The legacy of the brutal and ambiguous Dark Souls was likely to breed many facsimiles. Salt and Sanctuary is one such copy and, despite a number of blatant features that have been taken directly from From Software’s sadistic baby, it is an intensely tight, atmospheric and addictive experience in its own right. It distances itself, as homage rather than rip-off, through a genre change from 3D open world to 2D sidescroller, that allows straightforwardness, in spite of its difficulty, to standout. The simplicity and flow of Salt and Sanctuary’s combat and role-playing loops make it entirely more accessible, with more fun and satisfaction to be had as a result.
Unlike Dark Souls, Salt and Sanctuary shuns openness for 2D confinement, but very much like Dark Souls – a system of fight, die, fight, die, fight, and die again – has been implemented. Although at times incredibly difficult, sword and shield play feels weighty and responsive; and ultimately satisfying, especially when your foe’s blood finally splatters onto the environment after what has felt like hours of failure. Salt and Sanctuary is a game based on punishment and repetition, but that does not mean that victory is impossible, as attack patterns can be learned and countered in order to succeed. Everything becomes manageable after some practice, and achievements in battle feel genuinely earned.
The 2D plane here is both a help and a hindrance to combat. Taking on groups of enemies, (again, like Dark Souls), is generally a bad idea. Killing one at a time is the recommended option. Frequently, however, you may be quickly overwhelmed by your antagonist’s speed and ferocity, and because of the limited movement space, you simply cannot run past them, meaning that many frustrating deaths are dealt because of this restricted point of view. Nevertheless, being flat isn’t all that bad as jumping and dropping attacks can be made on unsuspecting enemies, making Salt feel less like the laboursome Dark Souls, and more like the fluid and fast-paced Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This confined perspective also means that enemies – especially bosses – have more finite move sets, which significantly lessens the ways in which you can misfire in battle. The chaotic dodging and flailing around in Dark Souls’ large arenas has been transmuted into a far more tight experience.
There are, however, elements of Dark Souls that have pierced Salt and Sanctuary in myriad and perplexing ways. Not only has its gameplay inspired Salt’s general makeup (which, to be fair, isn’t overly egregious considering its fluidity and quality), but menus, sound effects, fonts, heads-up-display designs, and many more features besides, have been duplicated in their entirety. The sheer amount of visual and audio cues taken makes me wonder why Salt and Sanctuary had not received a cease and desist order from Bandai Namco’s legal team during development; it’s that bad. Although these attributes rarely affect gameplay, it seems odd that Ska Studios did not feel obliged to change them in order to distance itself from the realm of blatant copy. Something as simple as a fresh colour palette could have made Salt stand on its own.
Thankfully, as an RPG, Salt and Sanctuary is once again able to break away from the shadow of Dark Souls. In the latter, the lack of explanation when putting skill points into various stats can seem almost random and certainly overwhelming. Salt changes this somewhat significantly, as when bolstering certain skills, a brief description of each is provided: for example, Dexterity is clearly marked as the skill controlling one-handed weapon strength. This, along with less obscure blurbs for items, makes the game easier to understand, and solidifies a more manageable and enjoyable pace. Salt and Sanctuary is far from a slog.
As well as this, exploring its higgledy-piggledy castles and towns is simplified through the use of smaller, more condensed areas. The absolute mess of Dark Souls’ Blighttown, or its invisible walkways in the Crystal Cave, are non-factors here. Salt and Sanctuary builds up most of its terrain using straightforward paths and easily found shortcuts.
Its visual design, while somewhat cartoonish, is full of atmospheric darkness that is at times strangely charming – its human characters look like bug-eyed Muppets. Instead of the fantastical dragons and castles of Dark Souls, Salt and Sanctuary utilises the themes of both drowning and maritime terror: enemies are sunken-faced and bloated, while environments are coated in a foggy greyness that meshes well with its difficult and dire gameplay. Bosses are just as twisted as their Dark Souls counterparts, with the Queen of Smiles – a tall, wraith-like figure without a bottom jaw – being one of the most unsettling. Each portion of Salt’s landmass has a plethora of hidden subtext to be found, creating a low-key narrative that brings satisfaction upon discovery, as threads concerning characters and locations are rewarded for careful exploration.
Ska Studios may have raided the Dark Souls pantry to thieve many of its forsaken features, but Salt and Sanctuary has been able to expertly parody, and in some cases even better, its combat and RPG mechanics. Although in no way as vast, it overshadows its inspiration through a 2D, gloomy adventure that promotes pace and enjoyment over ambiguity and sluggishness.
Editor’s Note: In Salt and Sanctuary, an item is required to use the game’s multiplayer features: the Egg of Wrath. I could not for the life of me get the egg working, and so I have not played the PvP game mode. However, I am sure it’s lovely, but take that with a pinch of salt.
While some features are directly from Dark Souls, Salt and Sanctuary manages to distance itself through its fast pace and simplified mechanics.