Game review: Salt & Sacrifice for EGS

Salt & Sanctuary was one of my favorite 2D games in a long time, so much so that I bought it again on the PS Vita and played through all the classes again after beating the game 12 times on the PS4 version. When the sequel Salt & Sacrifice was announced, I was ready to join the hype train until I watched the trailer, and then I commented, “Looks good, but hunting mages is kind of a big step down from fighting actual gods, isn’t it?”

When it finally arrived on the Epic Game Store, Salt & Sacrifice proved to have deviated wildly from being a Dark Souls inspired platformer to borrowing heavily from another genre. Most folks are comparing it to the Monster Hunter series, which I don’t know because I bounced hard off of two separate games. But the new formula is also a bit like the God Eater series, which I had a better time getting invested in. I’d also compare it to the free-to-play Suda51 slugfest Let It Die. Whether you can get into this mage hunting labyrinth will depend entirely on how willing you are to indulge the daily grind lifestyle.

The way it works is like this: first, you hunt a named mage with a specific set of themed skills. They start out with the elements you would expect, with a pyromancer and a cryomancer being your first options. Then the game adds a hydromancer and an electromancer before tossing in venomancer, aereomancer, necromancer, and so on and so forth. After you defeat the named mage one time, somewhere in their starting area will be a shrine to unlock a slightly stronger nameless mage hunt of the same kind, and finding a Tome of Fate in the area unlocks Fated Mage hunts, which are like randomly generated daily hunt lists.

“But why would I want to keep hunting the same mage over and over?” You ask. Well, killing each named boss unlocks a set of armor and weapons specific to their class. So you’ll want to harvest icky bits from each mage to make the equipment that strikes your fancy. Additionally, mages have the potential to drop Pyrstones or upgrade materials that take all equipment from “cute but useless” to “workable instrument of death.” There is, however a huge but on farming pyrstones coming later in the review, much bigger than mine and my hubby’s combined, and that’s a whole lotta but, let me tell you. But first, let’s cover the basics: story, setting, and controls.

The story seems to be a sequel from the first game, possibly centuries or even a millennia after the great war that I’m guessing Askaria won because the symbol shown during the start of the game is a modified form of The Three. (A triumvirate of gods called only The King, The Judge, and The Knight.) I make this interpretation because Askaria was supposedly the largest of the nations in the war, and their religion fits strongly with the themes found in this new setting. Anyway, in this somehow even more grimdark world, those gods demand sacrifices in a convoluted reverse pyramid scheme. If three sacrifices are offered, one should be taken. So, if 9,000 prisoners of war are gathered, 3,000 should be slaughtered to appease the gods. Like I said, grimdark to the Xtreme.

At some point, the Altar Stone Kingdom began pursuing mages, who in an effort to defend themselves started digging into forbidden magics to become supermages. These hulking monstrosities lost any semblance of humanity and their misuse of magic led to corruption of their environments and the inhabitants. The kingdom took up mage hunting over sticking to their obligatory sacrificial rituals, which ticked off the gods, leading to their mage hunters slowly being turned into even more mages.

There’s an added plot twist I want to mention, but it is spoiler material that isn’t revealed until very late in the game. The point is, your character is a newly imprisoned member of the Altar Stone Kingdom who is offered a choice between a death sentence or a life of indentured servitude as an Inquisitor, a mage hunter. Your task is to hunt down every last mage, tear out their still beating hearts, and devour them. Yuck, right? Like, they don’t even give you any hot sauce or anything, just “eat this heart, bitch!”

So you drink a potion, perform a little ritual, and are escorted to the front lines of the war between the kingdom and the mages…where you are promptly and unceremoniously killed. But hey, good news! The magebane ritual worked for you, and you can’t die. With the help of “Guiltless Shards” (Likely a riff off of Human Effigies from Dark Souls 2) you can rejoin the ranks of the living to recover your full health and stamina.

Here is where the first frustration with the setting creeps in. Without consuming Guiltless Shards, your character is always at a disadvantage. Stamina drains quicker, and about a quarter of the health bar is lopped off, so any attacks, even from smaller minions, becomes way more punishing. Additionally, at the start of the game, your supply of health potions is quite stingy. Also, regardless of which class you choose, their stats are all garbage. Like, the Cleric of Dark Souls 2 garbage. (If you didn’t play it, the Cleric started out so weak that they couldn’t even wield their own starting weapon without two-handing it, or wear pants without fat rolling.) Your first few hunts have to be made in this half-dead state, with garbage stats and crap gear. It’s not “tough but fair,” or “challenging but rewarding,” or any other coded phrase meant to make tough games seem more approachable to a wider audience. It’s just a hard game to get into. Really, really hard.

