The worst thing about clichés, is when they fit something perfectly, it feels contrite when you use them. Nothing has become more annoying than Dark Souls being used as a reference for hard games because “the Dark Souls of…” has been overused to a torturous degree, and yet it’s the perfect comparison for the side scrolling Salt and Sanctuary, and not because it’s a bit hard.
Having recently played Dark Souls for the first time thanks to the remastering treatment it got, I finally learned how and why games like this are amazing. The requirement to take your time, and methodically choose how to enter a new area, while being ready for any oncoming attacks, or to run at a moment’s notice. The punishment of being hit and losing progress is easily worth it though, as you better and strong enough to overcome obstacles, as well as finding the joy in learning paths, and unlocking shortcuts to get past a huge challenge.
This gameplay loop becomes addictive and fun, while controller destroying Levels of frustrating, and Salt and Sanctuary took these lessons to a perfect degree. So much so that I found myself finding out things about the game early and thinking “ah so that’s how they use this element from Dark Souls”.
At its core, Salt and Sanctuary is a gorgeous hand drawn side scrolling action game that kicks in with you creating your own character, which by accident I wound up making Anna from Frozen, take from that what you will. You are then tasked with… well…I lost track of the story so quickly. You need to beat enemies, and not die, that’s about all I cared for after many hours of death.
The game has you levelling up using salt you collect from defeating enemies, but only at candles which are also the locations you spawn at when you die for the umpteenth time. When you die, any experience you are carrying with you is dropped, and you must return to it without dying to get it all back. Is it starting to sound like Dark Souls yet?
On top of this delightful, repetitive, frustrating gameplay come the bosses, who if you aren’t prepared for, will slaughter you in a few hits. The best part about that is the only way to prepare for the bosses, is by being slaughtered by them, which coincidentally is the only way to find out what’s behind that door, or the other door. To be frank, the only way to learn how not to die is to die.
The other major design element is the requirement to travel forward, but also backwards to unlock shortcuts. There is nothing worse than getting to a boss with minimal health, so you may be moving towards the right, but go left to drop a ladder, so next time you can skip some rooms. This is another similarity to the game that rhymes with Shmark Shmouls, and it’s perfectly implemented meaning even when you don’t go much further, you are still advancing.
One thing the game has infinitely over Dark Souls, is thanks to its 2D gameplay, it never feels unfair, well for technical reasons anyway. Sure, some bosses and enemies are overpowered, and there are times where the game has been designed to kill you, but one quirk with Dark Souls was your sword hitting an abject as you swung gave your enemies a free shot. This doesn’t happen in Salt and Sanctuary, so you only die when the game beats you, not the technical limitations.
Touching on the aesthetic again, the game is gorgeously grim. With dark shades, and lots of dark rooms, it always feels so forbidding. This is emphasized with generous splatters of blood, and the screen darkening as you die, but even in the creepiness its design style is gorgeous. Characters, animations and the whole world is such a treat to look at, as you get mercilessly slaughtered.
Salt and Sanctuary is the perfect example of how to make a game inspired by another. It takes the soul of why a game is special, applies to it another genre, to make a unique game that has the same entertaining hooks of its inspiration. Though now I am ready for a game a little easier to streak my ego a little.
Released: August 2018
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Developer: SKA Studios
Publisher: SKA Studios