I have a tumultuous relationship with the Dark Souls games. No, not that kind of tumultuous. Well, also that, but I mostly mean that I’ve never really played any of them for too long alone. I tried getting into Dark Souls (1) for an hour or so before quitting in bored frustration, only returning later with a revolving cadre of at least two accompanying friends at any time. Dark Souls 2 I didn’t even attempt solo, playing as far as I did — not to the end — strictly as a co-op adventure. And Dark Souls 3… I probably played the farthest solo of any of the three, determined as I was at the time to give it a shot. The last thing I remember was finally getting into some swampy castle past the giant crabs, only to get one-hit-killed by a Black Knight. I told myself I’d be back soon. That’s… been a while.
It’s for this reason that games that (unironically) advertise themselves as ‘like Dark Souls‘ have a special place in my heart. I do appreciate a lot of what Dark Souls does, from a design and mechanical perspective, even if it never really gelled with me the way it has with others. Every game that tries to emulate and improve on those lessons seems to me like another chance: One more shot to try and experience that magic in a setting that isn’t already awash with bad ludic smell memories. Ska Studios‘ Salt and Sanctuary seems like it might be a game like that. Maybe this‘ll be the one that grabs me? Or maybe I’ll bounce off this game much like I bounced off its famous progenitors.
That probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting review, so I guess for your reading sake and mine I’m hoping it’ll be the first one.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low-ish. Mechanical, somewhat high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Hmm. This game certainly seems to have its colour palette down.
I briefly check the options, but I’m not blown away by what I see. Limited visuals, to the tune of ‘resolution or bust’. Small audio sliders. Gameplay options that don’t go much farther than console vibration. I was planning to use this time for
stress-induced procrastination careful option exploration, but I guess instead it’s time to dive straight into…
I appreciate Salt and Sanctuary‘s degree of customization options, which — while nowhere near the equal of its ancestors, who had a whole 3D space and body model to play with — are expansive enough to stave off the final leap for a few more minutes. Tying skin colour to a world map seems like a cool touch, if a little essentialist, and I’m not sure what to think of the area of the world that zombie people apparently hail from. Then again, I don’t really know anything about this world in general, so. Who am I to complain.
A bigger issue is the area of class selection and ‘effects’. If Salt and Sanctuary really is anything like Dark Souls, this is going to be a choice that’s nowhere near as limiting as class selection in traditional RPGs, but all the same important enough to irrevocably colour my next few hours of play experience. I could spend a few minutes trawling through wikis and comparing the pros and cons of these possibilities I don’t have the capacity to parse quite yet. Or I could throw caution to the wind and play a mage, since I usually play mages if that option’s present. Similarly, I’m sure this list of starting gifts has a lot of tactical nuance to support a range of different builds and gameplay runs. But then there’s the one ring that says ‘get +10% salt from slain enemies’, which a) is one of the only things I actually understand, right out the gate, and b) seems cooler than everything else by half (assuming ‘salt’ means what I think it means). So I guess in retrospect that section isn’t really a big issue at all! Just as long as it doesn’t turn out these choices have doomed my playthrough before I even swung my first blunt stick, I think I should be good with this.
Class thusly selected, outfit donned, and hair and eyes dutifully coloured, Jarenth the Kulka’asian Mage, First Of His Name and Owner Of The Grasping Ring, is ready to…
…Actually, what am I getting ready for?
Grim-sounding exposition is delivered via white text on a black background. War has ravaged the world. Peace finally seems near. A princess is being delivered to a kingdom across the sea, where the resulting marriage alliance will save everyone. “Failing this mission would surely plunge us into darker days.” And then the world snaps into focus and I’m on a boat.
