Game review: Salt and Sanctuary for PS4

Salt and Sanctuary needed almost a full day of playing to work for me, as the first area really wasn’t being too kind to my eyes. I was also a little iffy on the story at first because “Oh, look, it’s another rescue the princess quest.” But it’s not, and the princess is actually a huge MacGuffin that leads to a much deeper story, one I really enjoyed all the way to the end.

Initially, though, I was struggling to move past an area very early in the game after the first boss, and I inadvertently ended up spending that first day in a cycle of grinding for XP. Once I got past that sticking point on the second day and into an area that was less visually blurry, my enjoyment of the game went up immensely.

I’m going to cover the game in a lot more detail, but first I want to tell a little story. After my review of Fallout 4, I ended up playing it another three times, each time increasing the difficulty until I was up to Survival mode and still beating the game. On Twitter and Facebook, I commented that if it was possible for me to win on the hardest modes like this, maybe I needed a knock to my ego by getting Dark Souls III when it comes out in April.

So then along comes some reviews for Salt and Sanctuary, all of them sporting the description “2D Dark Souls.” So I figured this would be a good training run before getting into the real deal.

I’ve never played any of the Dark Souls series, having only watched the previous entries on YouTube. I consider myself one of those “filthy casual gamers,” and all the talk of punishing and brutal difficulty was enough to turn me off. But, as I said, I’ve seen the games in action, and I can confirm that Salt and Sanctuary certainly has the look down pat. In terms of the “feeling,” what I’d compare it to that I have played before is Castlevania, and it’s just about as challenging as some of the later entries in that series. Well, I LOVE Castlevania, so obviously, this is going to work for me.

It’s also been a great boost to my ego. On day two, I’d beaten several bosses with four to six attempts on each boss, and I’d killed two on my first try. As I said, the bosses just have this Castlevania vibe, making it relatively simple for me to read their patterns and get in a groove.

Then I hit a place called Castle of Storms and was getting devastated by even the tiniest of minions. I backed up to another area to grind for a bit, but then I started thinking that perhaps I had missed an area somewhere else. So I got on YouTube to watch someone else play the game blind, and they were terrible. The bosses I’d killed on one try, they struggled with for well over twenty attempts. And this was someone bragging that they’d been playing various Dark Souls games for a while. I tried another streamer, only to find them struggling in much the same way. So I stopped watching the videos even before I’d seen up to the parts I’d cleared and went along with the plan to grind for salt, the currency needed to level up. (Salt is redeemed in sanctuaries, thus the title.) Once I had enough levels in strength and agility to arm myself with a ridiculously huge sword, I went back into the castle…and got my ass handed to me again. I had to run a panicked route through the various minions to reach the boss, and then I whipped him after four attempts.

What I’m saying is, being able to actually beat the bosses with single digit attempts in most cases has given me a lot more confidence in my skills as a gamer, something I haven’t had in a while because I suffer so much from “wrong button syndrome.” And yeah, I still had that problem here, sometimes dying in the most embarrassing ways because I’d pressed the wrong button. But the fault lies with me, and not with the control scheme, which is an absolute joy to use. And my point is, I realize now that I’m actually something of a gaming badass, and I have this game to thank for fluffing my ego.

Digressing back to the review, as with Dark Souls games there is no pausing even to go into the inventory, but there is a generous number of hotbar slots to access using the D-pad, and while it can be tricky to get to the right item in the heat of combat, it’s not impossible. There are so many indie games where I have to give a strike to the controls for being kludgy or painful to use, but this is not the case with Salt and Sanctuary. In fact, even after playing all day in really intense fights, I had no hand cramps. This scheme just feels so right. I’d almost call it perfect.

I mentioned before not liking the first area, and this is because the fog effects were doing nasty things to my eyes. I get that it’s part of the atmosphere building, but it looks to me like I smeared Vaseline all over my screen, and I had to keep taking short breaks to look at stuff closer to me because my eyes were getting blurry from eyestrain.

Thankfully, this effect does not last too long, and the rest of the game has an amazing variety of color palettes and lighting tricks. The designs of the locations, characters, and enemies is simply gorgeous, (you can see other players in the sanctuaries, giving you some idea of the variety of outfits available even on your first play through) and there’s no repeated monsters in any area, not even palette swaps found in triple A games from bigger publishers. This is one damn pretty game, is what I’m saying.

And the music! Hot damn, the music is so good and it just fits so perfectly with the tone of the game. In all the time I was mainlining this, I never got tired of hearing any of the songs. I even looked forward to boss fights because of the fight theme. It’s so, so good.

