Sea Salt is an interesting real-time strategy action game where players can fulfil their closet fantasy of being a cruel omnipotent being with humanity at their mercy. When we think about RTS we obviously think about the likes of Command & Conquer, StarCraft and, especially in the case of Xbox, Halo Wars. The genre never quite had a strong presence on console, but there have been a few experimental takes on it over the years and Sea Salt by Swedish developer Y/CJ/Y feels similar to those experimental efforts. In terms of originality and style it has a lot going for it, especially when you consider the fact that this game began life as a game jam entry for No More Sweden. However, as a full-fledged release it unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired.
The set up of Sea Salt is very cool, as players assume the role of Dagon, the omnipotent god of the sea bent on cleansing the human race using a swarm of disease-ridden nasties. Being able to command the plague as a cruel deity is a pretty satisfying power fantasy for sure, but once the appeal of the premise wears off you can’t help but notice the lack of substance in the game design. It is an RTS game to be definite, but the design feels light and basic by genre standards. There is some hidden depth underneath the deceptive simplicity, but the core mechanics and the manner in which the swarm of creatures are commanded make it difficult to engage with this tactical depth.
In Sea Salt players really just take control over a cursor which hovers the map, and then hold down the trigger to cue a swarm of creatures to attack anything in their vicinity. That’s really all there is to the core mechanics; simply leaving you to point in the general direction for the creatures to horde. Yes, “general direction” is in the literal sense as there is no real precise control or targeting system to more accurately dispatch these creatures. Even with the variety of creatures at your disposal, they all cluster together and attack in the same direction, and so there is no real sense of strategy there. It would have been helpful if the game allowed players to divide and dissect their swarm more strategically rather than simply tossing everyone together into one unorganised mess.
There is some semblance of strategy thanks to the level design – different layouts and environmental obstacles can slow you down, ensuring you need to think about your route, but the simplicity of the core mechanic means that you don’t really engage with the level design all that much. That being said, it is always satisfying to surround helpless humans with the horror of pestilence given the variety of creatures that can be unlocked: worms, roaches, crabs and other icky things are all present. The boss battles, as simple as they are, provide a somewhat enjoyable diversion from the main action. The challenge is never too taxing, especially when you are able to summon more creatures at various checkpoints scattered in each stage.
Ultimately, Sea Salt is all about style and presentation, where the dark and gothic pixel art comes together very well to convincingly sell the unique premise as you pass judgement on a mostly coastal community. As a god of the seas you are pretty much punishing the human race, especially the religious cults built around Dagon, for their poor service in worship. In other words, it’s like the Old Testament with an oceanic twist. The music is quite atmospheric and chilling too, giving it a strong horror vibe.
In terms of art and there is no shortage of detailed character designs and world building in Sea Salt. It is especially fun to complete the Book of Dagon with entries on the various creatures, apostles and bosses that you encounter throughout the main game. There’s definitely a lot of thought and care put into the game world and its lore, which makes the main campaign engaging even when the core gameplay is so basic.
Sea Salt on Xbox One is an interesting experimental idea which offers players a cool premise and game world to indulge in. While a lot of thought and care has gone into building a compelling world in order to convincingly provide players the empowerment of being a cruel omnipotent being, the actual real-time strategy gameplay is far too simplistic. The RTS design is mainly held back by the basic gameplay mechanic of arbitrarily commanding a messy swarm of creatures. Even when the game offers a variety of creatures, bosses and level layouts to experience, unfortunately the limited core gameplay mechanic simply does not allow players to engage with the design in a meaningful way.