A (Mostly) Sacrosanct Experience
It isn’t a stretch for me to say that Konami’s Castlevania series was an important one to me during my childhood and adolescence — particularly when it transitioned from platformer to Metroidvania. Don’t get me wrong, the classics were great and everything. But there was just something about Symphony of the Night that hooked me. After I played that, I knew that I had to play every subsequent title that the series came out with. So I did. All the way up to Order of Ecclesia (which ended up being my personal favorite). And then I stopped. Not because I fell out of love with the series, however, but because Konami decided that Metroidvanias weren’t cool any more. It was kind of a sad time for me. Metroidvanias — especially those with a focus on RPG elements (which I prefer) — were already pretty niche, and Konami’s decision had all but killed the “-vania” part of the Metroidvania. And it’s pretty much stayed dead ever since.
However, if Castlevania has taught me anything, it’s that what was once dead can come back to life (and also that a brick wall is the best place to find a home-cooked meal). Every so often, the remains of the once-gallant, RPG-centric Metroidvania will poke its head out from beneath the earth, beckoning its fans back to it once more — and that’s exactly what Salt & Sanctuary has done. Salt & Sanctuary doesn’t just attempt to emulate the look and feel of the 1997 – 2008 era Castlevania titles; it’s successful in doing so.
The Calm After the Storm
Salt & Sanctuary‘s story is somewhat unique in the way that it presents itself to player. The game begins with you, a seeming nobody, on a ship as part of an assigned mission to guard a princess as she travels overseas. Although the trip starts off well enough, you soon encounter trouble (as one tends to do when playing a video game that begins on a ship) as a group of otherworldly creatures attacks and kills most of your fellow crewmen, leaving you to fend them off for yourself as you make your way to the deck above. Of course, that ended up being a bad idea. No sooner do you get to the deck do you see a giant, tentacled beast who, upon noticing you, decides that you’re its next target. Try as you might, you end up losing to it (canonically, anyway), blacking out as you sink into the water. Upon waking up, you find yourself on a mysterious island and, being the good little hired hand that you are, set off to find and rescue your fair maiden.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. Much of this game’s lore, after the initial setup, is confined to things that are optional. Optional text on the game’s skill tree (yes, seriously), optional conversations with optional characters, and so on. It’s easy to skip over many of the finer parts of the game’s story, whether by accident or on purpose. And if you do, things end up feeling shallow. However, those who take the time to read the fine print that’s there will find an unimaginably deep amount of lore. There are a lot of hidden stories to find within the game’s overarching narrative. But, for better or for worse it’s all very cryptic. I couldn’t help but feel as though this game wanted to tell a grand story, but only wanted to do so for those who cared to listen. It’s an eclectic stance to take on one’s own narrative, I won’t deny that, but I respect the game for what it’s doing, and feel that its bouts of detail-related obscurity only serve to further entice those who actually want do want to completely immerse themselves within the story.
A Very ‘Vania Venture
As far as platforming and overall game progression is concerned, Salt & Sanctuary follows a formula very similar to that of the Castlevania games from which it drew inspiration. The platforming itself, while integral to the game, generally serves less as S&S‘s core challenge, and more as a supplementary way through which to keep the player engaged and moving along. Naturally, because of its disposition as a Metroidvania, exploration is not only welcomed, but highly encouraged. Scattered throughout each of the game’s many areas are a number of secrets to be discovered. While often times these secrets amount to extra items and gear, and shortcuts, S&S does go as far as hiding entire areas from players meaning that, if you want to explore nook and cranny of the game, you’ll need to constantly keep your eyes peeled.
Salt & Sanctuary‘s Metroidvania status also means that, despite being a platformer, the game isn’t segmented into different levels. Instead, the game is one big mass, consisting of a series of varying and interconnecting dungeons. If you’re used to games like these then you should already be familiar with how a setup like this works, but I’ll caution the rest of you to not believe that this means that the game is free-roaming. In lieu of presenting itself to the player in a leveled format, the game instead forces a (mostly) linear system of progression on players by initially locking off many areas. In some cases these locks are literal, meaning that players must find a key or flip a switch in order to progress. Other areas, however, are locked behind skill checks. As you progress through the game, you will be gifted with a number of brands. These brands bestow your character with new powers, such as the ability to wall jump and air dash. And these powers, in turn, are used to bypass previously inaccessible (or “locked”) areas of the game. It’s not a new formula by any means, but it’s still one that needs to be implemented carefully, lest the game become too linear. There needs to be just enough back-and-forth to make the game feel like an actual adventure. And, by golly, S&S hit that nail right on the head.
Although this game gets a lot of things right, there were a few things about it that ended up bothering me. Two, to be precise. The first one isn’t actually a huge deal; most of the game is too dark. In some cases, darkness is just fine. I get that the game is supposed to be spooky and atmospheric, and cranking up the brightness on everything would only detract from that. However, I can’t help but feel as though S&S ventured down the “too much of a good thing” route. Not to be rude, but I kind of enjoy being able to see my surroundings. And there were a lot of areas in this game that made that difficult — even when I had a torch lit. Obviously this isn’t anything game-breaking, but it’s still pretty annoying.
And then, there’s the map. Or rather, the lack thereof. I think that I understand where Ska Studios was trying to go with this. They figured that, by not including the map, the player would have to work harder to memorize their surroundings. The game is supposed to be hard, and not including a map would make it even harder. Realistically, though, all it did was make things more frustrating. Having to discover, explore, and memorize parts of the island all on your own is cool. But the decision to go map-less makes Ska & Sanctuary a tad infuriating if you aren’t quite sure where to go. This frustration was especially present for me near the end of my journey, where the game opens up several different areas at once. And it also makes reaching 100% completion nigh impossible to all but those with the best of memories.
