Indie Wonderland: Salt and Sanctuary

A few hours in

“Jarenth’s adventure log, day… Gods, how do you even track time in a place such as this. I’ll say ’14’. In a time that now seems like ages ago, I did ascend the Festering Banquet and meet its master, the Sodden Knight. For a brief moment I had terrible premonitions of a repeat of the fight on the boat, with me being hopelessly outclasses against a being of far greater power. But I soon realized I had the upper hand, as it turns out magical fire was greatly effective at burning the Knight’s fur cloak. Or the metal of its mail. Or its ordinary human flesh.”

“Needless to say, this fight actually went well.”

“Climbing back down the castle did allow me to open the passage east, but to my surprise, that wasn’t actually where my travels took me. I would have assaulted the imposing Bandit Fortress there, but its layout was such that I saw no easy way in. Or no way in at all. Save the ability to fly or walk on walls, there simply was no path.”

“Instead, I traveled to the caverns underneath the Banquet. Or, rather, that’s what I thought I was doing. Imagine my surprise when the earth opened up and showed me an entire forest. No, several forests. A sizeable village bordered the forest, and I could see shimmers of an enormous lake on the other side. I would have sworn to you that all I did was travel downward, and yet, here I was.”

“You might contend that the village was underground. Why then, I ask, was it raining when I got there? Whencefrom did the clouds come?”

“If I’d known then what I know now… The ‘underground’ forests weren’t neary the half of it. I’ve seen such things as I can scarcely recall. A temple, yet beneath the forest, where a giant sea monster held blasphemous court. A second temple, buried in the sands, yet impossibly connected to a torturous keep and an ancient ziggurat. A tower that seemed to be at once on the west and east extremes of the island. A castle wreathed in perpetual moonlit storms, even when other parts of the island never see the sun depart. An island that floats on the clouds. I know not what this place is, but I can tell you very easily what it isn’t.”

“My original mission is long forgotten, to the point where I struggle to recall while writing this down. I was… rescuing a princess? I’ve seen hide nor hair of her. I’ve met other individuals, adventurers, seemingly with the same fate: A knight in search of a quest, a thief in search of a life to escape to, a priest in search of meaning. All of them conclude the same thing I do: This island is an un-place, an amalgamation of that which was, which is, and which might be. We might be here for a reason, whatever that unclear reason might be. Or we might be here by chance. I don’t know.”

“There is only one entity who might be able to give me answers, who might be able to let me leave this purgatory, and that is the wicked deity that seems to rule this place. I suspect I’ll not got cooperation out of them easily. But all the same, I have to try.”

“Tomorrow, I make the final venture. You may not hear from me again.”

Salt and Sanctuary is an interesting game.

The phrase ‘like Dark Souls‘ has very quickly become a joke in game criticism circles, and rightly so. Generally, when someone says so-and-so game is ‘like Dark Souls‘, it’s a safe bet that the next sentences show a limited understanding of what makes Dark Souls what it is. All anyone wants to talk about with that phrasoid is the perception of difficulty, which is… maybe a fraction of the comprehensive Dark Souls experience.

So now that I’ve set up that retroactive burn, let me quickly fall into my own trap by stating that Salt and Sanctuary really is an incredibly lot like Dark Souls. It inherits an incredibly great deal: Not just the concept of challenge, but ludic mechanics, specific systems, gameplay metaphors. And more importantly, a sense of tone and atmosphere, and a narrative technique focused around subtle worldbuilding and weaving disparate background lore slowly and carefully into the current story. Some of these are more obvious that the others, but Salt and Sanctuary‘s main achievement is that it remembers to incorporate parts of everything. All the same, Salt and Sanctuary isn’t ‘just’ 2D Dark Souls: It incorporates Metroidvania gameplay elements (in this case, less Metroid and more Vania) to translate some of Dark Souls‘ 3D-optimized design intentions into the 2D space, showing that it’s willing to innovate on the base formula in order to give the idea precedence over the execution. Whether or not it’s always equally successful in trying this is another matter, but right out the gate I’m very grateful that Salt and Sanctuary attempts to be like Dark Souls, instead of just trying to carbon-copy it. Because that so far hasn’t gone over very well; I’m eyeballing you here, Lords of Flame.