As an added frustration, during character creation, there’s no explanation of any of the equipment, something both Dark Souls AND Salt & Sanctuary offered. For instance, you have to pick a crime that your character committed, which gives one starting item. You don’t even get a hint of what these items are, or how they help your character, so you just have to pick one at random. This is true for all starting equipment. My first class was a high blade, only because I thought, “Well, that looks like a katana, so…dex build, I guess?” Only after making other characters did I learn how similar all the class stats are, a huge break from all Souls games. So again, no matter who you start with, you have no advantages against the mages.

Killing your first mage immediately unlocks the next hunting zone, but I highly recommend avoiding it until killing at least the first three named mages to get a better feel for movement and also put some levels into your build. You might even want to farm one mage for a few times to make their armor and some weapons to replace your crap starting gear. Beyond Ashbourne Village, the starting area, everything just gets harder, so without upgrades to armor and weapons, you might as well go in naked and armed with a toothpick.

Now, let me be clear. If you don’t bounce off of the difficultly level, eventually the game opens up to offer more…fun? Like, I have sunk 220 hours into the game across three characters to try almost all the weapons, and I have frequently had sessions where I cackled maniacally while carving a gruesome path through the mages and their minions. I’ve also had awful times because three or four mages all dropped into the same tiny area and filled it with so many summoned minions that it was impossible to move, much less dodge or attack. Those moments almost always resulted in a death, and it just feels so cheap to be killed by “rush hour traffic” when there is literally no skill you can use to get out of the mess.

The other frustration lies in the controls, which sometimes feel too restrictive, and other time are unresponsive. One of the first movement upgrades you get is a grappling hook, which seems like it might be totally liberating. But many grapple points only work in specific directions. So for instance, you can’t jump up and grapple the first tether point you see, even if it’s just above you. No, first you have to jump toward a wall farther away, jump off the wall, and then launch the hook. It drove me crazy how I couldn’t latch onto something two meters over my head, but after jumping off a wall, suddenly the rope length was able to stretch up to ten meters to reach the same grapple point. Oh, and lest I forget, the window of time to throw the hook out is fucking minuscule. It’s so tiny that I developed the habit of triple tapping the right trigger to make damn sure I was going to swing over a chasm instead of plunging to my death. Even then, I plunged to my death a lot. (My husband got real tired of hearing me shout, “No! Shitshitshitshitshit fuck!”)

One final note on the controls is that there doesn’t appear to be any kind of input buffer. So if I dodge roll away from a boss and need to drink a health potion, if there’s even one frame of dodge roll animation left, my press of the shoulder button is ignored. This often leads to a chain of panic rolls followed by shouts like “Drink, damn you, DRINK!”

With that out of the way, let’s get to the real meat of the gameplay, the bosses. They come in two flavors in each area, with a third related to NPC quests. The mages are all some flavor of “mancer,” which become steadily more ludicrous as they come out of hiding. There’s a mechanomancer, a giant walking mechsuit whose minions look like tributes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a sanguimancer, which is really just a vampire with as stupider name, a corpumancer who made a flesh suit similar to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, a chronomancer with a giant working clock strapped to his butt, and a bibliomancer who is a right proper bible thumper. (By which I mean he’s going to beat you to death with his book.) In all cases, I stopped using their real titles almost immediately in favor of made up titles like Shocko, Snakey McSnakeman, Mecha Man, Frosty, and Windy Blowjob. (My own characters were named Lady Zerp, Zappo McZapzap, and Shildius McBloko, so obviously I took all of this very seriously.)

Mages can be found freely roaming areas or as part of hunts. Whether a named, nameless, or fated hunt, the real target will always leave behind a faint trail to track them with. But say for instance you just go to an area to explore or gather resources (more on that later), and you run into a mage that you decide to fight. In this case, said mage will drop some minions and teleport away until they’ve lost a certain amount of health and decide to stand and fight to the death. Those kinds of mages don’t leave a magical vapor trail until they’re very close to fighting, which can make them harder to track. I’ve lost as much as 10 minutes wandering around before finally finding my target, only for the bastard to drop two more minions and flit away before I could get close enough for an attack. These kinds of fights always brought me such joy.

