Sunday, May 8, 2022

Salt and Sanctuary


A Salty-Sweet Sidescrolling Soulslike

Let me begin this review by saying that I don’t really care much for FromSoftware’s Soulsborne games despite the adulation they’ve received among mainstream videogame journalists, largely due to what I perceive to be artificial difficulty, and actually liked the developer’s Enchanted Arms far more in spite of its more-critical reception. Thus, after my negative experiences with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I swore off ever giving the games another try, along with other action RPGs they would inspire such as Ska Studios’ Salt and Sanctuary, although given the game’s markedly-different style of gameplay, I figured maybe trying it out wouldn’t hurt, but does it fare any better?

Upon starting a new game, the player can select from a few initial classes, after which their character begins as a stowaway on a ship that eventually leaves him/her on the shores of a mysterious island comprised of dangerous locations from the world’s various continents. At first glance, one might consider the storytelling to be minimalist, although the lore is surprisingly intricate and never forced down the player’s throat, with most items and even the blurbs in the game’s skill tree having surprising depth and a few biblical analogies, and there is a choice of different creeds that affect the narrative. The main issues are the protagonist’s lack of development and the poor narrative direction, but otherwise, the plot is definitely a decent draw to the game.

Unlike the Soulsborne series, Salt and Sanctuary occurs in two dimensions and somewhat mimics the style of the Metroidvania genre, with the protagonist equippable with various pieces of equipment, a weapon, and a shield if able, with encounters against challenging foes frequently occurring, and the hero/heroine able to jump and attack them (doing so in the air will freeze them in the middle of their leap), earning the eponymous Salt, which serves as experience to the next level, upon successfully slaying antagonists. Players can use the aforementioned Salt in the titular Sanctuaries to level their character if they have enough.

Upon leveling, the player’s character receives a point they can use in a skill tree that combines elements from the tenth and twelfth Final Fantasies, with the access of certain nodes, many of which will require more than one point, necessary to equip various weapons, shields, and armor, with the endurance stat dictating their maximum equipment load that, when surpassed, will cause the hero or heroine to move slowly, and may affect their jumping power if they do come close to exceeding the limit. The development system very well accommodates different playstyles, with some quirks such as the eventual ability to one-hand two-handed weapons and still equip a shield without penalty.

As in the Soulsborne games, however, the protagonist’s defeat costs the player all Salt they’ve acquired and sends them back to the last Sanctuary at which they recovered at a slight monetary cost (around a tenth of their money, in my experience), but the chance to regain the lost experience if they defeat the foe that “Obliterated” (to use the game’s death equivalent of the Soulsborne series’ YOU DIED) the player, and if death came as a result of a long fall, a winged entity materializes that the hero or heroine must vanquish. Like the games that inspired Salt and Sanctuary, however, death again will cost players all the Salt that had gained before.

There are other elements of the game mechanics to consider such as prayers and magic that require the activation of specific tree skill nodes to use, along with a dodge roll (which, like regular attacks, necessitates stamina that recovers during inaction) and the eventual ability to dash in midair, which gives the game a Metroidvania feel given its aid in exploration. The gameplay is surprisingly good, with the Soulsborne formula seeming to work better in two rather than three dimensions, although the difficulty will definitely off-put many, given plenty tricky enemies and bosses and the potential to spend a while acquiring Salt and possibly lose it due to frequent death, but while the challenge level is above-average, Salt and Sanctuary certainly isn’t nearly as difficult as many games from generations past such as say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

On the matter of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series, though, Salt and Sanctuary lacks many quality-of-life features such as that particular franchise’s ability to pause the game and eventual in-game maps, which may at many points drive players to reference the internet, and there exist other issues such as the inability to view numerical Salt to the next level, only being able to view in-game playtime from the start menu, and some tricky level design, but the general controls definitely aren’t terrible, and there are positives such as a monster compendium, the controller rumble, and the like that largely prevent a descent into total user-unfriendliness.

One other negative aspect Salt and Sanctuary bequeaths from the Soulsborne series, however, is its largely-minimalist musical presentation, given the overreliance of ambience throughout exploration and the presence of music only in Sanctuaries, maybe one or two areas, and boss battles, but what soundtrack does exist is decent, despite a few tracks such as the rock pieces seeming slightly out-of-place in the game, although the sound effects and instrumentation serve the Soulslike decently.

The visuals serve the game better, with a nice hand-drawn style where monochrome shades and tings largely dominate, the enemy and player/nonplayer character designs looking nice in spite of the oddity of frog-mouthed characters, and the camera being decent and controllable during gameplay, but one issue is that battles against certain foes can occur in transitional points between areas and at times leave players blind.

Finally, a single playthrough will take players between twenty-four to forty-eight hours, with a semblance of lasting appeal in the form of a New Game+, different starting classes, and various creeds to follow, although the above-average difficulty will definitely deter many from devoting additional time to the game.

Overall, coming from someone who doesn’t care much for the Soulsborne games, Salt and Sanctuary was a welcome surprise, given the fairer implementation of that franchise’s formula in two rather than three dimensions, the surprisingly-deep lore, and nice visual presentation. However, it does have significant issues, starting with the fact that its above-average challenge level will definitely off-put many players, the absence of a few quality-of-life issues including pausing and in-game maps, and the minimalist musical presentation. It definitely is a good game, although given that it’s certainly not perfect, I’ll probably hold off on its sequel Salt and Sacrifice until good maps and maybe guides appear on the internet.

This review is based on a single playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the reviewer’s PlayStation 4, starting as a paladin to the ending with 71% of all Trophies acquired.

The Good:
+Soulsborne formula works better in 2D than 3D.
+Intricate lore.
+Nice visual presentation.

The Bad:
-Difficulty will definitely off-put many.
-Lacks quality-of-life features such as maps and pausing.
-Minimalist musical presentation.

The Bottom Line:
A surprisingly-good Soulslike slightly more accessible than the Soulsborne games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 6.5/10
Story: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 7.5/10
Graphics: 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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