It also makes my job alittle harder than just saying ‘this game is basically 2D Dark Souls, so, you know. Every downside has its upside, that’s what Johan Cruijff used to say.

Another lesson Salt and Sanctuary has taken to heart well.

Mechanically, the similarities (and differences) between Salt and Sanctuary and Dark Souls are probably most obvious. The basic control scheme sounds immediately familiar: Light attack, heavy attack, roll, block, parry. You can wield weapons one-handed, or two-handed to overcome a higher Strength requirement. You can switch between several weapon loadouts at will. Swinging weapons, rolling, and blocking all costs stamina, depending on the weight of your equipment and on your stats. You can parry enemies to open up devastating retaliation attacks. Nothing what I say here will sound strange to a recent Dark Souls player.

The similarities go further. In Salt and Sanctuary there are several ‘groups’ of weapons, and each has its own moveset, with particular light and heavy attacks and combos to master. ‘Class choice’ is generally more about what weapon type you’ll want to use than what specific weapon, though the latter obviously still plays a role. Weapon attacks get more powerful as you level up, but weapons themselves can also be upgraded at a blacksmith, using collectible upgrade elements found in the environment. Weapons have seven upgrade levels, requiring increasingly more and rarer elements to keep going. The same goes for armor, which has a range of defenses and stat effects in each piece. You can probably play the game regarding armor as a cosmetic choice, but there’s definitely min-maxing you can do there.

And you’d best get a weapon or weapons that you enjoy using, because ‘fighting things’ is your base action verb in Salt and Sanctuary. The world is littered with enemies and they’re all out for your blood, or your ‘salt’ as the case may be. Most humanoid enemies at least play by the same combat rules you do, meaning you can defeat them through raw power or through skill. Animal and monster enemies tend to play a little meaner. On the plus side, killing enemies gets you their salt, which is necessary for leveling up. Enemies also have a small chance of dropping other items, such as upgrade materials, consumables, or equipment somehow relevant to them. Most enemies continually respawn every time you rest, but a small set stay dead after you kill them the first time — this obviously includes the game’s many bosses.

It’s a pretty good thing these stay dead, to be honest.

The game world is essentially open, but not all areas can be reached from the start. Rather, the player fights their way through bosses and checkpoints, and then unlocks ‘shortcuts’ back to previously familiarized terrain; this open takes the form of kicking down ladders, or pulling levers to raise portcullises. This has the twin purposes of slowly opening up the game world, and making it easier for players to reach new areas without having to use too much of their limited resources. Players can rest at sanctuaries they’ve claimed, which restocks a limited set of healing and other items and allows them to spend salt to level up, but this comes at the cost of resetting all non-permanent enemies. The core challenge loop, then, is to make it farther and farther every time you roam out of the sanctuary, to beat challenges without relying on resources, to kill bosses permanently, and to open new shortcuts and roads in the gameworld. You definitely don’t want to die: If you do, all your collected salt is dropped in the game world. If you die again before re-collecting it, it’s gone forever.

And let’s not forget the *incredibly helpful* player messages. I’m pretty sure you can never turn these off.

I’m not trying to be pedantic here as I’m trying to be clear. The ludic similarities between the two games are striking, to the point where players of the one can probably start playing the other right out the gate. I’m not just talking about controls overlap, but rather, a deep overlap of systems: The core loop of limited safe havens, ranging out to gather resources and improve skills through play, then returning to safety before death in order to mechanically improve, all while exploring and finding better paths through the world.

There are differences, of course. The biggest one you’ll encounter first is that leveling in Salt and Sanctuary is done via… I know this idea has been done by other games, very notably Path of Exile, but I’ll never not be able to call this sort of thing a FFX Sphere Grid. Possible character choices are laid out in an interconnected grid of spheres, each representing a specific upgrade. Some increase one of your stats. Others give you more potions, health or mana, any time you rest at a sanctuary. And then there are the upgrades that let you use equipment. This is probably the single biggest divergence from the Dark Souls formula. Equipment use is no longer governed by character stats; in fact, the two are basically completely divested. Instead, each class of equipment — Swords, Greatswords, Daggers, Axes, Light Armor, Heavy Armor, Wands, and so on — has a number of special orbs scattered throughout the grid. And each weapon / spell / armor piece has a specific requirement. Unlock that orb, and you fulfill the requirement, allowing you to use the thing. Stats factors into how good you are at using the thing, a little, but otherwise don’t function as any sort of gate.

