Created by only two people from Ska Studios, Salt and Sanctuary is a challenging, 2D action role-playing game heavily inspired by Dark Souls. After nearly three full years on the market, this punishingly difficult title finally arrives on Xbox One and – spoilers – it was well worth the wait.
Salt and Sanctuary begins with character creation, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with a boatload of options. No facial width or glabella protrusion, just decide on simple things like hairstyle and class, and you’re good to go. My choice was a Hunter, though you can pick from other equally awesome classes: like a Chef, or a Pauper. But don’t contemplate for too long because they don’t play a huge role aside from differences in starting equipment.
Whoever you choose, your journey starts on a ship delivering a princess as a symbol of peace. Unsurprisingly, the vessel falls under ambush and the princess ends up kidnapped. With the remaining crew seemingly deceased and the ship itself lost, you awaken on the shore of a mysterious island.
Now, your goal is to find the missing damsel and that means investigating this grim piece of land. It’s a minimalist story vaguely explained throughout the game, but so is the source material which inspired it.
Almost immediately you are greeted by an old man who curiously inquires about your Creed. Or religion, to be precise. He then explains the tenets of multiple orders and their purpose. After giving it some thought, I swore allegiance to The Iron Ones and just like that my Hunter, became an atheist.
But Creeds mean much more than mere religion (or lack of it). Each Creed grants different benefits. The Iron Ones, for example, favour melee builds, bestowing powerful weapons and stamina regenerating items. Followers of Devara, the Goddess of Light, on the other hand, gain bonuses to healing.
This early section offers a handful of Creeds to choose from, but many more become accessible later on. More importantly, you may change allegiances at any time, though be prepared to face consequences for doing so.
Faith alone, however, won’t carry you too far.
Surrounding environments appear dark and almost gothic; bleak woods covered in mist, old stone castles, and pitch-black underground caverns. You will visit locales like The Festering Banquet, a castle rising all the way up into colder climes. And the Village of Smiles with its numerous gallows lining the sides of the road. Truly wondrous places for the whole family to enjoy. And it only gets better (worse) from there.
Unfortunately, there’s no map to keep track of progress. With so many different locales, underground pathways and shortcuts, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate this grim world. Especially so once you acquire your first Brand. These grant unique abilities for traversing environments, like being able to walk upside down in certain spots.
But without having a map, you end up randomly retracing previously explored locations to hopefully utilise this new-found ability. After defeating multiple bosses, collecting carefully hidden items and seemingly exhausting my range of options, I often ran around in confusion trying to find a new path. A new anything, really. And while it does serve as an incentive to search every nook and cranny, sometimes you simply wish to move along. Not to mention that most foes respawn after entering a new location.
In Salt and Sanctuary, literally everything wants you dead: zombies, bats, bosses that tower way above the character, environmental traps and even gravity itself.
Smaller enemies like zombies are relatively harmless, but allow them to gang up on you and your character will meet an untimely demise. Likewise, bats don’t possess a significant threat, but do inflict poison damage if ignored. And if you miscalculate a jump between platforms – too bad – your character’s crushed body now adorns the stone-cold floor below.
But while there’s often little you can do to fight mother Earth’s power of pulling things down, you can show monsters who’s boss. Salt and Sanctuary contains a massive amount of different weapons: swords, spears, scythes, crossbows, whips and many more. And there is also an equally impressive assortment of armour, both light and heavy, to complement your armament of choice.
Arming yourself with a sword and shield offers a good balance between offense and defense. Equipping a larger weapon, like a great sword, sends enemies flying with each hit, but leaves you more vulnerable. And if you don’t feel like taking that intimidating ogre head-on, then you always have the option of using a ranged weapon to pierce his rotting body with arrows.
Each swing of a sword – whether a swift light attack or an earth-shattering heavy attack – and block with a shield, and pretty much most other actions, consume stamina. In a way, this represents your second life total and should be maintained at all times. Deplete your stamina reserves and your hero will become vulnerable and on most occasions, die within a few hits, especially during boss battles.
Most bosses are incredibly tough and more often than not require multiple exhilarating attempts to overcome. Success doesn’t come down to just equipment and stats either, as you can use prayers to further enhance your character’s abilities or apply unique properties to weapons.
But whether you emerge triumphant or not largely depends on experience, and it doesn’t apply to just boss encounters. You fail and try again. And if you’re anything like me, you fail another dozen times after which you hopefully learn and attain a long-awaited victory.
Persevere through these battles and you’ll come to realize that Salt and Sanctuary is a highly satisfying endeavor. Every time I defeated a boss I just wanted to puff out my chest with pride and light a cigarette.
Encounters with any adversary are full of gore; blood splatters the walls and floors as you swing a weapon. Limbs and even heads tear off after a few swooshes, covering your surroundings in a fountain of red. Fallen enemies drop gold, items, and salt. By now, we’re all pretty much used to collecting souls, or other similarly ethereal objects, but in Salt and Sanctuary you’ll be collecting sodium.
To assist your perilous journey, each locale contains multiple sanctuaries, which not only save your progress but also act as small settlements. You are also returned to the most recently visited one upon failing in your quest, usually relatively close to a boss room.
Here, you can swear allegiance to a new deity, or improve affairs with an existing one, level up and receive services from various inhabitants, or even summon a player for local co-op. Not only that, but adding new inhabitants by using small statues hidden within environments, grants bonuses to the region of that particular Sanctuary.
Levelling up is done via collected salt, but increasing the level by itself does little to nothing. Instead, each level grants a Black Pearl used to unlock skills within the Tree of Skills. Similar to the Sphere Grid system in Final Fantasy X, it consists of interconnected nodes branching out into multiple directions. Some nodes improve physical attributes like strength and wisdom. Others increase the number of potions your hero can hold, or what armor he or she may equip.
Furthermore, only nodes adjacent to an already activated one can be unlocked. As a result, you must carefully consider how to spend valuable pearls. Do you go for the light armor or the heavy one? Magic or impressive greatswords? These questions went through my mind as I contemplated how I wished to improve my character.
Additional mechanics like equipment load ensure that you can’t simply throw the most powerful armour and weapon on your character. If they lack mandatory skills for wielding a particular arm, then movements will result in sluggish, almost laughable attempts at combat.
Salt and Sanctuary on Xbox One isn’t for everyone; its high difficulty can easily put off many players. Failing on the same spot, again and again, might become disheartening. But learning the patterns and approaching each scenario with patience reinvigorates your stride.
Those who manage to overcome these obstacles will likely discover a rewarding 2D souls-like experience with an immense amount of various customization options, including weapons, armour, accessories, and Creeds to accommodate your preferred play style. As well as countless enemies and imposing bosses to unleash your wrath upon.
Salt and Sanctuary comes highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a fair challenge.