Salt and Sanctuary by Ska Studios is a pleasantly gloomy side-scrolling action RPG platformer that may seem familiar, but it's clear that whatever similarities it may have with other games, there is plenty in this style of gameplay yet to explore.
You're thrown into a near-impossible battle right away and in the aftermath are asked to choose a faith which affects what you can buy from vendors, what sorts of spells are available for spellcaster builds, and other tiny things, but you're not really punished for not knowing the consequences ahead of time. If you find a faith that's more to your liking you may switch, although the adherents to your former faith may not be helpful next time you meet them. Your skill tree allows for flexibility in your character build too, but later on it'll take a lot of grinding to earn the skill points necessary to drastically alter your character.
The meat of the game, combat, will punish you for any over-indulgent risk-taking, though. Death means you lose around 10% of your gold, and all the salt you're carrying. Salt is the substance you need to level up, spend on upgrades, and forgive sins against former faiths. Lost salt can be regained either by slaying a slightly stronger version of the creature that killed you, reducing the boss that killed you to a demarcated percentage of its health, or by killing a flying monstrosity that hangs out near the ledge you fell from. Suffer a subsequent death, and you lose the unclaimed salt for good.
These are a lot like the mechanisms found in games like From Software's Dark Souls. Dying or resting at a sanctuary will bring almost all the creatures in the game back to life, making no place completely safe even after you've cleared it, save for bosses and a few tougher enemies. Much of the equipment may look neat, but not be as good as your go-to gear, unspotted traps will squish you, monsters will fling you about, and trial and error may be needed when facing a difficult monster. This style of gameplay still has plenty of merit, and while the gothic, melancholy world of Salt and Sanctuary also has tonal similarities to Dark Souls, there are distinct differences between them.
While there are locked doors that hinder progress in places, there's a Metroidvania slant to exploration; new abilities allow you to access out-of-reach areas, and help explorers find secret areas, shortcuts, and items, often by backtracking. Sanctuaries can be populated with NPCs who let you purchase goods, learn spells, upgrade gear, and teleport to other major sanctuaries. The NPCs make the game feel less lonely, which isn't better or worse than Dark Souls' eerie isolation, just different. Your limited viewing distance means it can be harder to figure out how to proceed - as said elsewhere, Salt and Sanctuary might benefit from a map, though the where-do-I-go-next bottlenecks aren't deal-breakingly frequent. Platforming, too, is much more prevalent here. Some platforming skills are essential, especially when being chased by monsters or leaping from collapsing platforms, but it's rarely demanding unless you want to try for some remote secret areas.
Combat can be intricate, especially when juggling a lot of abilities. You're allowed two weapon loadouts, plus plenty of items and spells, you can roll to avoid attacks and get past enemies, parry blows with your shield, fire off-hand crossbows or pistols, and use combinations of light and heavy attacks which vary in result based on weapons and stats. The boss battles can be terrifying, and are exhilarating when you emerge victorious. The variety of weapons and techniques available means experimentation is encouraged if things aren't going your way. Not every encounter feels balanced, and at times it's easier to just cheese it and hit creatures from a distance or spam them, but you do this because you have to, because the game trains you to survive.
You may leave messages for other players, which seem more verbose, helpful, and frequent than those in Dark Souls ("praise the salt" is a cheekily common message), and there are gravestones which show the last moments of a player. There are other little touches, such as hanged characters that are actually the likenesses of other players' characters. The game offers local-only co-op, with a second set of controls. Limited PvP is also possible in this mode.
We played the PC version of the game, and it has a few hiccups you might expect from a translation from consoles. If using a mouse and keyboard, you are given the choice between imprecise aiming, and using a mouse cursor to aim. The latter was used during our test, but this must be switched back on every time you start up the game, and you must point the mouse in the direction you want to attack or cast (most) spells. Also, once in a rare while, salt you need to recover after death may materialise into something unusual, and possibly unreachable.
There is a bit of the Dark Souls-style obscurity, though not as pronounced, for good or ill. The beautiful mood of the game may wane a bit once you've completed character conversations, and the final few levels feel a bit empty, though there are still a few nooks to explore up until the end. There is a New Game Plus mode, but unless you missed some areas or conversations in your first run you'd mainly be improving your character, as it doesn't seem like there are any new revelations on repeated play-throughs beyond test-driving new faiths.
One of its greater achievements is its understated mood. Reading the descriptions of monsters, items, and skills you'll notice a lot of connections between things, even the fates of some of the gods. Each of the game's many areas has a distinct feel, with different colour, ambience, architecture, and enemies. The infrequent use of music and sound help underscore its melancholic gloom, with a contemplative metal guitar as you explore, a sad refrain when you finally return to a sanctuary, or a desperate battle score when facing a boss. The combat makes you feel pretty accomplished when you figure out good combinations, and the large amount of secrets and hidden areas are generous enough to reward the curious. It's hard to say whether a given player would enjoy playing through the game multiple times, but it's a singularly interesting experience that loses little for treading on some familiar ground.
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