2-D Dark Souls….Yeah I’m On Board With That
As you create your character and emerge into gameplay on an old ship dripping with despair it’s no surprise that SKA Studios has perfectly melded their classic hand drawn art style with engrossing Dark Souls and Metroidvania esque gameplay as promised. What might be seen as a cash in toward the popularity of the Souls series by outsiders, it doesn’t take more then a handful of minutes of gameplay to understand what makes Salt and Sanctuary more of a tribute and excellent time killer while fans wait so maddeningly for Dark Souls 3. That’s not to say SnS should simply be cast aside, because it holds up on all of it’s own merits and true fans will be revisiting this title for months, if not years, to come.
Salt and Sanctuaries world is cleverly designed and intricately detailed throughout each of it’s dark corners, which incidentally are all very much worth exploring during my 20 hour long quest. The dark and gritty art style that SKA Studios is known for sets a somber tone, but also goes leaps and bounds above the studios previously excellent works such as; Vampire Kiss and The Dishwasher. With great detail put into every environment and enemy taking up inhabitants, each locations in this cohesive world has it’s own story and unique aesthetics. While most music is simply ambient noise, it certainly helps amplify the importance of audio cues while platforming, but most importantly during combat.
But how does a 2-D Dark Souls game play exactly? While the combat certainly isn’t as deep as a Souls game. One can’t argue that thought and consideration was put into trying to capture as much of the visceral combat flow within SnS as possible. Movement and attacks are all still dependent upon your equipment choices and of course stat allocation. If your character is a magic flinging wizard don’t expect them to be able to don heavy armor right out of the gate without clear and obvious negative side affects to basic movement. Each weapon class has different combos and damage potential, but where SnS falls a little flat is in the individuality of the weapons. Each feels the same, for the most part, and all the new interesting weapons created from bosses or found in the world are no more then a bigger damage number and a new aesthetic. Thankfully all of the usual weapons classes one would expect are here and represented well. If you want to be a quick and nimble assassin go ahead and use a dagger or short sword. Decked out in heavy armor and want to pack a slow, melodic punch? Go for a mace or greatsword. There are off-hand weapons aplenty to compliment any playstyle. Magic, crossbows and shields all add deeper customization to your loadout and add tactical advantages during various encounters. With my time in SnS I played a greatsword wielding mage and a classic whip wielding hunter. Both felt unique and I can see tons of different options of skills and weapons that players can tailor their dream character with.
Character development is treated somewhat like Dark Souls in that when defeating enemies they drop currency for the player to use. Instead of souls, it’s salt this time around. Yeah I know. Who would have guessed? Salt is used to level up and to purchase boss material crafted weapons. This makes it super valuable, but don’t go around hording it for long periods of time because upon death you will lose your salt. You can regain it by getting back to where you died and eliminating a specific enemy near your death location, but if you die before recovery it will be gone forever. It can be quite disheartening to lose your first couple of stashes of salt, but quickly you become less and less attached as you find that death will be common and find that salt is easier to come by as you progress. Unlike the Souls series, SnS also has gold which drops much like salt, but is used to purchase consumables and basic equipment. It’s puzzling why both currencies were included as gold seemed to become redundant as I came to the end of my first playthrough.
Spending salt to level up rewards the player with dark pearls. These are used to progress your character by purchasing nodes on a grid that will feel quite familiar to players of either Final Fantasy X or Path of Exile. Depending upon the class you choose at the beginingin of the game you will have a pre-determined position on the grid, but are free to move about as you see fit. Each sector of the grid is tailored to different playstyles and dipping into several can create some interesting hybrid classes. It’s a cool freedom, but isn’t quite as interesting as the previous two mentioned games. 95% of the nodes are simple stat increases and the other 5% govern your ablility to use certain equipment, magic, and healing items. There’s nothing particularly flashy to build toward, but all the elements are here and well thought out to allow for relatively deep character development through several play sessions.
Traversing Salt and Sanctuaries deeply interconnected world and discovering the bevvy of secrets along the way will keep players invested just as much as the quick and satisfying combat. You will find shortcuts back to other environments regularly and while this isn’t nearly as rewarding as it was in Dark Souls, it does cohesively bring the world together and doesn’t create the idea that each area is just another ‘zone’ to explore. Progression will often lead to new acrobatic feats that will have the player defying gravity and dashing through the air with ease. These abilities open up new paths and little goodies hidden in previously explored areas, but I often found myself disappointed in how few of these extra areas there were in comparison to other games of the Metroidvania genre. Even more important then finding new areas and loot, is finding safe havens known as sanctuaries. This whole game title is coming together nicely now! Treat these havens much like bonfires or continue points that the player can use to level up and restock on supplies. A unique feature is the ability to customize these sanctuaries with with helpful NPCs. Throughout your journey you will find stones that will allow you a finite ability to summon permanent characters to your sanctuary of choice. This can be a huge boon as you can setup important shops and fast travel features within frequently visited sanctuaries. A certain stone will even allow you to play cooperatively with a friend in local multiplayer. This isn’t necessarily the most easily interpreted, but it’s a cool touch and the games difficulty will change to compensate for the extra help.
Characters can also align with creeds found throughout the world. These act much like covenants or factions, but with far less interesting features. When players are aligned with different creeds they are asked to seek certain items dropped from various monsters. These items are in turn traded in to level your devotion with said creed. Increasing your devotion can increase the amount of healing items your character can tote and at certain levels vendors may add new wares. Extra healing items are certainly worthy rewards and mages will find several of the most powerful spells in the game this way, but outside of these rewards there isn’t much incentive for players to experiment with various creeds. It feels like a missed opportunity. Fortunately farming most of these items is not difficult, but some creeds will take some serious exploring on the players part to locate.
There are a bewildering amount of similarities between Dark Souls and Salt and Sanctuary that SKA Studios managed to fit in without making it feel ultimately forced. Gameplay mechanics, character customization, visual and audio inspired atmosphere, and even character created messages strewn about the world. It’s all here and the removal of a dimension does not take away from the experience in most cases. Combat and item nuances aren’t quite as deep as the Souls series, but Salt and Sanctuary hit all the right chords for me and while the difficulty and learning curve is certainly present, fans of the genre should feel good knowing that the game is fair and an even better adaptation of a 2-D Dark Souls then I could have hoped for.
+Rock solid action and gameplay
+Difficult, but fair
+Great atmosphere and level design
+$20 dollars for a quality 20+ hour experience is a steal
-Creeds left a lot to be desired
-Not as many hidden secrets in previously explored areas was dissappointing
Game: Salt And Sanctuary
Release Date: March 15, 2016
Platforms: Playstation 4, Vita, and soon to be PC
Developer and Publisher: SKA Studios