If you’re a fan of Dark Souls and/or Castlevania, stop reading this review and just go buy Salt and Sanctuary right now. You’ll love it. Not only is Salt and Sanctuary a fantastic distillation of the Dark Souls formula to 2D, it is also one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve ever played. Either one of those would make the game an easy recommendation but both turns it into a must play.
On a mechanics level, Salt and Sanctuary functions very similarly to Dark Souls. There are several starting classes to choose from, but you’re not locked in to the choice. The world is filled with dangerous creatures that won’t hesitate to take you on. Dodging and blocking are not optional. Every action drains some of your stamina. There are health potions that are restocked when you stop at a sanctuary. All enemies respawn after resting at a sanctuary. Dying makes your killer absorb all your salt (souls). Salt can be used to level up and upgrade equipment. Even what a majority of the rings do will be familiar to any Souls player.
There are a few key differences though. In Salt and Sanctuary, you also earn gold which can be used to buy items and equipment, and when you die, you only lose 10% of gold on hand. There’s also a wounding mechanic where your maximum HP goes down when you get hit. It doesn’t matter how many health potions you have, eventually you’ll be dealing with a halved HP bar that can only be cured by visiting a sanctuary.
Sanctuaries are your bases of operation and can be customized, if its creed matches your own. Up to four different characters can be summoned to each sanctuary and only if you have the correct offering. For example, a guide allows you to fast travel, a blacksmith can upgrade equipment, and a leader presents ways to increase devotion to the creed,. It’s a nice addition that ensures you won’t have to return to some obscure location to upgrade something.
Leveling up is a different affair as well. Each level grants you a point to spend on a giant skill tree that is somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy 10’s sphere grid. Every spot on the tree raises a different stat or grants the ability to use higher tier weapons and armor. It’s not a new system in and of itself but it adds some needed customization to the Metroidvania style.
Taking a page from Castlevania, throughout your journey in Salt and Sanctuary you’ll find brands that allow you to access new areas of the map via traversal abilities. Some of these are as simple as going through barriers but others are a touch more unique.
Salt and Sanctuary has a lot in common with Dark Souls but it is obviously a 2D game and that makes a lot of the combat and exploration feel like Castlevania. As a big fan of that series, I am pleased to say Salt and Sanctuary almost perfectly nails the feel of Castlevania. Throughout the approximately 20 hour journey, you’ll explore this mysterious island and see area after area of lovingly crafted environments, all interconnected wonderfully and filled with shortcuts and secrets. Not all areas are created equal but for every one that wasn’t spectacular, there was another that was a pure joy to progress through.
Perhaps more importantly for this type of game, the combat is fast and fun with plenty of weapon variety to satisfy your personal play style. Mixing between fast and strong attacks can create different combos, and so will tilting the control sick in different directions while attacking. This adds even more variety and complexity to melee combat that you don’t see in Castlevania. Salt and Sanctuary also does a great job of introducing new enemies throughout the entire adventure and mixing them all together. Some are more devious than others and require judicious dodging; others need to be dealt with quickly before they can zap you with powerful spells.
The mixture of fun combat and exploration makes for an adventure that can be tough to put down. When you’ve fought you’re way into unknown territory, you’ll be faced with the same tough decision that Dark Souls and Castlevania both present: Do you dare press onward? This gameplay loop is tried and true, and works perfectly here.
My only real issue with the combat is that when many of these large, powerful creatures land an attack, your character goes flying in the opposite direction and oftentimes into a long descent that kills you. It can feel very unfair when an enemy didn’t get the best of you, it just happened to knock you through a hole in the floor three screens over. In boss battles this doesn’t matter (except for one fight), but it leads into my only other small gripe with the combat: your character takes forever to stand back up. It can take so long to get back up that the enemy, or boss, will be able to hit you again, tossing you across the map another time. It’s a minor complaint, I know, but it can be frustrating when enemies are playing pinball with your character’s body.
Speaking of bosses, they are a highlight of Salt and Sanctuary. Although not as deep or as difficult as Dark Souls bosses, they fit the 2D style well and feel like a good cross between Souls and Castlevania. They are all visually very different and it’s a blast to learn their attack patterns. Some of the bosses can be cheap and require extreme amounts of resistance to a certain element just to survive, but most offer a satisfyingly fair challenge. I do wish some bosses had more HP though, if only to savor the fight a bit more.
Unlike in Dark Souls or Castlevania, the bosses in Salt and Sanctuary don’t mean much to the story and are really just level appropriate and nothing more. Compare that to Death waiting at the top of the clock tower or Dracula taunting you along the way through the castle. Overall, the setup is motivating but nothing extraordinary. The few characters you meet along the way are interesting but offer little in the way of lore or plot. I couldn’t tell you the name of anything or anyone besides a handful of bosses – not that that’s a bad thing.
It is also worth noting there is a good amount of platforming in Salt and Sanctuary. For the most part all the jumping around you have to do is well set up and implemented. However, the platforming is so reliant on the character’s ability to grab onto the edge of ledges that it sometimes becomes a nuisance. To clarify, in most games similar to this one you jump around and land on your feet. In Salt and Sanctuary, half the jumps are ones where you must aim the character’s head to the corner of a platform in order for them to latch on. Most of the time that works without a hitch but there are a handful of jumps throughout the game that are so unintuitive I leapt to my death several times.
For one jump in particular, I didn’t even think it was possible until I learned a new ability. In reality, I simply had to jump at the last possible millisecond. No, this wasn’t a jump in the middle of a level after a difficult platforming section, this was the first jump after a sanctuary. Jumps like that one make no sense. It’s not fun to be forced to do these semi-difficult jumps and rely on the character grabbing the edge all the time. Things would be different if there was some leeway, but these jumps require you to hit the edge at the apex of the jump. In a game where that isn’t required 99 percent of the time, it kills the flow that the platforming and exploration build up. When adventuring in Salt and Sanctuary, I should be worried about the enemies or the bosses, not the hit box for an awkward jump.
After roughly 22 hours of playtime, I had done almost everything in the game—in fact I’m only missing 2 trophies for the platinum. This time might be short for a Dark Souls game but it’s actually pretty long for a 2D Metroidvania, so I have to commend the two person team at Ska Studios for all the content that is in the game. There’s multiplayer, new game plus, and plenty of secrets and strategies to try out. Not to mention the many different weapons and magic you can use. For those who want to dive right back in, there’s a lot to offer.
Salt and Sanctuary borrows heavily from Dark Souls and Castlevania but in the end it is its own finely tuned beast. And one I couldn’t stop playing until I reached the end.
Not only is Salt and Sanctuary a fantastic distillation of the Dark Souls formula to 2D, it is also one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve ever played. Either one of those would make the game an easy recommendation but both turns it into a must play.