Oh, and there is a “fun” little glitch that can happen to mages, in that they can randomly decide they’re immortal. I’ve seen this with roaming mages who have no visible health bar more often, but even in fighting mages with health bars, sometimes they will just have a little sliver left, yet even as you continue to whack away at them, they won’t go down. In some cases, this state only lasts a few seconds, but in the more extreme instances, I’ve had to fight a mage for upwards of five minutes on that one last damned hit point before they finally stopped glitching. In several cases in early game runs, I had to abandon roaming mage hunts because I had nothing left to fight with, and they were still adamant about staying upright. It’s even worse for a Fated Hunt because your character is locked in an arena with nothing but death as an exit option.

Moving along, the second kind of bosses are named guardians, and some are clearly still paying homage to Dark Souls bosses like Quelaag and Ornstein and Smough, while others seem to be new creations. The homage characters are actually the easier bosses to fight in the whole game because they have tells and patterns that are easy to learn. On the other hand, there were guardians like The Green Huntsman and Marega Gredanya who both had little to no time between attacks. The learning curve for these two was so high that I had fits trying to kill them for the longest time. When I finally beat The Green Huntsman after TWO DAYS of attempts, I put down my controller and got up to shake my hands to ease the stress tremors out of them. Then once that was in order, I had to try breathing slow to lower my heart rate. There was no joy of overcoming adversity, only a relief that I was finally able to move on. Marega took almost as much time to beat, and with a similar reaction to defeating her. (I will add that when I started up runs with two other classes, these two guardians were much less trouble because I finally had a grasp on what to do and how to avoid their worst attacks.)

Lastly, there are NPC inquisitors you encounter in each area that lead to boss fights with them. I’ve seen only two of these, but there may be a third that I just couldn’t figure out where he went next in his story line. In any case, one boss is a soldier who keeps asking you for Guiltless Shards as he falls to the mages you kill. Eventually he’ll become fixated on “the peaceful dead” and attack you, forcing you to kill him and grant him freedom from his never ending duty. The other is a scholar who begins his journey insisting that magic isn’t really bad, just misunderstood. Obviously he eventually hulks out as a really devastating bird themed mage who will easily two-shot even heavily fortified characters. Both of these NPC fight were exceptionally challenging, forcing me to come up with strategies specific to them because everything I’d used against other bosses didn’t apply.

So…what’s left? Resource gathering. Everything in your arsenal, from health potions, ammo for ranged attacks, mana potions for “focus” attacks, down to antidotes for poisons are crafted using supplies found in the field. You can buy them from merchants as you rescue them and bring them to your central hub, but they are quite expensive, and at first your intake of silver is low and slow. There will be times in early to mid-game where you will go on resource runs. You’ll look for red bushes to harvest valley herb and blood fruits for health recovery, haze spirit from stone cairns to recover focus, whispleaf to craft antidotes, and mine irona ore from crystal deposits to make more ranged ammo. (The last one is a bit silly because you use the same material whether your ranged attack is an arrow, a knife, or a magic blast of elemental damage.)

This kind of trek is not optional, and you do not want to be locked in a high-tier fated hunt only to discover that you have no ammo and no healing potions. (Or with Snakey McSnakeman, out of antidotes while you are losing health at an alarming rate thanks to his toxic status effect.) Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to take time away from the more exciting bits, but like the saying goes, an ounce of prevention will keep the mages from killing your dumb ass. Or something like that.

Oh, and I cannot fail to address the other resource gathering elephant in the game, the grind and how Luck is NOT an optional stat.  As I mentioned early on, mage squishy bits are combined to form equipment, and mages drop special stones to upgrade all your gear. But once you get past the twin pyrstone level, which is still low level garbage rank stuff, trying to gather pyrstone trios, clusters, and bricks involves a hellscape of waiting days for Fated Hunts with the right kind of high-tier mages, followed by a fifteen to twenty minute hunt, only to see that the felled mage didn’t drop anything but low-tier trash. I spent a week killing Frosty mages trying to upgrade my armor, and for every four I killed, I might get one frospyr cluster. You need twelve clusters to level up your armor to the pentultimate rank, followed by four bricks, which only drop from very, very powerful mages. (And yes, you can find one brick or three clusters in bags scattered in the later areas, but when you need six bricks, bare minimum, for a full set of armor and weapons, that one free brick is more like a slap in the face than a gift.)