Let’s see… The prevalence of Xbox icons in the menus and right now has quickly made me reach for my 360 controller, so I fiddle with the buttons to see what does what. Left analogue stick moves my character left and right at a brisk jogging pace. Button function button (A) jumps. The left (X) and top (Y) function buttons do light and heavy attacks, respectively. Oddly, the right function button (B) does not roll. Rolling instead is a function of the Right Trigger; the B button doesn’t seem to do much of anything. Neither does the Right Button, despite being advertised on-screen. Left Button seems to switch my weapon loadout, from a short sword in one hand and a stick in the other to wielding the sword in both hands. And speaking of the stick: While I have that equipped, Left Trigger puts me in a manual line aiming mode, letting me fire a rad burst of magical fire on release. I’m starting to feel like maybe Mage was a good class to begin with.
Then I make the mistake of checking the inventory, which is Mostly Numbers.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. The non-pause menu (it doesn’t actually stop anything) is a little daunting at first, but that’s mostly because it’s two sets of functionality in one. On the left, I can use the Left and Right Buttons to cycle through a series of stats and percentages that I don’t quite get yet, but that I’m sure I’ll be intimately familiar with before long. On the right, there’s more of a classic inventory screen, except In That Dark Souls Way. I have three pieces of armor, two rings, one arming sword, one magic wand, and one fire spell. And twelve inventory slots of unclear provenance. I could swap out and unequip any of my items right now, if I wanted to. I just don’t want to.
Thusly out of things to delay the inevitable start of my journey with, I inevitably start my journey. By running to the right, which is the only thing I can do. It only takes ten or so steps before I run into another person. He doesn’t seem hostile, but then he doesn’t seem healthy, either: Clutching his side, he groans about we’ve been boarded in the night, by ruffians aiming to kidnap and ransom the aforementioned princess.
Before Wounded Guy can finish his exhortation to me vis-à-vis saving the princess, a previously unseen pirate swordsman drops down from the ceiling, piercing Wounded Guy’s torso with his cutlass and killing him instantly.
The pirate assassin straightens his sword and looks at me, and in a moment I can see this entire sequence laid out before me. This is the tutorial fight, where I’m supposed to prove my mastery of swordsmanship by avenging my fallen buddy. It’ll teach me the finer intricacies of light attacks, heavy attacks, combos, and parry counters, offering just the right balance between accessibility and danger to drive home some important lessons while still being challenging enough to threaten real loss if I don’t master the systems quickly enough, as these sorts of games do.
Then I remember that I’m a Mage.
A handful of blasts later, the tutorial battle has given way to the smell of burning pirate hair, and I’m no more harmed than I was at the start — which is to say, slightly harmed. At least, in my health bar. Beneath the red bar are two more. One is a teal bar of equal prominence that lowers if I swing my sword, cast a spell, or roll, but refills quickly if I don’t do any of those things; I assume this is probably my stamina (or adjacent). Below that is a tiny, thin white bar. It’s lower now than it was, and I think… Yeah, it’s hard to see immediately, but casting fire bolts lowers it, ever-so-slightly — but all the same, noticeably. This is my mana bar, then? The fire bolt spell itself doesn’t seem to be limited in any way, so if this bar isn’t the limit on casting infinite fire bolts at anything and everything, I don’t know what is.
I keep moving: To the right at first, then up a ladder and to the left, where more battles are waiting. The same scene plays out three times: A pirate and a sailor are locked in combat, until I get close, whereupon the pirate murders the sailor to fight my instead. And then fire happens. Or swordplay: I should probably conserve some of this magic juice, so I try to see if my magic ass is any good with this short sword they saddled me with.
So, here’s a cool thing: Mashing the light attack button over and over results in a basic three-hit light combo. Mashing the heavy attack button, basic two-hit heavy combo. But then there are proper combos: Light attack, then heavy attack, launches me and the target into the air, where I can then either do a midair light attack rush, or a heavy ground slam — or a bit of the former and then the latter. It turns out none of the pirates deal particularly well with an unstoppable six-attack meteor slam. Sure, they try to block it, but either they’re bad at it, or I just have good murder-timing.