If you want to use this prayer, get the Level 2 Prayer orb. The effectiveness of the buff is probably governed by your Wisdom stat, and your focus comes from Wisdom and some Endurance. But you can still use this even if you have the absolute limit in either.

It’s possible to go anywhere in the sphere grid with enough time: Each time you level up you gain one ‘pearl’, and there’s also a handful to find in the world, so in theory you can go anywhere. That said, it’s not super freeform. Particular ‘classes’ are hidden in plain sight inside the grid. For instance, the lower left side of the grid is packed full of intelligence and will upgrades, stamina potions, and the skills needed to use wands and staves and cast high-level arcane spells. The lower right side has everything needed for high willpower and prayers. Top left, daggers and guns. Top right, greathammers and greatswords and heavy armor. You get the idea. This is also one of the two big things that class selection practically does: It gets you some starting armor, and it fills out two or three orbs on the grid for you, giving you an idea of which direction to follow. They’re not all equally obvious, but… most of them are.

Being a mage, turns out, is pretty easy. You’d figure study was involved, but no.

Another pretty significant aspect of Salt and Sanctuary is the Creeds. The various Dark Souls games have their Covenants, optional ‘factions’ you can join for some effect or other. Salt and Sanctuary has these too, except they’re very much not optional: You have to pick one to proceed (unless you’re a speedrunner, in which case I’m sure you can glitch past this). Creeds play a somewhat significant role in shaping the play experience. In the very basis, the sanctuaries you find are like bonfires: Rest up, get your potions back, enemies everywhere. But all sanctuaries are claimed by a particular Creed: Some are occupied from the outset, but most are claimed by the player, for their Creed, during play. This has small effects and large effects. The small effect is that each Creed has a different visual tone and slightly different healing items. For instance, the Creed of the Three offers Red Flasks for healing, but the Creed of the Ironborn instead gives ‘Hearty Rolls’, which take slightly longer to use for more healing, and the Creed of Devara gives out holy water and sacred washcloths.

That’s not actually a joke.

The larger effect is that as players gain levels in the Creed they’re currently in, that Creed starts giving out more stuff. The long and the short is: Each Creed has a few sets of monster drop items they want. Give them such a set, and you can pick of one of four Creed-specific items, which is then added to the sanctuary refresh — you’ll from now on always get one (more) of those items if you rest at a Creed sanctuary. Two are always ‘more healing potions’ and ‘more stamina potions’, which is a neat method of difficulty adjustment for players who want that, but the other two are very much Creed-specific. For instance, the magic-focus Creed of the Keepers of Fire and Sky offer (next to healing and stamina ‘flasks’) a potion that lets you regain focus on hit for a while, and a crystal that boosts magic damage by 25% or so for a few dozen seconds. Other Creeds might give you poison darts, electric bullets, or stat-boosting wine. And, again: Once you get to these reward levels, those items become just as much a part of your standard refreshing kit as the normal health and mana potions are.

The flipside of this is that while you can still rest in Creeds of other factions, and you’ll still get the ‘basic’ number of Creed-specific potions, you won’t get anything else. Making this a decreasingly attractive proposition as the game goes by. Other Creed sanctuaries are decently valuable at first, because the only way to adopt one of the non-starter Creeds is to find their one sanctuary and convert. But afterwards… Let’s just say that there’s only a handful of ways to convert them to you. And only one of those ways doesn’t involve violence.

If that seems needlessly mean to you, keep in mind that there’s one more aspect to sanctuaries: You can station up to four NPC followers in each shrine of your Creed. Followers are basically hub service NPCs: You’ve got your blacksmith to upgrade weapons, your merchant to buy items, your leader to level up in the Creed… and then the more esoteric ones, like the Alchemist (who can use monster parts to upgrade weapons into more powerful forms) or the Explorer (who can teleport you to any other sanctuary you’ve visited once). Followers also give particular bonuses to combat effectiveness in the region they’re staged in. It’s not impossible to quickly travel to your one favorite sanctuary, and it’s not absolutely necessary to claim every sanctuary all the time, but… Well, say you’re having trouble with the Alchemist. The closest sanctuary to that fight, which is only one screen over, belongs to the Stone Roots by default. Are you really going to let them squat that prime real estate? And chew on their disgusting roots during that fight? When conversion to the true Creed is only one rare item away… and maybe a little bit of violence?

