Salt and Sanctuary review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac, Linux, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Ska Studios
Developer Ska Studios
Release Date Mar 15, 2016

At its core, Salt and Sanctuary does something impossible: It borrows the mechanics of another video game franchise without getting lost in derivation.

If you can think of an emblematic component of FromSoftware's punishing action-RPGs — Demon's Souls, the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne — it's probably represented somehow in Salt and Sanctuary. Death in From's games is frequent, and forces you to risk losing precious upgrade resources. Characters are immensely customizable, allowing you to brave deadly worlds with mages, ninjas, knights and everything in between. Combat is tense, requiring skillful parries, well-timed dodge rolls or strategic spell casting to avoid an extremely quick death.

Salt and Sanctuary does an excellent job in transforming those ideas to fit into its 2D action-platformer design, but that's not even its biggest success. Where Salt and Sanctuary truly sets itself apart is its keen understanding of what emotions those mechanics are capable of eliciting: terror, determination and accomplishment — all in equal measure.

you're constantly exploring hallowed, untrodden ground

Salt and Sanctuary starts you with virtually nothing, save for the few traits given to the class you've selected and a few sentences of exposition. After squaring off against a Lovecraftian horror and surviving a shipwreck, you wash up on the beach of a nameless island, where you're still given scant information on your motivations. Your goals are never explicit and never outlined through dialogue, always through play: You're here to explore and discover, to improve and survive.

The world of Salt and Sanctuary feels so much bigger than it actually is because of that lack of explicit communication. To learn what's happened, you'll have to put in the effort, reading item descriptions and discussing history lessons with the few NPCs you encounter on your journey. It adds a layer of genuine mystery to the proceedings, but more importantly, it instills a sense of adventure, and the feeling that you're constantly exploring hallowed, untrodden ground.

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That illusion isn't entirely necessary, because the world of Salt and Sanctuary actually is pretty gigantic, with massive temples, towering castles, festering dungeons and swamps all interconnected by hidden passages and shortcuts. The game's 2D perspective drives home a powerful sense of scale; your hero's sprite is minuscule compared to the game's ancient, overbearing structures.

To battle that sense of powerlessness, Salt and Sanctuary gives you plenty of avenues of improving your character. The system is stylistically similar to Final Fantasy 10's Sphere Grid, allowing you to unlock nodes on a massive board with each new level you gain by exchanging Salt, a resource dropped by enemies. Each general direction on the board will empower you in different ways, giving you proficiency in magic, miracles, armor, shields or any number of weapon categories.

On top of those vast progression loops, Salt and Sanctuary also borrows some gear-gating conceits from action-platformers like Castlevania. Areas on the map will be inaccessible until you learn a certain traversal mechanic, like the air dash or gravity reversal. These moves not only make platforming as exciting as combat toward the end of the game, they also make that combat all the more mobile and frantic.

The "Sanctuary" half of the game's title describes the checkpoints scattered throughout the world, each of which belongs to a particular Creed. It's the game's faction system, and probably the only part of Salt and Sanctuary that would have been better served by a more in-depth explanation — not because I used it wrong, but because I didn't know there was so much I could be doing with my chosen Creed.

Each Sanctuary belongs to a Creed, though many you'll discover are abandoned and can be dedicated to your chosen team. At your Creed's Sanctuaries, you've got full control: You can customize the vendors or quest givers (most of which offer different inventories for each Creed), add fast travel points, or even hire a sellsword, allowing you to play the game with a couch co-op accomplice.

The main job of the Sanctuaries, though, is to offer you a brief respite from the dangers outside. You can level up, purchase survival essentials and refill your stock of restorative potions, which also differ between Creeds — worshippers of Devara's Light gulp holy water to recover HP, while the hedonistic House of Splendor doles out healing jugs of wine, which can also get your character loaded.

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factions could use some more explanation

Creeds add some systemic sophistication to Salt and Sanctuary — any Sanctuary can be "defiled" to change which Creed it houses, and you can change Creeds at any point but will be branded an Apostate by the jilted organization. But their bigger value is that they're lenses through which to view this otherwise unexplained world, one where individuals, armies and religions are drawn toward unexplained powers belonging to long-forgotten gods.

Creeds are a twist on the Covenants of the Souls series, but the direct line of inspiration between the two — and between most of Salt and Sanctuary's familiar components — will be obvious to anyone who's ever kindled a bonfire. Salt and Sanctuary may ultimately lack its own discrete identity because of all of its tributes to FromSoftware's titles, but it absolutely cannot be accused of halfheartedly adapting them. Salt and Sanctuary sticks the landing on every borrowed idea.

Wrap Up:

Salt and Sanctuary lovingly adapts the Souls games into 2D

I wasn't bothered or distracted by Salt and Sanctuary's uncanny resemblance to the Souls games during my playthrough, because I was too busy gleefully exploring, or locking my controller in a vise grip while trying not to die. There's nothing crass about how those elements have been adapted, because they have also been celebrated, resulting in a stellar adventure with enough moments of surprise and excitement to rival even its own source material.

Salt and Sanctuary was reviewed using a downloadable PS4 copy purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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9 PS4