Fashioned by the hands of the talented husband and wife team at Ska Studios, Salt & Sanctuary is a 2D Action/RPG inspired by Dark Souls and PlayStation era Castlevania. If you’re unfamiliar with their previous work, I would recommend checking out their library, as every game I’ve played by them has been great in its own right, including Zombies and Pterodactyls, The Dishwasher series, and Charlie Murder.
Ska Studios consists of James and Michelle Silva, who develop smaller indie games that are throwbacks to classic genre games. They’ve covered beat-em-ups, Zelda-likes, side-scrolling shooters, twin-stick shooters, and now, with Salt & Sanctuary, side-scrolling RPGs.
Title: Salt and Sanctuary
Creator: Ska Studios
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Personal Purchase
Interface: PS4 Controller
Salt & Sanctuary kicks off with you below deck in a ship where you create your character. The depth of this game immediately presents itself; You select things ranging from the typical “class” of your character, to the atypical heritage or “origin.” While selecting your character’s heritage, a world map appears giving you insight on some of the game’s lore. As you can expect from a Dark Souls-like game, you have a ton of options, but not very much detail on what you’re selecting.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Salt & Sanctuary has tons of depth. Every time I found something that added to the lore, I felt like I was pulling out the next piece of a matryoshka doll. It captivated me in a way the original Dark Souls did back in 2011. In the massive skill tree, every node has a piece of lore tied to it, with different clauses and paragraphs from in-game texts throughout the ages. It really gives this standalone game a healthy and intriguing universe to explore.
This skill tree is massive and it feels fun to put skill points into it. When you level up, you’re granted black pearls, which are this game’s version of skill points. Throw some black pearls into a node to unlock a skill or an attribute point. You will feel your character getting stronger, which isn’t always the case in this type of game. An interesting mechanic in the skill tree is the addition of grey pearls. You can use grey pearls to remove black pearls from nodes, but keep the branch of the tree open to more upgrades. This is a big help when you are trying building a specific kind of characters.
Sanctuaries are another main mechanic (as you might guess), and come into play right after you get off the boat and arrive on the island which the game takes place. An introductory NPC explains the different creeds available to you in the beginning of the game. These creeds are based on the covenants of Dark Souls, but serve more of a PvE purpose, as there is no PvP in Salt & Sanctuary. The Stone Roots creed, for example, can provide with you poisoned throwing knives useful for a rouge, while the Goddess of Light creed offers more healing items befitting a paladin. You’ll find idols on your quest that will provide upgrades to your sanctuaries, such as blacksmiths, merchants, alchemists and more.
Salt & Sanctuary’s gameplay is very fun. In my playthroughs, I used a rogue who specializes in poison, as well as a paladin who practiced healing prayers. Both of these playthroughs were very different in subtle ways, even though combat seems simple on the surface. You’ll have access to light and heavy attacks on the 2D plane, as well as being able to dodge roll with invincibility frames, à la Dark Souls. You are able to jump and platform in many of the areas, giving the battles a greater sense of scale. Stamina and health management is essential, as you can get fatigued or wounded, which lowers your overall stamina and health bars. Your left hand can wield a variety of things like greatshields for blocking, small shields for parrying, or even torches to light the area, which is often pitch dark. Each weapon feels and plays quite differently and allows for tons of build variety, and I haven’t even talked about the different magical play styles between sorcery and prayer.
The combat can be difficult, but it’s always rewarding. I constantly found myself having a lot of fun playing this game. So much fun that I brought my PS4 over to multiple friend’s houses, not only for them to try it, but for us to play co-op together. Yes, this game has couch co-op. Just when you thought it wouldn’t get any better, huh?
Like I said, this game has depth, and I can’t stress that enough. In addition to all this, I have to mention the excellency of the exploration of the island. If you love the exploration in games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Super Metroid, or, as in the previously mentioned Souls series of games, you will not want to pass this game up. It features the fear and dread of Souls with the puzzle solving and platforming of Metroidvania titles.
You’ll find power-ups through your exploration that give you access to previously unreachable areas, which can host anything from new weapons or items, to entire new areas, some of which are even optional. It was mind boggling seeing how large this game really is, as it took me over twenty hours to complete one playthrough. I actually beat Dark Souls II AND Dark Souls III faster than I beat Salt and Sanctuary, and it wasn’t because it was harder, but because of how much time I spent exploring and finding secrets the game hosted.
Beyond that, if you’re a fan of Ska Studios’ art style, you’ll know what to expect from the aesthetics of the game. They produce a lot of cartoonish looking games but with a very grim and gory style to them. The designs of the standard enemies range from zombies, to disgusting monstrosities and will make you fear every step you take into a new zone. The bosses are no exception to this rule, and, while some are cosmetically simple, others are grotesque otherworldly creatures not outside of Lovecraftian lore.
Which brings me to a final thought — this game is truly on par with games like Dark Souls and Symphony of the Night. I’m absolutely blown away that it was created with such a small team, as its quality is that of a massive studio. It was clearly designed lovingly, with homage in mind, but still takes on a completely new life of its own. While it borrows many ideas of other titles, it mashes them together with a blend of its own lore, themes and style, which may in itself inspire other independent developers to do the same.
Salt & Sanctuary absolutely has the potential of being my Game of the Year, and that’s with it matched up against some of my personal favorites like Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda, and Star Fox. If you enjoy Souls and Metroidvania games, or are just looking for a new indie game experience, I cannot recommend Salt & Sanctuary enough.
Salt & Sanctuary is available now on the PS4 for $18, and will be available for the PSVita and PC in the near future.