I won’t say that my way is superior, of course.

But I know why I did what I did.

Spreading your chosen Creed around the world dovetails nicely with opening up passages and exploring, in that it slowly brings the world into focus. And speaking of which…

This island is a place. I’ve been talking about gameplay mechanics for a whole bunch, but one equally important Dark Souls aspect that Salt and Sanctuary nails pretty well is the sense of atmosphere. This island is an eerie place, otherworldly, and it’s clear from the outset that nothing’s actually clear. But Salt and Sanctuary never stops to rub your face in it. I’m pretty sure you can play the whole damn game without focusing on the story for one minute, which if nothing else is going to lead to a very confusing conversation right before the final boss. But all the same, you can. Gameplay dialogue and item descriptions and texts all hint at and slowly unveil a larger world, of conflicting nations with changing ideals and the slow but unstoppable march of history. This character is from Kulka’as, land of the mages, but he fled as public opinion turned against his particular school. This character lives in Coastrock, and she aims to get back there before this island saps her drive. Your blacksmith uses pure steel from Liven, the mountainous region that the godless Ironborn call home. It’s all background, but all the same, it bleeds into the foreground constantly, slowly, depending on the degree on which you focus on it. Isn’t it weird that this item description mentions by name an ancient torture hall that you’re currently running into? And isn’t that place supposed to be on the other side of the ziggurat this kingdom is associated with? And then both of them are right above an impossibly tall forest…

Some of this exposition, by the way, comes from a handful of Dark Souls-esque quest NPCs. These are just as accessible and just as necessary as their counterparts, in that they’re easy to miss, and you’ll have to keep hunting for them time and again if you want their story to have any kind of payoff. Still, I appreciated that they were there. They made the world feel just a little bit less lonely. The sanctuary NPCs are always there, but they might as well be vending machines. And, oddly, every now and again strange other characters run into my sanctuaries, sit down to pray, and then leave. Are these ghosts of other players? Randomly-generated adventurer NPCs? Me hallucinating? I’ll never know, but again, I had no kinship with them. The story NPCS… At least I had a sense of who they were.

I really quickly want to address again how flipping weird it is that other people just run into my *house*.

That said, a few of the story NPCs do have one very important purpose…

WOOSH

A big draw of Salt and Sanctuary is exploring its weird, nonsensical semi-open world, but there’s only so much room in 2D space to explore, and only so many interesting puzzles you can do if you limit yourself to Dark Souls‘ ‘realistic’ movement. Salt and Sanctuary solves this by incorporating advanced platforming moves, which you can learn from the aforementioned NPCs. Some examples include: A double jump, a dash move, the ability to flip gravity, and the ability to walk on clouds. Getting one of these abilities opens up the world just as much as a new door or lever does, and particularly later areas rely on them so much that playing Salt and Sanctuary becomes half careful combat game, half perpetual jumping puzzle.

This might also be the most contentious change that Salt and Sanctuary makes with respect to its peer: All the other changes can be rationalized as innovations on a formula, but wall-running and gravity-flipping is a different beast entirely. For what it’s worth, I like it: It shows an understanding of the differences between 2D and 3D design space, and a willingness to capitalize on this. All the same, I’m not sure it’s been implemented quite as well as I’d like. Or rather, I don’t know if it’s been thought through all that well. There are several places in the game where… Well, let me tell you a story instead. After I beat what I thought was the boss of the Ziggurat of Dust, I proceeded to the eastern coast of the island, which I thought was the intended route. From there, I navigated a long vertical drop into a forest I don’t remember the name of, where I found my mage-specific Creed, a boss at a dead end, and some bloodsucking unicorns that aren’t nearly as funny as they sound. I cleared everything there and made my way back best, into the basement of an abandoned temple. Curious, I used my double jump and advanced platforming prowess to climb up… only to stumble face-first into the boss fight of the Ruined Temple area, The Coveted. It turns out that what I was supposed to do was double back from the Ziggurat, and use the power I got there to go through a whole different set of areas, setting me up to get the specific power that would have let me get into the Ruined Temple proper. As it stands, I managed to ‘skip’ all of that — except obviously it got me in trouble, as it turns out I needed that specific power for more than just this. I was left incredibly confused as to what was happening, and had to resort to several deep wiki-dives to figure all this out. And it broke the Wandering Knight’s quest chain permanently, so I never ever got to say goodbye to him.