I reach the end of the hallway, go back up, and through a door to the right. This brings me to the ship’s upper deck. The first thing I notice is that the ship is in a pitch-black storm, which explains the noises and the screen swaying up and down slightly. As if the pirates alone weren’t bad enough to deal with.
The second thing I notice is the giant, monstrous Cthulhu-esque beast currently prowling on deck. I get about half a second of a darkness-obscured look at it before it leaps at me, obliterating my health bar in a single hit.
Reload and try again? Ah, not exactly. I am instead treated to a reprise of the earlier text, black letters on white this time. Then I hear the sounds of waves lapping on the coast, and as a new scene fades into view I know that I’m still alive.
Yeah, that could’ve gone better.
I set out to explore the surrounding area, with the long-term intent of finding the princess I was assigned to guard. Which seems optimistic, because why would the pirates have brought her to this exact island too? But I digress.
The plan is temporarily diverted when I run into, let’s say a poorly-dressed gentleman of unclear occupational status. We chat, by which I mean that he talks and I occasionally answer yes-or-no questions. Over the course of a short discussion, it becomes clear that he’s asking me about my religious beliefs. Specifically, I have to declare to him my faith in one of three pantheons: ‘The Three’, ‘Devara’, or ‘The Ironborn’. There doesn’t seem to be an option to tell him that I’m still trying to figure things out; the old man is very insistent that I ‘pick a creed’.
I eventually settle on his first option, ‘The Three’, which I reason was probably the first in the list for a reason. The man gives me a candelabra as a gift, then tells me to continue rightward until I reach a sanctuary. He gives me a key to the sanctuary door, which is convenient.
I keep walking. Along the path I find messages in bottles, most of which look like proper tutorial messages about the controls. Could have used those earlier, thanks a bundle. Some of them look more like player-generated messages, in that they appear meaningless and some try to be clever in their profanity innuendo.
Up ahead! A campfire. It has a big chest, and two… groaning zombie-like things.
I open the chest with the B button, the first time that button’s really done anything, and get some salt for my trouble. I try hitting B on the campfire out of muscle memory, but no luck.
Further on still, I finally find and open the sanctuary. It’s pitch black inside, and the rightmost door doesn’t budge. The only thing I can do here is press RB when I’m exactly in the middle, near the only small plateau I can see. My character grabs the candelabra off his belt and carefully places it on the plateau…
The sanctuary springs into life and light.
I fiddle around with the options in my new sanctuary for a bit. I take a brief look at a promised system of leveling up…
A quick trek back to the left confirms that the zombies I beat earlier are back, which in turn confirms that this sanctuary is Salt and Sanctuary‘s bonfire equivalent. Further driving that home still is the fact that I suddenly have three new items in my inventory: Big red potions, marked with the candelabra of the Three and called ‘Red Flasks’. You can call them all you want, game; I recognize an Estus Flask with a different colour when I see one.
If these sanctuaries serve the role of the bonfire, then I should be safe here for the time being. But then again, safety is boring. And it just so happens that there’s this big castle only a little to the right. ‘The Festering Banquet’, it’s called, and it is filled with hanged corpses, spikes, crows, and various flavours of zombie warrior — for me to kill, and take the salt of, and increase in power. That’s probably how this is going to go.
The ground floor of the castle is easy enough to clear, but the gate to the right is — not so much ‘locked’, as that it’s a giant portcullis that I’m never getting open. A lever taunts me from the other side. ‘Find your way to me,’ it seems to say, ‘and all the secrets of easy access to this area will be yours to plunder. All you’ll need to do climb across; surely nothing bad‘s waiting on top of this castle?’
In other words, it’s starting to look like I’m finally out of the training area and into the gameplay experience proper. I have a small set of bad equipment, one tiny safe haven, an unclear objective, and a giant castle of undead enemies between myself and the only way I can go — and that’s just for starters. Who knows what to expect in a place like this?
Suppose there’s only one way to find out.