Salt and Sanctuary

This reviewer will admit that he’s not a big fan of FromSoftware’s Souls series, despite the adulation among mainstream videogame critics, and was appalled that many other developers would bother imitating its masochistic formula. Thus, he was hesitant at first to attempt Ska Studio’s Salt and Sanctuary, which too received critical acclaim, although he ultimately discovered it had two-dimensional instead of 3-D gameplay, accounting for a markedly different experience on account of the divergent dimensionality. It’s not perfect, given some shared negative aspects with the Souls franchise, but this game was a welcome surprise.

When starting a new game, the player can select one of many starting classes for their character, which mostly determines starting equipment, although players can branch out to other occupations as the game progresses. Character development depends upon the titular Salt acquired from defeated enemies, which players can use, once they’ve acquired enough, at the cotitular Sanctuaries to advance a level, which provides them one point they can use across a Final Fantasy X-esque grid to acquire a stat increase or unlock weapons and armor to equip, some of which necessitate more than one point.

As in the Souls games, there is risk associated with the acquisition of Salt, as when the player’s character dies due to losing all HP or a long fall (with lesser but lengthy falls costing some hit points), they lose all Salt and revive at the Sanctuary where they last recovered health, stamina, and health and stamina-restoring items (with some Sanctuaries only allowing for recovery but no level advancement). The player can recover their lost Salt by defeating the enemy that killed them or by slaying a special bat-like foe that spawns due to death after a long fall.

Death again after the loss of Salt means that players permanently lose that which they acquired due to their prior demise. As in the Souls games, this can add a semblance of fake difficulty, although fortunately, Salt and Sanctuary is a tad less brutal than FromSoftware’s masochistic efforts, likely due to the fact that gameplay occurs only in two dimensions, whereas in three, the player has to worry about things like a camera that stays close to their character and leave them blind from behind. The biggest strike against the gameplay is perhaps its inconsistent difficulty, with this player, for instance, dying more due to regular foes and falls than to bosses, most of which, including the final, he beat his first try. Even so, the gameplay is actually surprisingly bearable.

As in the Souls games, furthermore, there are no in-game maps, which too seems to add a semblance of artificial challenge, inexcusable since games from many generations ago such as Super Metroid had this feature, although again, things are more bearable in two dimensions rather than three. However, Salt and Sanctuary like the Souls games doesn’t allow players to pause (although putting the Vita into sleep mode seems to rectify this). Exploration, though, can actually be somewhat enjoyable, and as in RPG Castlevania titles, there are a few new abilities that enhance exploration. One minor quibble is that the player can only view playing time when loading their game, but even so, the game actually interfaces quite decently with players.

Like the Souls games, however, Salt and Sanctuary sports minimalistic storytelling, with a blank-slate protagonist, although there are different endings depending upon the player’s creed and NPCs talked to through the contiguous 2-D world.

Another shared shortcoming with the Souls games is the stingy use of music, with the exception of a few ambient rocky tracks that really don’t fit the fantasy setting, although the sound effects slightly fill in the aural gap.

However, Salt and Sanctuary definitely excels from a visual standpoint, with a gorgeous hand-drawn style containing fluid animation, although there is slight choppiness at times.

Finally, the game will last players one to two days’ worth of total playtime, with plenty of side content and a New Game+ to pad out playtime.

Overall, coming from someone who didn’t care much for the Souls games, Salt and Sanctuary proved a welcome surprise, with the FromSoftware franchise’s mechanics seeming to work far better in two dimensions rather than three, the multiple endings depending on creed, the enjoyable visual style, and actual motivation to go through the game again, given the tolerability of the gameplay. It does, however, share a few flaws with the Souls series, such as the unbalanced difficulty, the total lack on in-game maps, and the minimalistic storytelling and aural presentation. Even so, this game would probably be ideal for those that enjoyed RPGs such as the Castlevania titles.

This review is based on a playthrough starting as a paladin.

The Good:
+Enjoyable Metroidvania gameplay.
+Multiple endings.
+Nice visual style.
+Plenty replay value.

The Bad:
-Inconsistent difficulty.
-Maps would have been welcome.
-Undeveloped plot.
-Minimalistic musical presentation.

The Bottom Line:
No Metroidvania, but beats the Souls games any day.

Score Breakdown
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 5/10
Graphics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Unbalanced
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.5/10

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