Salt and Sanctuary bravely attempts to bring the trademark brutal difficulty of the Dark Souls games into a 2D action platformer. The title wears its influences on its sleeve, and the end product is a love it or hate it experience.
Your journey through Salt and Sanctuary starts with picking a class – each of the options having its own stats, weapons, and perks. From here you’re thrown into the world, only a few lines of explanation offered to set you up on your quest. The story is kept intentionally light throughout, leaving the environment and non-player characters to tell you what is going on. It is an approach likely to alienate those looking for a well-crafted tale, but there is plenty of lore to dig into for those interested.
Combat is straightforward, and you have two items on each hand to use at any one time. For example, the Hunter class starts wielding a whip for melee combat, and has access to a crossbow to attack from afar. Other classes might allow you a shield for blocking as opposed to a bow, and so on. Rounding out the player’s arsenal are the ability to dodge, and a selection of usable items. On the face of it, Salt and Sanctuary offers a simplistic system that still allows for some varied combat, and when paired with the ability to mix and match weapons and items it will no doubt provide plenty of interesting strategies for players to discover.
For the most part, the game controls as you would expect. The platforming controls are fair and lenient, placing the emphasis firmly on the action (just as it should be). The main form of evasion – the dodging mechanic – feels fair, and maybe even favours the player in the end; there’s just enough of a window to evade most attacks without it feeling too forgiving when your timing isn’t up to scratch. The only gripe I have with the controls of the game are regarding the use of items, as in order to use your selected item you must touch the bottom corner of the screen. It’s workable, but in the midst of tense boss battles it can be hard to find enough time for both the movement and the action due to the awkward activation.
On top of this basic action platformer fare is a rather deep and robust RPG element to beef things up. During the game the player will collect Salt, which can then be used to level up your character. Leveling up will increase your stats, and over time you’ll gain access to new perks on the skill tree. Using Salt comes with a caveat however, as there are only certain locations where you’ll be able to level up (a pain fans of the Souls games are well aware of).
The cardinal sin that this game commits though, is that it teaches you none of this. The game expects you to learn all the various mechanics and benefits of game elements. Whilst not impossible, it creates an artificially steep difficulty curve at the beginning of the game where you must learn how to play on your own whilst simultaneously dealing with all the challenges thrown at you. Some will cry that games shouldn’t hold your hands and this is a good thing, but at the very least I think that a game should teach you how to play and let the difficulty come from applying what you’ve learned (rather than hopelessly struggling at the start). As such, newcomers to the brutal world of Souls-like games may struggle to get into the game, finding its steep learning curve off-putting. Fans of such a system may feel the opposite however, finding themselves right at home with the game.
The standout element of the game are the bosses you’ll encounter, and the game does a great job of giving you challenging boss fights. Each boss has a set arsenal of attacks that will often develop and expand as the fight goes on, and the trick to staying alive is memorising the attacks and learning where the bosses’ openings are. Considering the constraints of the 2D nature of the game, Salt and Sanctuary does a good job at making these bosses feel varied and challenging without being unfair.
The game boasts a lengthy play time with the core game spanning roughly taking fifteen hours. Factor in exploring for secrets and trying out the various classes, and it’s clear that the game offers plenty more playtime than that base offering suggests. Of course, how much you’ll want to replay and explore will hinge on your love for the style of game, but if you’re looking for a time-consuming, hard-as-nails title on the Vita then this is it.
Visually, the game’s unique art style sets it apart from the usual 2D affair. Unfortunately, the smaller Vita screen seems to hurt the overall impact of the style; much of the dark and moody art losing detail due to the smaller amount of screen space. The UI and HUD also suffers on the Vita, becoming difficult to quickly read text or navigate to the desired items. It’s by no means a game breaking experience, but it speaks to the fact that this game was not built with the smaller handheld screen in mind.
The enemy and boss designs are varied throughout, and are all distinct enough that you know what you’re up against and how best to approach each fight. Non-player characters are a little less distinct (and very few stand out visually), but with the game being so light on direct storytelling this is less of an issue.
Thankfully the soundtrack makes up for some of the shortcomings in the visual department. The sombre tracks certainly help to set the feel of the world, especially while you’re out exploring. When it comes to the epic boss fights however, the soundtrack struggles to match the grandeur of the occasion. On the whole, the soundtrack suits the game very well, and I just think that a little more punch when it came to the bosses would truly make it shine.
In the end, Salt and Sanctuary rather successfully translates the in-vogue Dark Souls gameplay into a 2D action platformer that handles well on the PlayStation Vita. Whilst fans familiar with the traits of the Souls gameplay will feel right at home, newcomers will likely find a tough learning curve with very little help to bring you into the world. As such, you’ll have to decide for yourself if this is your type of game – but if it is, then you’re in for quite the treat.