Comparing other games to Dark Souls has become a tiresome simile in games writing. Is the game you’re playing hard? Sounds like Dark Souls. Does it have refined, burdensome combat? Definitely must be inspired by Dark Souls. Does it fall into the action genre whatsoever? Oh, well Dark Souls created that genre, I’ll have you know. Despite the fatigue with these comparisons, in the case of Salt and Sanctuary, it’s almost impossible to not mention it in the same breath as the Dark Souls games.
Not only does Salt and Sanctuary fall within the Souls-like genre that has come about within the last decade, but its overall aesthetic and underlying systems mimic that of the Souls games in a way that both benefits and undermines its experience.
Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D Souls-like game, and it’s a pretty darn good one at that. Developer Ska Studios has brought all of the core elements that the Souls-like genre has become synonymous with and has tried to transition them as best as possible into a 2D world and for the most part, it absolutely works.
Upon creating your character and choosing your class at the start of the game, you’ll begin to travel across a mysterious island where enemies lurk about everywhere. Upon defeating these enemies, you’ll gain salt which is the currency used to level up your character in Salt and Sanctuary. If you die, then all of your salt will be lost and you’ll be returned to the last sanctuary that you appeared at.
Combat also plays out similarly to what you probably expect from these kinds of games with it being more methodical and precise rather than hack-and-slash. With a variety of weapons at your disposal including the usual slew of swords, spears, and axes. You can also opt to carry a shield in your second available hand which you can utilize to parry enemies, or choose to two-hand wield your weapons to deal out more damage at the cost of your defense. Throw in a trusty old dodge roll to evade enemy attacks and then tie it all of these moves back to your stamina meter and you’ve got the basics of gameplay.
I know what you’re thinking: this all sounds very similar to Dark Souls and yes, it is. The leveling system of Salt and Sanctuary though is where things start to differ. Yes, you do cash-in your salt to level up your character but instead of choosing specific stat categories to increase, you will receive items called Black Pearls. With this item, you can then access a massive stat tree to pick and choose which abilities and categories you want to level up.
There are a ton of different paths and options at your disposal in this skill tree which really makes it feel like you have even more minute control over how you want to build your character. At the same time though, more unlockables are gated in this way and as such, it can be a bit frustrating and long-in-the-tooth at points to unlock rather simple things like upgraded weapons. Still, the way in which Salt and Sanctuary lets you create your character allows for so much freedom, and I can’t knock it for that.
The one element of gameplay that I haven’t mentioned of Salt and Sanctuary involves jumping. Yes, unlike other Souls-like games, jumping and platforming is a prominent part of Salt and Sanctuary and as a result, makes the game begin feel akin to a Metroidvania. Salt and Sanctuary’s best moments are when you are trying to platform your way through an area quickly all while trying to dodge, weave, and attack enemies that might be coming your way.
Bosses are another core staple of Salt and Sanctuary as you might expect and I really, really hate them. Not because they’re bad, mind you, but because some of these bosses just continually kept destroying me. There are some unique fights in Salt and Sanctuary when it comes to bosses and I found a lot of them to be rather harsh while boasting some rad character designs. Be prepared to die a lot and don’t be afraid to grind for a bit to increase your level before returning to face some of these foes again.
I also have to point out the phenomenal level design find within Salt and Sanctuary because I do think it’s one of the best aspects of the game. At no one point does the game ever point you down a very specific path and it mostly leaves it up to you to figure out where to go and what to do next. The way in which you’ll discover each new area of Salt and Sanctuary’s world is very natural and the level design prompts you to want to explore as much as possible.
If there are any complaints that I do have with Salt and Sanctuary, it would be that it is just a bit too on-the-nose sometimes when compared to Dark Souls. While adapting the core elements of the genre into 2D is perfectly acceptable, the crossover I found between storytelling and world building between the two games was a bit too similar. Because of this, I feel like Salt and Sanctuary kind of lacks its own identity and is instead just easy to write off as a ripoff of the Souls games.
Also to mention, the version of Salt and Sanctuary that I reviewed was on the Nintendo Switch, and overall I found there to be not many issues. I did have some slowing and framerate dips during boss fights which had a lot of action at once, but these instances were very few and far between. I found these problems occurring only in handheld mode though, so I can’t speak much to whether or not they’d still happen when the Switch is docked.
Salt and Sanctuary takes the Souls-like formula to 2D and almost perfectly executes upon it. While it may not win points for originality, Ska Studios has done a fantastic job of transitioning the Souls style of combat into 2D while simultaneously mixing in elements of platforming and level design found in Metroidvania games. If you still haven’t given one of these kinds of games a shot yet, Salt and Sanctuary is a great starting point for novices of the genre.