I don’t know about you, but the mere mention of a Metroidvania causes my ears to perk up; But the mention of a Metroidvania that plays like 2D Dark Souls causes my soul to leave my body. That’s exactly the way Salt and Sanctuary is described and I’d be lying if I said this is anything short of spectacular. When it first launched for PlayStation 4 in 2016, I was taken aback at how fleshed out and fully realized the world feels. It also says a lot that this was my 2016 Game of the Year, a year when an actual Dark Souls game launched with Dark Souls III.
Even more amazing is the fact that Salt and Sanctuary is made by two people. It’s almost unbelievable, but after meeting with the developers at Ska Studios, they let me know that yes, in fact, this was made by a couple. When you take into account the sheer size of this world and the various systems and mechanics in play, it would be an achievement even if the team was made of 20 people.
Salt and Sanctuary is, in essence, 2D Dark Souls, so it will be hard to discuss without bringing up From Software’s most popular RPG series. There are save-points in the form of sanctuaries instead of bonfires, XP in the form of salt instead of souls, and a ton of Souls-like features like respawning enemies or regaining your dropped XP after you die. The similarities don’t stop there and I’m sure you’ll find even more while playing.
What’s fascinating about Salt and Sanctuary is the wonderful sense of exploration and discovery throughout your time in this world. Like many games of this genre, there isn’t much story given, but what you can gather through the environment is enthralling; And as this is a Metroidvania, you’ll find shortcuts that lead to previous areas, or abilities later on that will allow access to those pesky locked doors that have been taunting you all along. Once you finally do gain access to those areas, the feeling of satisfaction and relief is one of the highest points of playing.
The comparisons to the Souls games are hard to unsee, but Salt and Sanctuary does have its own identity. The art direction, while stylized, is reminiscent of old “emo” Myspace drawings, or the flat colored Deviant Art illustrations you might see. Some may knock the art, but I don’t think it hurts the game. If anything, it helps differentiate Salt and Sanctuary from many other similar titles.
It’s clear the environments and exploration are top-notch, but what about the combat and platforming? I’m happy to report that Salt and Sanctuary has one of the most gratifying combat systems out of any 2D game I’ve played. There’s the seemingly simple melee-style combat, but with the sheer variety in weapon choice and the ability to upgrade and add buffs, the combat is anything but simple. What’s more is the ability to use long ranged weapons like bows or staves. When you realize how much choice and customization you truly have, you can tailor the combat to exactly your play-style, giving it a more personal feeling.
As for the platforming, it matches the same level of polish as the combat. It’s quick and responsive, but depending on your equip-load, you may find varying degrees of speed, which is pretty cool. Any excuse to play naked is fine by me (my character, not me in real life).
As you play, you gather salt that allows you to level up your character. Unlike many RPGs, you don’t assign points to a simple attribute system, but rather, unlock an ability on a skill tree not unlike Final Fantasy X. As you gain levels, you unlock one skill point and can pick a path on the skill tree. A part of me likes this because it may force you to experiment with various abilities or weapons you may not have otherwise tried; However, I can’t help but feel it adds unnecessary complications to the leveling system. There were times when I just wanted to unlock a specific skill, but was forced to go through a bunch of unwanted ones first. It’s a minor gripe and to an extent I kind of like it, but be aware you *may* have to purchase skills you don’t want in order to progress through the skill tree.
Some of my most memorable moments are the stunningly brutal boss battles this RPG has to offer. They range from hard to almost unbeatable, but something about the design always kept me going. For one, there is usually a save point close-by that allows for easy access. Because of the amount of customization, I always felt like I could go back to the drawing board and either grind for skill points, try a new weapon, or completely explore a new area. That’s why I don’t feel like the bosses are unfair.
The issue is that, for many of them, the boss’ movement patterns encouraged the same strategies: Roll through the boss to get behind them, attack their back, wait for them to turn around and repeat. Now, this is not the case for all the bosses, but for the ones that encourage that strategy, they tend to blend together. However, the bosses that *are* designed for more dynamic strategies are excellent and feel so much more satisfying upon defeat. One boss, a giant tree, is housed in a huge room that makes for a fun mix of platforming and combat. Another one features two ghosts that can only be damaged by attacking an axe they wield. Small touches like these make for some memorable moments.
Tying the whole experience together is a menacing soundtrack that adds to the feeling of dread found in Salt and Sanctuary. Like the Souls games, there is little to no music during the exploration sections, but once a boss battle commences, the epic soundtrack kicks in and makes the boss fights so much more engaging. The audio design is great, too, most notably with the crunchy sounds of attacking enemies. You’d be surprised how much of a difference this makes to the enjoyment.
Looking at it more generally, Salt and Sanctuary can feel overly difficult and obtuse at times, but not enough to tarnish how great it feels to play. It’s a game with a steep learning curve that feels incredible to figure out and eventually master. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for something to fill the Souls void, but with a different take, please support this game; And if nothing else, stand in awe that this was made by only two people.