Salt and Sanctuary review: praise the sun

We review a 2D platformer inspired by Dark Souls in our Salt and Sanctuary review. Does this tribute act live up to its inspiration?

Salt and Sanctuary is proof that originality is overrated. How else can you explain the brilliance of this 2D platformer, which copies the Dark Souls playbook to a tee and sill manages to offer an experience that is memorable – nay – magical? This is a game that gives us sanctuaries (or bonfires as they’re known in Dark Souls), salt (souls) and red flasks (Estus), yet stages a tribute act that feels every bit as good as its inspiration.
The conclusion I draw is that there’s nothing wrong with lifting ideas from another game providing you’re willing to tinker with the foundations. After all, Dark Souls is the sum of ideas found in classic titles like Metroid, Castlevania and Berserk, re-worked and channeled into stunning 3D.
Salt and Sanctuary simply does the same, in reverse, transplanting the Souls playbook into a retro 2D mould. Its success is down to the fact that it commits to the template before plunging you into a world that has been gleefully reinterpreted, with a new viewpoint giving you a fresh look at the formula.
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It’s impressive stuff from a tiny studio on a shoestring budget and arrives at a time when 2D gaming is going through a renaissance. Salt and Sanctuary is here to remind us that you don’t need bells and whistles to be exciting, and has shipped exclusively for PCs and PlayStation 4, heralding a major win for Sony over its long-time console rival Microsoft. This, by the way, is exactly the sort of indie title Microsoft is losing out on thanks to its handling of the Xbox One.
Salt and Sanctuary Review
 
In Salt and Sanctuary, you‘re a shipwrecked sailor marooned on a mysterious island. The choice is yours: get off the rock or die trying. Whether by coincidence or design, Salt and Sanctuary elicits the same emotions as the game it aspires to be: the exhilaration of discovering a new location and the dread of exploring it; the panic of a boss fight and the joy of overcoming it. Dark Souls aficionados will feel right at home here, with every step pregnant with expectation.
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The similarities don’t end there. Salt and Sanctuary offers up covenants, blacksmiths and a full-bodied leveling system. Even the early in-game tutorial is nothing more than a series of messages sprinkled in bottles along the sand (a glorious nod to the idea that you’ve come from the sea) while NPCs you encounter spout cryptic riddles, a legendary trope of the Souls series. 
Salt and Sanctuary is intentionally light on story, then, but by virtue of its small budget, it doesn’t have any spoken dialogue too. Ironically, that ends up being a good thing, because it adds to the game’s dreamy, ethereal atmosphere, a mood it can call all its own.

Salt and Sanctuary Review
NPCs talk in riddles – an obvious nod to Dark Souls.

Salt is the currency of this forsaken land, and the more enemies you slay the more of it you acquire. Whenever you die, your salt is taken by the enemy that killed you and you have one opportunity to claim it back before its lost forever. Beating a particularly hard boss and acquiring a boatload of the stuff – only to run headlong into a pack of enemies – gives the game an exquisite sense of dread, and Salt and Sanctuary never lets you put your guard down.

“I’ve yet to play a copycat this clever, this darned addictive.”

Your hard-earned cash can be spent on improving your character. Each time you level up you’re granted a black pearl, which goes towards a skill tree. The branches of the tree flourish outwards from the centre like roots burrowing through the ground, with every tendril housing an attribute you can buy, tied to one of six overarching categories: strength, endurance, dexterity, willpower, magic and wisdom.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll concentrate on the first while ignoring the last two completely, but you can’t cover them all, and the tree is an elegant evolution of the Dark Souls system.

Salt and Sanctuary Review
The skill tree is a neat mechanic which gives you a good degree of choice over the type of character you want to mould.

Best you level up too, because Salt and Sanctuary is hard. Every location has its own distinct flavour with striking embellishments and enemies lying in wait. These arenas can take hours to explore and are capped off by a boss fight; glorious set-pieces against demons with wonderful Souls-inspired names, like the Disembowled Husk and the Queen of Smiles.
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These dastardly mutations require patience and perseverance to overcome, and will feel different from one person to the next. I struggled against the Kraeken Wyrm, for instance, a dragon that spits fire, while people online talked about how easy it was. Hours later, I beat the Disemboweled Husk on my second try while those same commentators bemoaned its existence.
Every encounter for every single person is different, and it all depends on the class you choose and the character you build. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and the game gives you the freedom to create someone that plays as close to your strengths as possible.
Salt and Sanctuary Review
 
It’s worth mentioning the levels themselves, which are simply marvellous, and one of the best bits about Salt and Sanctuary. The developers make use of every darned pixel, capitalising on the verticality of their world by burying secrets high in its ceilings and deep in the bowels of its darkest recesses.
The 2D design winds up being as liberating as any 3D design ever could, taking you through a series of intricate maps filled with ingenious shortcuts. The entire world is interconnected, you realize, with levers opening up clever pathways back to areas you’ve explored before, and new abilities making old areas worth exploring with fresh eyes.

“It’s impressive stuff from a tiny studio on a shoestring budget and arrives at a time when 2D gaming is going through a renaissance.”

Faults? I have just one. Towards the end of the 30-hour runtime, Salt and Sanctuary gives you too many annoying jumping puzzles to navigate, with ledges and jumps that can spell instant death.
I understand the principle behind adding a fresh challenge (and yes, the entire game is built around the idea that platforming skill will determine how many secrets you find), but it winds up making Salt and Sanctuary feel unforgiving.Thankfully, this annoyance pales in the face of an almost blemish-free experience which I enjoyed during my Salt and Sanctuary review.
Salt and Sanctuary Review
 
This is a $17 title that could easily command a $60 asking price, and the internet is currently brimming with players discussing its every minute detail; a game that serves as the perfect tonic before Dark Souls III is released on Tuesday.
But even if Dark Souls III proves to be the best game of 2016, Salt and Sanctuary deserves to be in the running for second best. We rarely get it this good, and I’ve yet to play a copycat this clever, this darned addictive. Salt and Sanctuary has instantly joined the halls of 2D royalty but it’s legitimately better than most 3D offerings too. Dark Souls: doff your cap. Salt and Sanctuary is worth praising the sun for.
Score: 9.5/10

About the author: Edward received a review code of the game and spent 30 hours completing it on PlayStation 4 for this Salt and Sanctuary review. The campaign was completed once. He briefly tried NG+ before writing this review.