When I first heard about Salt and Sanctuary and I saw the preview video I thought “this looks promising” but honestly had low expectation. I have never played any of the previous Ska Studios games before and have no experience with any of their work, so I have nothing to compare it to. The gameplay videos and artwork I saw convinced me I needed to give the game a shot though and I’m glad I did.
I have been a huge fan of FROM Software since the release of Demon’s Souls on the PS3 which to this day is still one of my favorite games. The formula of hardcore RPG mixed with action gameplay really clicked with me. I just loved the difficulty and fact that as my character was leveling up, so was I. I always thought that Castlevania would translate well to a 3-D game made by FROM Software. I never thought about taking what made the ‘Souls’ games great and translating it to a 2-D platformer in the same vein as Castlevania. That’s exactly what Ska Studios did though, and it’s brilliant.
Ska Studios is a 2 person husband and wife team who did all the art, development, and music for the game. The amazing part is all the art is hand drawn cells. The base human models are comprised of 316 animations and 3969 frames. Just an amazing fact to me and shows how much work was put into this game, and it really shows. The animations are incredibly smooth and the game controls as good as you would expect from a triple A developer.
The gameplay is very satisfying. Just like Dark Souls, encumbrance affects movement speed and stamina. Weapons vary in speed, impact, and effectiveness. The variety of weapons and armor you could find and craft add a lot of options to the game and let you really customize your experience. Not only are there a ton of weapons and armor pieces, but spells, prayers, consumables, and crafting materials are abundant. Definitely a real challenge for those who feel the need to collect everything.
The level designs is fantastic with huge zones that all connect to each other through hidden shortcuts you unlock as you progress. Something that will be very familiar to the Soulsborne fans. Something added to the formula is “brands” which are new abilities you gain by literally being branded with a hot iron. These abilities open up new paths you wouldn’t be able to access in a similar fashion to the abilities you gain in a typical Metroidvania style game. A very welcome addition to a game that adds an awesome platforming experience to the’Souls’ formula. Not all of the platforming is difficult but there are some areas that will frustrate you.
There are a lot of familiar systems to the ‘Souls” games. Instead of bonfires, you level up at Sanctuaries. Sanctuaries and salt shrines also work as checkpoints for when you eventually die. You will restart at the last sanctuary or salt shrine you visited while losing all of your salt (the games equivalent of souls) and a small percentage of gold you collected. You can retrieve your salt by either defeating the enemy who killed you. The catch is that your salt makes the enemy who killed you more powerful. Another thing to note about the sanctuaries is that most of them are affiliated with a certain creed. Creeds are factions you could join that give various benefits. There are 7 different creeds you could join throughout the game, 3 you could pick from at the start and 4 that are hidden throughout the game. You could only choose 1 creed at a time and leaving one creed for another or defiling a sanctuary causes sin. Defiling a sanctuary of a creed will also make all of the followers of that creed throughout the game attack you. Even in different sanctuaries than the ones you defiled. You could use stone idols of various NPCs like merchants, blacksmiths, and guides to summon those NPCs to your sanctuary if you are a member of the creed associated with that sanctuary although you are limited to 4 NPCs per sanctuary and once you add them you’re stuck with them so plan wisely.
The bosses of this game are all fun to fight although some are definitely more frustrating than others and you may find yourself trying to grind a few levels after falling to a boss multiple times. For the most part though I found that playing the slow and steady method to each boss I was leveling up at right about where I needed to be and the fights were very fair. Just being a high level and attacking the boss is not enough though. You will need to master rolling, jumping, and blocking to survive these fights. All of the bosses are different from each other and require a different strategy. Also your strategy will vary based on the class you’re playing and what kind of weapons you’re focusing on. For example I found that my slow moving knight with 2 handed sword had to move quickly and strike quickly to finish the boss off as fast as possible or I would run out of health too quickly. While playing as a fast moving thief I had to slow the fight down and play more defensively because 2 – 3 hits is all it really took to finish me off.
The character customization is pretty good to be honest. Not as varied as a 3-D game but there are a lot of looks you could choose from picking a male or female to hair styles, facial hair, and eye color. Want to play as a bald bearded lady with clear eyes? You’re covered. You also get to pick a class, each of which start with different skills and gear. The variety of classes is typical to a souls game with the exception of the chef who doesn’t really have a counterpart to any of the classes in other souls games. Other than he starts without any skills and at level 1 making him the ultimate blank slate. There is also a pauper class though that is more familiar to souls veterans and also starts at level 1. The skill tree in this game is a thing of beauty. It resembles the sphere grid of Final Fantasy X (which is my personal favorite of the series) with a lot of branching paths that you have to follow to get to more advanced skills. Instead of there being class specific skills you have things like “assassin”, “sword”, and “light armor” giving you the ability to use daggers, swords, and light armor respectively. The nicest part of the skill tree is that all of the paths are connected near the roots of the tree making it very easy to build any kind of character you want. Want to be a whip wielding mage? How about a cleric with a gun? You could combine any paths you want together, but spreading yourself to thin will make it difficult to get to the higher ranks of the skills you want to focus on so I find it best to focus on no more than 2 paths for your first playthrough.
Replay is the name of the game. It’s definitely not a small game with over 20 bosses to fight but it will make you want to replay multiple times. There is new game + up to NG+ 7 giving even more of a challenge. There are multiple ending depending on which creed you are in at the end of the game plus 1 of 2 choices you could make at the end. Also there is something I wish the Souls series would do. It added a challenge mode where you could add certain challenges to a new game like “hardcore” mode where you only have 1 life, “naked” mode which is self explanatory, and “no blocking” which makes things very difficult. Although there is no online multiplayer in the game there is local couch co-op/pvp where you could have a friend pick up a second controller and play along with you. The game does have a soft online mode though like the ‘Souls’ games where you could leave message to other players in the form of a message in a bottle and see how other players died by destroying their tombstone and watching their ghost. Something really cool added to this though is that near the entrance to a boss room or stage there may be people hanging from a noose near the entrance. Those are actually the sprites from other players characters who recently died there and you will notice they change every time you go there. Also there are tall candelabras in front of each of the boss rooms. The number of candles lit shows how many players globally have died to that boss giving you a quick hint at what’s about to be in store for you. I think this was a brilliant design choice.
Overall I think this game is excellent and highly recommend it. My only complaints are things that may be fixed or added in the future like online multiplayer. A couple bosses seemed too easy to me while other bosses too difficult, but that’s more my fault than the games. One thing I would have liked to see is a boss rush mode after you beat the game. It’s something that I really enjoyed in the Castlevania games and since this game is really a love letter to both Hidetaka Miyazaki and Castlevania I feel that it could fit well in the game. Maybe something for future DLC? Probably not but I could hope.
I’ll leave you with a video of a boss fight from my first playthrough.
- Storytelling - 8/108/10
- Art Direction - 10/1010/10
- Sound Design - 9/109/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
This turned out to become one of my all time favorite games since I love the Souls and Castlevania games so much. This is a perfect blending of what made those games so good.