The only thing that can make this kind of hunt less hellish is dropping points into luck, and while there are whips that scale their damage with luck, for everyone else, luck is just there to take away from your actual damage dealing stats like dexterity, strength, arcana, and conviction. So, you may be tempted to skip luck because it doesn’t do anything for your DPS. (damage per second for the noobs.) DON’T DO IT. Skimping on luck means adding days or even weeks to your quest to upgrade your gear. My first character had starting-level luck, and I needed 150 hours to get my weapons maxed out. I still couldn’t get my armor past mid-level ranks. My other two character both have a luck around 20-30, and they both got higher ranking gear with much less grind time.

So at this point, I need to pause the review to complain. Why do game makers at all levels not respect our time? Why must I spend weeks grinding for raw materials just to ensure later sections of the game are slightly less hellish? I am sick to death of having to level up “Item discovery” in games when all it does is improve the chances of a rare loot drop from 5 to 6 percent, even after I’ve dumped 10 or 20 points into that stat. Item discovery is a bullshit padding technique to artificially inflate game time. Take away this kind of grind and most of these games can be beaten in a few hours, and speed runners are proof that this grind is all just meant to keep the rest of us mediocre players on a fucking hamster wheel for no good goddamn reason other to add a label like “hundreds of hours of fun” somewhere in their product description. Well, with no due respect, fuck that shit. Item discovery needs to die. In fact, let me double down on that. ITEM DISCOVERY NEEDS TO FUCK OFF AND DIE PAINFULLY AND SLOWLY IN A DITCH FULL OF DIARRHEA!

Ahem. I now return you to the actual review.

What else? While getting a graphical overhaul, it’s clear that there are a lot of reused assets from the prior game, including returning enemies and even bosses. (Hi, Mad Alchemist. I so did not miss you.) There’s a reskinned dragon boss, but instead of breathing fire, he is now blue and has frost breath that covers the entire arena. So, pro-tip: learn to block because dodge rolling away from his breath will just get you killed in two seconds. ASK ME HOW I KNOW! It’s not really a complaint that critters and sound effects got recycled into the sequel, just a statement of fact. Lots of the big game makers also do this, and Ska is a really small studio, so this is perfectly understandable.

The music is good for all the regions. Some, like the desert, are worth finding a safe spot to put down the controller and just chill with the song for a bit. I feel like some of it has been recycled or upcycled from the last game, but I’d have to play the first game again to be sure.

Lastly is the part I really can’t review, the co-op and invasion options. It’s not that I didn’t try, mind you. But I did one co-op attempt that landed me in a game with someone clearly in new game plus. I hit a common enemy with my heavily upgraded sword for like 10 points of damage, and then he slapped me for seven eighths of my health bar. I sucked down three health potions and ran to catch up to my partner, who started The Green Huntsman fight. Then I was killed with one arrow and said to myself, “Welp, I guess online play is for someone else to review.”

I come to the end of this review feeling deeply conflicted about how to score it, and who to recommend it to. As I said before, this is a hard game, one that a lot of folks will bounce off of before ever getting anywhere close to the good bits. Are there good bits? Sure, or else I wouldn’t have sunk 200-plus hours into playing it, with future plans to play more. Moreover, it’s getting me inspired to go back and play the first game with a different mindset about certain builds that I hadn’t considered. To me, that makes it money well spent. But there were often times when only my stubborn wounded pride kept me from binning this game, either for making yet another high-level mage hunt only to get garbage loot again, or for running into a boss who made all my efforts look pathetic.

In the end, I give Salt & Sacrifice 4 stars, with the caveat that I can only recommend it to the folks who are okay with being abused by both bosses and the daily grind. I cannot stress enough that at times, the grind made this feel like work more than play. But if you’re okay with that, then this might be a good time for you. Otherwise, I’d suggest approaching this with caution after it goes on sale. I mean, if you’re going to bounce out of it, you might as well get that frustration at a steep discount, right?