There’s an old saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that phrase applies more so than Dark Souls. It seems that you can hardly find an action game on any platform now that doesn’t try to emphasize its 'Soulslike' elements, regardless of how apt the description may be. Still, in spite of all the copycats and me-too games, every now and then you come across a game that does feel like Dark Souls, such as Salt and Sanctuary. This title does a great job of capturing that feel of From Software’s popular action series, although it does so slightly unevenly, and feels rather derivative as a result.
The story opens rather loosely, the gist of it being that a princess was being ferried from one place to another by ship to strengthen a tense alliance between two nations, when said ship was suddenly attacked by a horde of ghouls led by a Lovecraftian abomination; in the ensuing chaos and shipwreck, your mute character awakens on the misty shores of a pale island. From this point forward, there’s next to no plot development in the conventional sense, as you must piece together the narrative from item and enemy descriptions, location names, and environmental detail.
What’s nice about this setup is that it caters to two different audiences; those who like a deep story in their games will delight in making theories and piecing together things by picking up the proverbial breadcrumbs carefully dropped throughout the game’s various systems, but those who don’t much care can just about ignore the plot entirely and happily slice away to their heart’s content. Salt and Sanctuary is a game that champions player choice in just about everything that it does - and this includes the plot, which makes for a welcome and interesting take on storytelling.
Gameplay is essentially just like Dark Souls, except on a 2D plane and with a more of a focus on platforming. Your goal is simply to explore the twisted and dangerous game world in pursuit of a murky goal, picking up items and fighting a menagerie of monsters with next to no narrative guideposts to tell you what to do next. There’s nothing stopping you from waltzing into late-game areas as a low-level rookie, but you’ll quickly get hosed by the powerful residents there if you’re improperly equipped, which at least helps to tell you where not to go next.
Just about everything you do is governed by an auto-refilling stamina gauge, which depletes in increments when doing things like slashing, rolling, or jumping, and running out of stamina means that you’re left wide open to attack. This is rather problematic for you as the player, as unlike your typical action game, even low-level enemies have the capacity to easily take you down. Enemies in this game hit hard and fast, and enjoy ganging up on you in numbers, which can make it all the more difficult to manage that precious stamina gauge in the heat of combat.
Should you fall in battle - and believe us, that’s gonna happen a lot - your character drops all their ‘Salt’ at the place where you died, and it then is either absorbed by your killer or manifests itself as an additional enemy that patrols the area. After your character respawns at the last shrine, you have a chance to make it back to the point where you died and reclaim all that salt at no loss to you. Should you die before then - bear in mind, all enemies respawn when you do - the salt you left is gone forever, and much of your progress goes with it, as salt is the ‘EXP’ used to level up your character and equipment. Sound familiar?
It’s a fun system that manages to strike an excellently tense balance, as you grow increasingly more cautious as you accumulate more salt. See, salt can only be 'banked' when you pray at a shrine, and given that these safe zones are few and far between, it becomes a constant game of betting on your own skill. Do you have faith that you can survive whatever may be lurking in the corridors before you, or are you going to play it safe and run back to the last shrine so you can minimize your potential loss? Either way, it’s never going to be easy, especially considering that you could just as easily stumble upon one of the game’s many bosses instead of a safe haven.
Though typical enemy encounters are challenging, the real stars of the show here are the game’s many horrifying and difficult boss encounters. These are where everything you’ve learned and all the skills you’ve accumulated will be put to the test, as the many boss fights have nice, long health bars and a slew of difficult-to-avoid attacks that can easily put you in the ground. Just when you think you’ve got a boss on the ropes, they might pull out a new attack you’ve never seen before that sends you back to the shrine. These battles are frustrating, but they also almost always feel fair, which makes it all the more satisfying when that monster you’ve been trying to kill for the last hour finally falls, dropping a huge amount of salt and usually granting you access to a new portion of the map.
Traversal is non-linear, and aside from a couple powerups that grant you access to new areas, you can go almost anywhere right from the get-go. As mentioned before, you’ll likely be turned back by the crushing difficulty of certain areas, but there’s nothing in the game design level that’s strictly barring you. Despite feeling quite large, the map is smartly designed to loop back on itself in myriad ways, creating many ‘a-ha!’ moments as you continue your journey. Perhaps you’ll defeat a boss and find an elevator that takes you back to the entrance of its lair that you crossed ten minutes earlier, or you’ll pull a lever which unlocks a door that grants you a quick shortcut between a shrine and a difficult section of a level.
The primary issue with this style of map design is that it doesn’t work as well in 2D as it does in 3D. 'Metroidvania' games are famed for having that simple, grid-like map design which makes navigation a cinch, yet no such map exists in Salt and Sanctuary. In fact, there’s no map at all, leaving navigation entirely up to player memory. In a 3D setting, it’s a little easier for this style of world design to work because of the prominence of landmarks, but in the 2D setting, things get muddled together easier since there’s only so much environmental information that can be conveyed in 2D. We found ourselves getting lost far more frequently in Salt and Sanctuary than we would’ve liked, something which wasn’t helped by the homogenous look of the locales being visited.
The graphics in Salt and Sanctuary take on something of a drab, watercolour art style; think of it as a more depressing and frightening take on the style seen in Child of Light. Though the hand-drawn look does have its charms, the liberal usage of darkness and the relatively muted colour palette mean that it doesn’t take very long for one area to look no different than the one that you just came from, which eventually leads to a feeling of repetition. Not only does it make things easy to miss - like traps that can take off a decent chunk of your health - but the overall visual style is only interesting for so long until one desires a little more variety. One upside of this style is that the visuals don’t tax the Switch too harshly in portable mode, making for a smooth and seamless experience that matches the docked performance - but it overall seems like an art direction that doesn’t pay off in the long run.
So, aside from the nasty boss encounters, looping world design and risk-fraught levelling system, one may ask what Salt and Sanctuary does to carve out its own identity. Unfortunately, not much. One rather interesting idea is the ‘Tree of Skill’ which acts as a large, interconnected skill tree not unlike Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, which lets you spec your character to your exact tastes. Another is the addition of offerings, which allow you to summon NPCs to shrines to unlock features like fast travel, co-op, and a shop. The main issue, however, is that Salt and Sanctuary fails to introduce any notable ideas to the 'Soulslike' formula, other than adapting it to a 2D plane, which means that it can only at best be viewed as equal to its inspiration.
The problem with this is that the quality of the gameplay, map and enemy design and story just isn’t quite there, meaning that there’s a running sense of inferiority to the experience. Salt and Sanctuary feels like what would happen if you broke down Dark Souls in detail to a talented designer who had never played it and then asked them to create a 2D action game based on your descriptions; all the necessary elements are there, but they never come together in a meaningful way to make this an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
All told, Salt and Sanctuary is just about what you’d expect it to be: it’s more or less a 2D Dark Souls, but with a little more emphasis on less. Salt and Sanctuary does an admirable job of hitting all the right beats that it needs to provide a challenging and fun action adventure that will no doubt provide a solid bang for your buck, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to stand on its own two legs; this is a game that can only thrive on the scraps generated by the overwhelming popularity of a much better game series. We’d give this one a recommendation to any Dark Souls fans - this is a decent way of capturing that game’s spirit - but those who’ve never been interested won’t find much new here to entice them.