Thy Will be Done
One of the more unique mechanics in Salt & Sanctuary is that involving creeds and sanctuaries. Scattered throughout the island are a number of sanctuaries — most of which are empty. By placing an icon upon the pedestal in the middle of the sanctuary players can activate it, while simultaneously converting it to their current creed. All sanctuaries, regardless of creed, can be used to save, respawn, and level up your character. But what is a creed, exactly? Well, it’s essentially your character’s chosen religion. S&S features seven unique creeds which, though seemingly similar in the beginning, all come with their own unique benefits should the player choose to invest in them.
Most creeds are typically suited for a certain playstyle — with the Stone Roots being geared toward thieves, the Keepers of Fire and Sky to mages, and so on. However, rather than providing any kind of buff, creeds give players access to items. Players have a special set of items which, while consumable, are instantly refilled whenever they pray at a sanctuary, with the items themselves being dependent upon the sanctuary at which they prayed. In the beginning, the player is only given healing items, but they can expand their refillable consumables by completing quests for their creed. Additionally, players can also fill up creed-aligned sanctuaries with villagers by making offerings at the sanctuary altar. These villagers each sell items (which are once again creed-dependent), offer services such as equipment upgrades and transmutations, and are also quite integral to gameplay progression. Just keep in mind that no creed takes kindly to blasphemy. While villagers, even those of differing creeds, are generally willing to help you out, things like denouncing a creed or attacking (ie “forcibly converting”) an opposing sanctuary will get you blacklisted faster than you can say “amen”.
Fighting with Heart and Soul(s)
Combat is the one aspect of Salt & Sanctuary that distances itself form its now decade-old Castlevania counterpart. Or at least it attempts to, anyway. While fighting takes place much in the same way that it would in any of the newer(ish) Castlevania titles, there’s an undeniable hint of Dark Souls added into the mix. How can I tell? Simple; the game’s really hard, and there’s a lot of doge rolling. I’d like to say that that’s a joke, but it isn’t. I don’t mean it offensively, though. S&S actually does a great job overall of infusing gameplay with Dark Souls elements — a feat especially impressive considering the fact that it’s in a different genre than Dark Souls is.
Fighting is almost never about brute force. Especially for those of you (like myself) who play characters of a squishier variety. No, victory in S&S instead requires that you play with both skill and, to a lesser degree, intelligence. Part of this is as simple as mastering the basics. Regardless of how you choose to play your character, things like timing your attacks, looking (and listening!) for enemy telegraphing, and, of course, rolling around so much that you’ll end up putting any blue hedgehogs to shame, are all very important. Fortunately, these aren’t too hard to master. You’ve just got to keep practicing! And also be okay with failure.
Salt & Sanctuary‘s deliciously deadly Dark Souls infusion is about more than just the basics, however. This game offers an incredibly deep amount of character customization as well. Players are able to select from one of eight classes in the beginning Each class comes with their own unique stats and equipment. What they don’t come with, however, is a specific growth path for players to follow. This means that it is up to players to spec their character how they see fit. Naturally, players should still approach leveling up with caution. Just because you can make a whip-wielding, spell-casting knight with high endurance doesn’t mean that you should. Every stat point in this game ends up being very precious, and players who level their characters without any kind of structure will ultimately find themselves in a world of hurt as they progress through the game.
Oh, and speaking of hurting, let’s take a moment to talk about dying. Because it’s something that you’re going to be doing a lot. Given what I’ve said about this game so far, that shouldn’t really be a surprise. It’s a Dark Souls-infused Metroidvania. Of course you’re going to die a lot. But dying in this game doesn’t mean being whisked away to a “Game Over” screen. It means something much, much worse — the loss of salt! And that, my friends, is something that you never want to lose. Salt is S&S‘s version of EXP, and works very similarly to how normal EXP would. Killing enemies nets you salt which, in turn, can be used to level up at a sanctuary (thus the title of the game). Unlike with normal EXP, however, salt is dropped when you die. All of it. Fortunately, the game gives you a chance to redeem yourself. Should you make it back to the place of your demise and take down the enemy that killed you (or the weird bat monster that spawns if you died from environmental damage), you’ll get it all back. But if you die again before that happens, then it’s goodbye for good. I’m not going to lie to you, friends; you’re going to lose a lot of salt (in-game, anyway). And it’s going to sting. But you’ll just have to get used to it. This game lets you know that it’s hard from the get-go, so getting mad at it for making good on its promise won’t get you anywhere.
Salt & Satisfaction
Castlevania may have been whisked away by the big boys over at Konami, but the spirit of the RPG-centric Metroidvania is more than alive and well in Salt & Sanctuary. Although I may have had my issues with the game regarding a few minor details (a map update would make me really happy, just saying), there isn’t a whole lot that I can say about this game that isn’t some form of praise. It’s well-crafted, has a very satisfying amount of depth, and does its best to rough up the player at every turn while avoiding being unfairly hard. It’s a great game, and it makes you feel great after finally conquering it. If you’ve got even the slightest hankering for a Metroidvania, you’re not going to do much better than Salt & Sanctuary. Just be sure to watch those sodium levels while you’re playing!
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Vita, PC ; Publisher: Ska Studios ; Developer: Ska Studios ; Players: 1 – 2 ; Released: August 2, 2018 (Switch) ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $17.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Salt & Sanctuary given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.