The Sorcerer’s chain was *almost* broken. Here he’s telling me to get to the bottom of the Ruined Temple, while we’re both hanging out at the bottom of the Ruined Temple.

Minor quibbles aside, though, I do think the incorporation of advanced platforming and movement improves Salt and Sanctuary over what it could have been. It dovetails with the combat, nicely sometimes, frustratingly others: The woods area where you have to chase down running archers over breaking platforms is either terrible of exhilarating, depending on when exactly you ask. More to the point, though, and repeating my earlier statements, I think it shows that Salt and Sanctuary is willing to take what works from Dark Souls, and change what doesn’t. It keeps most of the control and combat mechanics, but makes everything a little slicker and a little flashier instead of focusing on Dark Souls‘s ponderous 3D melee. It keeps ‘bonfires’ and ‘Estus Flasks’, but synergizes it with ‘covenants’ in a way that makes sense for the kind of story it’s trying to tell. It keeps a theme of lonely desolation and exploration of a ruined world, but lets go of the necessity that everything ‘makes sense’, spatially speaking, allowing for better use of its limited space while still avoiding such highlights as Dark Souls 2‘s elevator volcano. And, most telling of all…

Most telling of all is that it’s making me ramble in its defense. I don’t often ramble, not in this way, but I just want to talk about Salt and Sanctuary. It’s not flawless, and it’s not incredibly original, but it’s good.

I don’t know if it needs to be anything else.

Final thoughts

Did I mention that, for some reason, I keep calling this game Salto Sancto? Not out loud, just in my mind. I think it fits. Particularly if you put an extended focus on the initial S. Try it. SSSSSSalto Sancto.

Did I also mention that I ground out new characters until I beat the tutorial boss? It’s possible. One of Salt and Sanctuary limited downsides is that it has a ton of upgrade items for a ton of weapons, but it doesn’t actually tell you how many of each you can expect: ‘King’s Orders’ can drop from common enemies, for instance, but there are only two chances of getting a ‘Drowned Tome’ throughout the entire game. And one of those is beating the tutorial boss. So when I found out I needed two Drowned Tomes, near the end of the game, I did what any sensible person would do: I practiced fighting the tutorial boss with a starting Cleric over and over until I beat it. Then I loaded that Cleric as a co-op player into my Mage’s main game, traded away the rare tome to myself, and then deleted that Cleric into the void. This is totally a sensible thing to do, and not at all a sign of deepening obsession.

I don’t know why you never just believe me on these things.

Did I mention that this game is very pretty sometimes?

Quite often, actually.

And did I mention that this game is fun? I think I did mention that, I probably did.

Salt and Sanctuary did something that I wasn’t sure was possible, which is get me invested in a game very much like Dark Souls all the way through completion. And then I eyeballed playing second character almost immediately. I appreciate that this review isn’t quite the structured weighing of pros and cons that you might be used of from me; I’m sorry, I just like it so much. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, willfully obtuse and overly challenging as it sometimes can be, but… From a critical perspective, I’m willing to call it a serious contender in the genre, damn near a blueprint of what ‘like Dark Souls but 2D’ should ahere to: Keep the mechanics that work, innovate where you need, don’t buy into the lie of overly punishing challenge, and keep restrained atmosphere in mind.

From a non-critical perspective, every new screenshot I post in this review is increasing my dedication to continuing that second run.

Salt and Sanctuary will cost you 18 Steam euro or equivalent. If you’re in any way looking for this sort of game, it’s easily worth that much.

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Jarenth has finally remembered to put something of an end-of-article footer in his columns! To celebrate, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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