When a game garners a reputation as a “two-dimensional Dark Souls,” you know it’s impressed people — and has a hell of a lot to live up to. Ska Studios, previously known for insanely hyperactive action games on XBLA like The Dishwasher and Charlie Murder, have earned such a description for their next title: Salt and Sanctuary takes many of the ingredients for the Souls series and replicates them in the context of a side-scroller. And while the game does occasionally get a bit too derivative in its 2D-izing of From Software’s work — such as when it outright duplicates the look and feel of some environments and quests — it’s hard to fault Ska for plundering such a rich and well-loved series, especially when the results are as pretty and polished as Salt and Sanctuary.
Soul Salt to the Devil
Outside of a small intro in which you navigate a ship only to be brought up against an unkillable (at first) boss, you’ve got a nice bit of agency and freedom from the moment you start Salt and Sanctuary. You start by customizing some elements of your character and choosing their class, then pick your allegiance to one of three factions once you’re washed ashore into the game’s first level. From there, you can begin exploring: collecting gear and items to bolster your hero, participating in combat and platforming challenges, and eventually taking on the same sort of massive bosses that made the Souls series a household name in gaming. It really is sort of amazing how the action-RPG formula of those games has been distilled down to work in a side-scrolling environment, from the bosses that require a deliberate strategy to defeat to the “salt” system that allows you to level up (get defeated by a boss and they’ll snatch away your salt reserve until you eventually beat them — lose enough times, though, and you can kiss that salt goodbye forever).
That said, it would have been nice to see Ska Studios put a little more of their own personal touch into the proceedings. Sure, there’s probably just enough here to distinguish it from one of From Software’s own ventures, but I can foresee a number of players getting irritated by just how much Salt and Sanctuary borrows — especially when they witness the eerily similar details of certain quests and environments. In any case, all the fun you’d expect is here in spades, and that’s going to be enough for most people who pick up the game; and make no mistake, noting the similarities is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying what it has to offer. Even if you’ve never experienced the joy of soul-farming, rest assured that you’ll have an absolutely fantastic time with Salt as a bit of solid action-RPG fun: if you’re a natural at these kind of games, you’ll enjoy the way it challenges you to beat enemies with the best equipment and best strategies, and if you’re just along for the ride, you’ll appreciate the way it allows you to grind to make up for your lack of skill in the more brutal battles (although it can get kind of repetitive considering the backtracking and platforming required between sanctuaries).
Players who have any experience with Ska Studios’ previous games know that hand-drawn visuals have been a cornerstone of their work. Salt and Sanctuary continues in this tradition, but also has the privilege of taking it in a new direction. While previous art was chaotic, tailor-made for the high-speed action of games like The Dishwasher, this new game’s more deliberate pace allows us more time to stop and absorb the visuals — which is probably why they’re more detailed and intricate than ever before. It’s sort of amazing how their trademark washed-out color schemes and cartoonish character designs remain intact while giving off a completely different (in many ways, more serious) kind of aesthetic vibe than before. Whatever your analysis of the style, though, the most important thing is that it’s absolutely fantastic to look at and lends a real sense of individuality to each of the environments and bosses.
A Retro Gamer’s New Best Friend
If you’re going to pilfer game concepts and ideas, the Souls series is up there as one of the best franchises to take from. Salt and Sanctuary is fairly shameless in the way it replicates elements from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but that’s not really a bad thing when you see how it all comes together as a polished and thoroughly enjoyable final product. Sure, it would have been nice to see Ska Studios put a bit more of their own flavor and identity into the project, but let’s be honest — effectively bringing the gorgeous aesthetic and brutal challenge of From Software’s work together with classic 2D side-scrolling is quite an accomplishment of its own, and players will relish the way that marriage instills a sense of retro nostalgia like never before.
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