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Salt And Sanctuary – The Switch Island Review

Dark Souls – you’ve heard of it, even if you haven’t played it. Salt and Sanctuary (S&S from now on) has had everyone calling it a Dark Souls clone, like everyone has been calling Blossom Tales a Zelda clone. In this day and age it’s hard to release a game without someone making a Dark Souls comparison, but S&S definitely wears its influences on the front of its chainmail. Unfortunately my experience of Dark Souls is limited. I’ve played the first one, but didn’t make it very far. However, I do have a lot of experience (and love for) Metroidvanias, and S&S is unquestionably one of those. And isn’t Dark Souls a 3D Castlevania anyway? OK, let’s dodge that rabbit-hole. Having stumbled incompetently through Dark Souls, how will I fare with its little 2D brother?

S&S’s world is a purgatorial expanse of shadow, darkness, death and demons. It’s all mostly monochrome and very dark, which makes it tricky to play in bright light, especially with the Switch’s reflective screen. If you can cope with the grimness, S&S’s graphics are pleasing, with some gorgeous environments and artistic flourishes; it’s definitely better presented than Dark Souls. I found exploring these environments really compelling. There are lots of optional paths that lead off to dead ends (to start with) and/or new and horrible monsters. All of this is ideal for me. There’s nothing I love more than exploring in game, and S&S does this really well. 

Choose your name, choose your class; S&S has a classic RPG set-up. I chose a sword and shield bearing knight; none of that magic for me (but the option is there). The movement is slow, but more deliberate and careful than awkward. And the combat is pure Dark Souls; the hero can slash, stab, roll, jump, block and parry. Which sounds bland but combined with a frightening array of enemy attacks allows for a surprising amount of depth, definitely more than something like Hollow Knight (not that I’m knocking Hollow Knight). 

The game is tense. You’re fighting to make it to sanctuaries, which act as the save points, but are also trading hubs, where you can attract pilgrims by offering up idols. The pilgrims act as shop-keeps, blacksmiths and the like. I found the sanctuaries to be spaced the right distance from each-other; far enough apart to build anxiety as you venture out into the unknown, and close enough to avoid huge bouts of frustration. The salt is what you collect by killing enemies and what you use to pay for level-ups at the sanctuaries. If a you die then you get one chance to retrieve the salt you were carrying: if an enemy killed you then kill it to retrieve the salt, but if you died by falling then a bat creature is spawned, kill it to retrieve the salt. Die on the way to these objectives and your salt is gone. It’s a tried and tested system and it works wonders here

For every level obtained by trading salt you are given an orb that can be used on a skill-tree. The skill tree is bushy and lets you craft your hero in all different directions. Even within one discipline, melee combat, say, there’s lots of variety. And that’s before you start adding trinkets, secondary weapons, potions, weapons, armour, rings, magic spells and pendants. Your hero really feels yours by the end, which in RPG fashion is all very satisfying.

Something that annoyed me about Dark Souls is its expectation that the player must die. S&S gives you more of a chance. There are little vials dotted around the world that reveal information about what’s just ahead, which is especially handy if that something would otherwise be unavoidable. They are like messages from warriors who came before you. Reading them is optional, but I found them an excellent addition. Some of the messages should be taken with a pinch of salt though (pun fully intended). 

Not that the vials make S&S easy. Far from it. Some of the areas and especially the bosses had me cursing the walls and wishing I was playing Stardew Valley, but all the difficulty is carefully doled out. You’re never too far from a sanctuary and new boss encounters are sign-posted with candelabras. I found I was expected to rise to the challenge without going completely round the bend. There are also a few handy opportunities to grind for salt (I won’t say where though). 

S&S took me around 30 hours to complete, which is a helluva long time for an indie game. For its price it’s a bargain. Once done you’re rewarded with a NewGame+ mode, which is great because I didn’t get all the armour I wanted nor all the weapons. Plus NG+ comes with increased difficulty and other interesting tidbits. I’ll certainly be heading back one day.

So, did I like it? Yes, I really really do, yes. The enemies are diverse and exciting, the world is a joy to explore and the challenge is just at the right level. The shortcuts between areas are just genius and its Metroidvania backtracking is spot-on. I can’t think of many problems with it, to be honest. I guess the lack of a map might annoy some, but those people are missing the point; you’re lost in the void here. And yeah, there’s the occasional minor slowdown, but it didn’t affect my play-through much at all. From a reviewing perspective, it’s a shame I can’t speak to just how derivative it is, but for me, who prefers his tough games in 2D, and have been feeling sore since falling hard at Dark Souls, I was in heaven. Even if it was a bleak, purgatorial heaven.

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