one. Sure, there are some plot elements and background events taking place, but not much of a strong and cohesive narrative. It feels like a series of familiar interconnected areas with no real connective tissue to tie them all together. But that's just my take on it. There’s a small background plot, and what is there may satisfy many, but not me. It’s too wispy and too strung out over long periods of time for it to have any sort of influence. As far as progression goes, there’s a good sense of it for your character, but not for the world itself or the grander picture beyond that world.
So, without a real plot, the gameplay would need to shine brightly in order to keep my interest. And it does - at least for a while. You move your character around a very pretty 2D world (if dreary as hell) while exploring and battling monsters. I must say that these still images don’t do justice to the graphics. The characters look as if they have been lifted from a sketchbook, but the atmospheric effects, moving backgrounds, textures, and overlays all come together brilliantly. Salt and Sanctuary truly is a gorgeous game that really needs motion to be appreciated.
There are many paths to take in the world, and many are interconnected. In many ways the game resembles a metroidvania, but it stops short of fully embracing the conventions of the genre. It’s far more concerned with battling monsters and giant bosses. Other than backtracking to unlock paths to make the connections between the areas easier, there isn’t much flow or cohesion to the world. It feels more like an arbitrary sequence of stand-alone zones. While this isn’t a terrible thing, I would have wanted a lot more flow between areas or a reason to venture between them other than just leveling up and finding new equipment. I would have liked each area to be filled with mini-stories and a sense of purpose and place to them.
Fortunately, the combat system does feel nice when you learn to chain your attacks together, knocking monsters up into the air and then knocking them about with aerial strikes. It’s fortunate since the game is all about that brutal and intense combat. However, it took too long for me to get the hang of it all. Your attacks are rather slow and punishing, and without a real tutorial system, it took me far too long to figure out how to effectively manage the combat. It’s a shame because once I finally "got it", the world really opened up to me.
And I died. A lot. You will too. Be prepared to see this screen many times.
Actually, even after I began to get the hang of combat, I still died. A lot. Especially on the bosses. They are frequent, they are giant, they are often unfairly difficult, and they all are a true challenge.
The combat in general is tough and punishing. Death means you lose around 10% of your gold and all the salt you have (more on that later). Lost salt can be regained either by slaying a slightly stronger version of the creature that killed you or by killing a white and glowing flying monster that hangs out near the ledge you fell from. If you have enough gold, you will be revived at the closest sanctuary you belong to (you can change these throughout the game). It's a neat little system, but sometimes you end up having to trek a long way and re-fight the same enemies you had just slain. If you don't make it back to where you last died, your unclaimed salt is gone forever. It's very punishing and difficult. And to be honest, it was a turnoff for me. I understand this is part of the conventions for a Souls-like game but I suppose this isn't what I find to be enjoyable.
What I did find quite refreshing was the leveling system. Once you get enough salt, you can pray at the altar at one of your sanctuaries. Salt is the substance you need to level up and spend on upgrades. You can take it off enemy corpses or find it in the world. Not only do all your base stats go up a notch, you are granted a pearl. These pearls are spent in the skill tree, a huge and labyrinthine spider web where each node grants a specific bonus. You can spend pearls in each node; some nodes take a single pearl to fill while others take more. Nodes give you more strength, dexterity, unlock specific skills, weapons, items, and spells. It’s all quite cool, but it does come with a downside though. If you picked the wrong skill tree branch, or later decide that you are unsatisfied with your choices (perhaps you regret specializing in axes and wish you have chosen swords instead), you’ll have to grind out multiple levels building up in that direction of the skill tree in order to use that new weapon type or equip that spell. Basically what this means is that the leveling up is just as brutal and punishing to mistakes as the combat. It’s an excellent system, but you definitely need to know what you’re doing and have a real sense of purpose.
In the end, I find the game to be very pretty, well-constructed, and an overall a lovely package. However, for me personally, it just isn't fun to play. I don't like being brutally punished repeatedly. I don't like having to over-analyze trial and error sessions that are needed when facing a difficult monster (especially the overpowered bosses). I don't like the lack of a strong forward-driving narrative or the dreadful atmosphere (as pretty as it may be) without a strong sense of story. If I were going to rate this game based on what I like in my games, it would only be two stars, maybe even as low as one and a half stars.
But here's the thing. I can recognize that Salt and Sanctuary is a well-constructed game and that there’s a lot of depth and challenge here for those that crave such things from their entertainment. It just isn't for me and I don’t think it ever will be, as I'm not the target gamer here. From that perspective, I can't give this game any less than 4 stars. It delivers on everything a fan of the Souls series would crave, and does so with style. If that's your thing, dive right in there and go conquer some brutally tough fights.