I am a dark God; my tendrils writhe beneath the waves, and altars to my magnificence are spread across the land. I seek worship, but, more importantly, I need flesh.
When the time comes for my devoted archbishop to sacrifice himself, he refuses and flees behind the paltry defense of the city walls. He has mistaken my call for a request, and now I must claim him — and anyone who stands in my path. I will feast.
I’m playing Sea Salt, a game from two-person studio Y/CJ/Y. It’s best summarized as Hotline Miami, except I’m an angry sea god instead of a nihilist in a mask. I also gather and manage minions in a way that’s a little like Pikmin, but for goths. I have to navigate through levels seen through a top-down camera, and use my 2D pixel-art armies to visit unfathomable violence on the enemies and obstacles in my way.
I’m the dark god Dagon, a glowing rune that controls the actual forces that I use to clean the map; my swarms of minions. If you’re like me, your forces are probably comprised of 90% murder crabs. Other people might choose an army of cultists, or little Zergling-type fellows, or acid worms. I mix, match, and experiment with the composition of my unholy horde as I tackle new levels and encounter new challenges.
I start by choosing an apostle. I’m originally limited to just one fishy fellow, an Innsmouth-style half-man, half-fish, but I can unlock more apostles with different starting armies and play styles by completing small challenges, like picking up a certain amount of gold or killing enemies with a certain kind of creature.
After I have my apostle, it’s time to work my way to the archbishop, one level at a time. There are multiple paths to my final destination: I can head up the docks, or through the angry mob in the village square, for instance. I control the positioning of my forces with my rune, and toggle between “attack” and passive modes. It’s all very accessible; you don’t need to be a StarCraft master in order to wield this army, but there is room for some tactics and maneuvering.
People drop gold when they’re ripped apart, which I collect and periodically spend to gather more forces, and at certain points through the map I find altars, which give me a free summon. Adding forces to my army is necessary if I want to survive the waves of enemies I face. Whether it’s through an altar or buying a summon, I am presented with a choice of all my unlocked minions, and choose one of them to bring into my army. Thus my power grows.
Building my army is a little like playing a RTS or strategy game. While I start with a bundle of little Zergling-esque demons, I can choose to recruit other units later on, like the fire-resistant, snappy crab, the glass cannon cultist, or a worm that eats its way through wooden barriers. Each unit has its own stats, ranging from how much damage it deals out to how much horror it inflicts on the poor civilians in my way. High horror creatures cause civilians to run, with text prompts over their head sharing some version of “nooo.” It’s delightful, up until the moment I perish.
And oh, boy, do I perish. Sea Salt bills itself as a “reverse horror” game, and after the first few encounters of surrounding and tearing down hapless, helpless villagers, I felt pretty good about my policy of A.B.S. (Always Be Swarming). That immediately backfired, because, as it turns out, nobody wants to die, and they especially don’t want to die at the hands — pincers? — of two dozen crabs.
Villagers do more than just construct barricades and throw torches at my armies, though. They learn to group up, and use area of effect attacks to cleave my swarms away before I can rush them. Every stage becomes more difficult, which makes sense. The first level is filled with people who didn’t see me coming. The further inward I travel, the more warning people have had that I’m on my way.
A boss fight might be one big burly man with an anchor he swings around as easily as a baseball bat. I have to dodge his attacks and bring my swarm in to feed when the anchor is lodged in a wall. Or it might be a mob of torch wielding citizens, forcing me to continually move and attack when I can, whittling down the crowd as I go. Failure feels fair, which is important — I’m not ramming my head against a wall. My own hubris is as much my opponent as the actual enemies on screen.
I can reload my last checkpoint, or, if I feel stuck, just start all over and try a new strategy. Besides, even though my progress resets and I have to go through the same enemies and bosses, I keep the progress I made towards getting more apostles. That takes the sting out of a loss.
The pixel-art style is clear and distinctive, and I enjoy taking in the sights of dreary, rainy Victorian villages, hanged corpses lining the streets, townsfolk screaming and firing their guns at my armies, or the desperate last line of survivors hurling torches to hold back the tide of my horrors.
Boss fights conclude with tentacles grabbing my poor victim and pulling them in opposite directions, causing a stream of wet nightmare confetti to fly everywhere. Every death is announced by the clatter of gold hitting the ground. It’s great, gory fun.
I didn’t find any of the over the top violence uncomfortable or upsetting, in fact. I took no small amount of joy in the absurd amount of blood and guts. There’s a line between tragedy and comedy, and Sea Salt can’t find that line because the floor is completely covered in guts. But I’m sure it launched over where it should be with abandon.
There are some frustrating moments. Sea Salt is so married to its Victorian, old school aesthetic that it occasionally sacrifices visual clarity, especially with its cursive, immersive text. I occasionally ran into an issue where I’d boot up Sea Salt, only to be greeted with a tiny, postcard-sized program that takes up a little patch of real estate in the middle of my screen.
But these issues are trifling compared to the unexpected amount of enjoyment I got out of this little title. It’s perfect to play on these dark nights heading up to Halloween — especially for those who don’t mind watching their grand plan fall apart in spectacular ways.
I am a god, and a powerful one, but I’m not very good at it. And somehow that makes it even better.
Sea Salt will be released Oct. 17 on Windows PC via Steam, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Y/CJ/Y Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.