Since its release in 2011, Dark Souls has become a phenomenal success. Its blend of brutal-but-rewarding gameplay and Metroidvania-like exploration set a benchmark for all other games of its type. From the bigger budget attempts like Lords of the Fallen, to the likes of the more recent indie offering DarkMaus, nothing has managed to capture that same quality of From Software’s modern classic. Dark Souls basically created a genre of its own.
Entering that genre is Ska Studios’ latest, the PS4-exclusive Salt and Sanctuary, a side-scrolling, 2D adventure set in a dark and dangerous world. After a brief battle aboard your ship, boarded by an unknown enemy, your character awakens on a beach on some faraway land. The character creator itself is detailed, with the ability to select their sex, class and even if they start with a special item, there are even a large number of hairstyles to choose from, for that extra personal touch. Each character will be unique.
The controls are taught via message bottles that are dotted around the coastal village in which you begin your quest, and although they are simple enough, they also have a hidden depth – some of the simplest functions may not become apparent until a few hours in. Dark Souls fans will instantly feel at home here, parrying attacks and rolling under enemy swords, with only a brief adjustment period required (it’s almost guaranteed that an item will be consumed instead of launching an attack, due to R1 being the ‘use item’ button). This doesn’t mean that new players will struggle, far from it, the controls are as intuitive as they come and the gameplay is rewarding with a smooth learning curve.
Boiled down to its simplest form, Salt and Sanctuary’s gameplay consists of two things: platform adventuring and combat, both of which are exceptional. The platforming mechanics are sometimes let down by the character refusing to grab that ledge from time to time, but it’s a rare enough issue that it isn’t a problem – unless it leads to a fatal fall, of course. Death is something you will have to deal with here, especially when combat comes into play. With a standard attack and heavy attack at your disposal, things seem simple enough at first, but stamina plays a big part of the game and you need to decide if you have enough stamina to strike that killing blow, or dodge the axe that is currently making its way towards your face. If you’re brave enough there’s a third option: parrying. With the right timing, a parry will deflect an enemy attack and leave them vulnerable to a riposte, dealing more damage. Timing isn’t as easy as you might think, with every enemy having different attack patterns and speeds, so there’s always the chance you’ll mess it up and that axe will bury itself in your cranium.
There’s much more to the combat than that, of course, but a lot of it is best figured out on your own, through trial and error. As mentioned above, death is just another part of Salt and Sanctuary. For every enemy killed you gain their essence, their salt, which is eventually used to level up at sanctuaries, but dying sees your salt transferred to the creature that killed you. This means that you need to track down that creature to exact your revenge and regain your salt, which is never as easy as it sounds. Especially when the thing that murdered you is a boss. And it’s the size of a large house. These bosses play a pivotal role in Salt and Sanctuary, blocking your route to the next area or to the key you need to unlock a door you passed an hour ago. The route you take through the game isn’t exactly linear either, meaning that some players will take on one area well before others, adding extra challenge to their run but also the potential for greater early rewards. Speedrunners will have a field day with this.
Every area you visit is richly detailed, from the misty beach village and castle of the first area, to the more Silent Hill-looking zone a few hours in, and even the eerily dark caverns below the surface. Darkness plays a big part in the game, with some places being pitch black and impossible to navigate without a light source, a deep thrumming sound accompanying the darkest reaches of the world and genuinely feeling threatening. The regions of the game world are incredibly varied without resorting to overused tropes. Everything has a hand drawn feel to it, with painstaking detail packed into every tree and blade of grass, every background, and every character/creature populating the world. The animation is fantastic too, with everything reacting properly to something else, be it parries or attacks, or even leaping from ledge to ledge, climbing up ladders or setting off traps. All running in a silky smooth 60 frames per second, which is impressive considering the amount of things that can appear at once, with some bosses even taking up most of the screen. It seems even more amazing that this whole world is massive and interlinking, and there’s not a single load screen in sight.
Unlike the interlinking world of Dark Souls, however, with its 3D visuals and 360 degree camera, Salt and Sanctuary’s world is easy to get lost in due to its limited camera. This can make for some frustrating moments when you’re trying to find the next area and you’ve exhausted all the nearby options, and there’s almost no direction. This does encourage exploration and remembering landmarks, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating when you’re stumbling around trying to find your next objective. The online nature of the game means that other players can leave messages to aid you in your aimless wandering, but unfortunately they cannot aid you directly via co-op. Local co-op is possible at least, but it feels like a missed opportunity in a game that is already online.
These issues are all minor when stacked up against the overwhelming quality of the game as a whole. Its sound design is stark and edgy, from that deep thrum in the darkness to the guitar riffs that kick in during boss battles, everything sounds exactly as it should and it all helps to build one of the most atmospheric gameplay experiences of recent years. There’s a rich lore on offer for those willing to dig for answers, with every character’s dialogue feeding the player the merest morsels of a thirty course meal, which just happens to be spread across an entire island. Filled with murderous monsters. The amount of content is staggering.
Saying that Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D Dark Souls may well be accurate, and possibly the easiest way to describe it, but it also does the game a disservice as it’s a huge adventure that will span upwards of 15-20 hours, and offers some of the most rewarding gameplay you’re likely to find. Ska Studios deserves not to be overshadowed by From Software’s legacy, instead the team should be praised for delivering a stunning game in its own right.
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