And speaking of bosses, there’s a wide amount of variety to them, with none of them looking or fighting in a similar manner. There’s a nice sense of dread that comes with finding the candelabras that signify a boss room is directly ahead, and it never failed to build a little tremor of excitement in me to finally push through all of the minions and reach that one perfect moment of quiet before the storm. I’ve played a lot of games, y’all. A metric fuckton of games, even, and it’s been a long, long time since I actually looked forward to a boss fight like this. I’m talking all the way back in my teens. That’s a damn fine job as far as I’m concerned.

There is only one blight on this whole game, and that was a glitch I encountered during the very last boss. I had just entered the room when he lunged to grab my character and stuck her in the wall. Then he and my character were both stuck there. None of my attacks were connecting, and all of his were. I couldn’t jump, roll, or dart my way out of the wall, and I ended up just burning through all my health potions with no chance of winning. I thought maybe it was a fluke, but I kept running into the problem again and again, and again. I thought maybe I could shut down the game and restart it and that might fix it. Nope.

So then I thought that if I just stayed to the center of the room and focused on melee attacks, I might be able to avoid getting stuck. This didn’t work out either. If I stayed too close to the boss, his sword range and spells would eviscerate my character before I could use any health potions and without me being able to complete any sword swings whether I used fast or slow attacks. I tried swapping to a shorter, faster sword, but the reduced damage combined with the much shorter range meant I was getting torn up faster even with my attempts to dodge roll and dart around the boss.

I ended up leaving that boss and going back to a previous area to grind once again, this time dumping more points in magic and getting extra phials of energy to recover my stamina fatigue. Then I went back in and cheesed the hell of of that last boss using long range fireballs. It’s not a great victory, but eh, a win is a win, and I got to see one of what appears to be two possible endings.

While that glitch isn’t a huge deal killer, it was disappointing after going through most of the game with only one crash to the OS and an early glitch where an enemy rammed me and sent me flying through a wall and into an area I wasn’t supposed to be just yet. This first glitch ended up being beneficial, though, putting me next to a switch to open a door and access a shortcut. I’m calling that a bennie. As for the crash, I’d recently saved at a shrine, and it was a short walk back to the boss I was facing. So no big deal, right?

There is just one other problem in the game I want to bring up, but I also want to acknowledge that it’s a problem for me, and not exactly a design flaw. I don’t like the grinding. I know it’s a staple of so many games of this kind, but for me there was another bad kind of dread whenever I’d realize I needed to stop progressing forward and just keep hacking the same enemies over and over. It might happen because I needed more points to unlock a higher level skill. Unlocking mage level two requires two points, and the cost goes up to five points for level five. The same is true for all of your available weapons and armors, and some weapons and armors will require spending time dumping points into strength, dexterity, or wisdom. It begins to add up to longer and longer delays from the fun parts, and I’ve spent literally a whole night doing nothing but grinding because I wanted to use a new armor, a new wand, and a new sword. I’d get to hour five or six and still not have enough points, and the only sound I could produce was a resigned sigh. It’s BORING, and in a game that’s so much fun to play the rest of the time, it’s such a major downer for me to stop doing the fun bits for this mind numbing slog.

Having said that, the few problems I had with the game are not so major that I couldn’t heartily recommend this to everyone. You like platformers? Try this. You like puzzles? Try this. You like Dark Souls? Try this. I enjoyed this first run so much that even knowing there’s a grind involved in setting up a new character, I’m already planning at least two more play-throughs because I’m curious to see what the hunter and assassin classes are like. I might even do a third run with a cleric.

Even after I finish those experiments, I can see leaving this on the hard drive and coming back to it later on when I’m in between other games. The game is just so much fun that I can forgive the flaws and come back to it right after I finished my first run.

So, I’m going to give Salt and Sanctuary 4 enthusiastic stars. Without the grind, it could easily have been 5, and I’m sure some of y’all won’t mind that aspect of the gameplay. I think it’s just extra padding to make the game artificially longer, and frankly, I don’t think this needs padding. It’s a damn fine game and a great bargain at 17.99. Even without the grinding, I could have gotten several days of play time in one run, and there’s so many classes and creed combinations that this could last you a good long while. Oh, and at some point this is supposed to come out for the PS Vita, (no release date just yet, though. Bummer) and I cannot wait for that to happen. (I’ll love it even more if it will be cross-save.)