The past few years have been very generous to devotees of From Software’s tough-as-old-leather Souls games. As the studio continues to revise, retool and remix their winning formula of punishing difficulty, deliberate combat and esoteric storytelling, we’ve started to see challengers to From’s crown as monarch of the modern action RPG. Salt and Sanctuary is the latest such “Soulslike”: a title which liberally borrows elements from its inspiration but recontextualizes them in the form of a 2D side-scroller. Fortunately, it just so happens to be a successful alchemical recipe: Salt and Sanctuary manages to forge a unique identity out of its adaptation of what it has recycled.
Upon starting a game of Salt and Sanctuary, the character creation screen will immediately be familiar to fans of Dark Souls. Players customize their looks, pick a starting gift item with a cryptic meaning, and choose from one of several classes — from the usual Knight, Mage and Cleric to the more surprising choices of Chef (complete with frying pan) or Pauper. Your class governs your starting build, but you don’t have to stick to said build if you’d prefer to experiment. Salt and Sanctuary features a surprisingly large and robust progression system not unlike Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. Each experience level you gain earns you a black pearl, which you can exchange for a point on the grid. Specific points can bolster your individual stats, unlock the potential to equip certain weapons, armor and spells, or award additional uses of your rechargeable healing flask. Gray pearls, which are found out and about in the world, can be exchanged to remove a point from the board; they also change back into black pearls upon use, so you can respec aspects of your character that you may have been unhappy with. It’s astounding just how vast the progression system is, allowing you to shape your character in dozens of different ways. Whether you prefer to play as a straight-up sword & shield attacker or a whip-wielding spell-slinger, Salt and Sanctuary has got you covered.
After creating your character, you find yourself aboard a ship, tasked with ferrying a princess to a refuge. The escort doesn’t go according to plan, as these things are wont to do, and the situation quickly turns south when a Cthulhu-esque beast attacks, wrecking the ship in the process. You wash up on the sandy beach of an ethereal island, your crewmates dead and the princess absconded with by unknown kidnappers. With no other choice, you press on in search of answers, only to find that this island is a battleground for warring factions of undead — once proud soldiers that are now embroiled in an endless war that has lost all meaning.
Fighting off your foes with your weapon of choice is immensely satisfying, as each weapon feels appropriately weighty with animations to match. Daggers deal minimal damage but allow you to strike quickly and repeatedly before running out of stamina, while two-handed greatswords allow two laborious and powerful hits that can launch foes into the air or decapitate them immediately. You can switch between two weapon loadouts with the touch of the L1 button; this is handy for when you need to deftly equip a shield with no time to mess about in the menu. Bosses require you to put all of your skills to the test, watching for tells and dodging or blocking when appropriate. Some of the bosses feel a little bit cheap, others slightly too merciful, but most of them feel like a perfect blend of harsh and fair mechanics that will test your mettle down to its essence. It helps that they look as fantastic as they do ghoulish; the evocatively named Queen of Smiles and That Stench Most Foul are some of my personal favorites. The game supports local multiplayer, and tackling these horrors with a friend offers an additional layer of fun.
Killing foes awards you with salt, which functions as your experience points. Of course, in true Souls tradition, your salt is taken from you upon death and you’re given a chance to retrieve it from the foe that killed you. However, it’s worth noting that Salt and Sanctuary’s take on the system is far more merciful than Souls’: Die to a boss and it will take your salt, but if you keep challenging it and failing, your stolen salt will simply be added to the boss’ stockpile and you’ll have a chance to reclaim it all. Unless, of course, you end up killed by a different hazard.
Soon, you reach your first titular Sanctuary, the game’s analog to Dark Souls’ Bonfires. Sanctuaries are used for healing, leveling up, resupplying your healing flasks and repopulating the world with monsters. It is at this first Sanctuary that you are given the choice to ascribe to one of three Creeds. Creeds govern each Sanctuary you reach; some Sanctuaries are unclaimed and waiting to be taken by you, while others are already under certain Creeds’ jurisdiction. What relevance does this have for you? Well, you can only level up at a Sanctuary under the jurisdiction of your Creed. That’s not to say that they’re completely unusable: You can get around this restriction by either converting to that Sanctuary’s Creed, or by using certain items to convert the Sanctuary to your Creed. However, you may find yourself branded a sinner if you don’t take proper care, and Sanctuaries you once held dear may turn into your worst nightmare.
Sanctuaries can also be outfitted with different types of services, including fast travel guides, shopkeepers and blacksmiths, depending on which stone idols you find and offer up as sacrifice. Each service’s presence brings with it a passive bonus, such as a buff to attack strength or extra salt or gold per enemy killed. They’re not imperative, but they do help out if you’ve found an area too difficult.
As you explore the vast island, you’ll find many insurmountable obstacles and platforms that seem just out of reach. Getting around these is occasionally just a matter of traveling the long way around to pull a switch to raise a portcullis, but other times you’ll need to seek out a helping hand in the form of brands. Akin to the relics found in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, brands are a series of marks seared upon your skin which widen your traversal skill set. An early brand allows you to wall jump, but by the end of the game you’ll be combining that with an air dash to scale up sheer cliff faces that appeared unscalable at first blush.
It’s satisfying and fun to traverse old areas using new brands, but this also highlights an annoyance I have with the game. Salt and Sanctuary has no mini-map to aid your navigation. The same can be said of Souls games, but the key difference here is the 2D plane. One can easily learn their bearings in Lordran by identifying landmarks with a 360 degree camera view, but this simply isn’t possible in Salt and Sanctuary. I can’t fault it for the restrictions of 2D, but I found myself aggravated when I received a cool new ability but couldn’t remember exactly where I wanted to use it. Even the simplest, most barebones grid map would’ve done wonders here, and it wouldn’t have detracted from the core experience. Instead, I found myself wandering aimlessly through levels I’d long outpaced on more than one occasion.
Most of the dungeons and fields you’ll visit are very tense and moody, requiring rapt attention and deft fingers to get through alive, but some of these levels feature some very video gamey elements that I wasn’t too fond of. I put up with the collapsing wooden bridges, but I had to roll my eyes at the Mega Man 2-style platforms that appear and disappear in a set pattern. A late dungeon features a series of transport tubes like those found in a Sonic the Hedgehog game, which made the lack of a mini-map feel particularly egregious.
That’s not to say that my time with the game hasn’t been an absolute blast, though. Clocking in at just under twelve hours and featuring a number of optional dungeons and bosses, the main quest was just digestible enough to make me keen to jump back in and approach the game from scratch with a different character. Not unforgiving but not too easy, Salt and Sanctuary combines the emblematic aspects of the Souls series with the best bits of Igarashi’s tenure on Castlevania. The resulting concoction is an outstanding 2D action RPG that Souls fans will love, but it will also appeal to those simply in search of a solid exploratory platformer.