Salt and Sanctuary - PS4 Review

Let’s preface this by stating that if you’re a fan of the Soulsborne games, then this may be right up your alley. Taking similar aspects of the Soulsborne series and putting them into a new format, Salt and Sanctuary is a great new take on this Dark Fantasy genre. You start off in a character creator, where you have a choice of classes and physical customization options before you are thrown onto a ship. The ship is getting attacked by something and a Princess, unknown to us, has been kidnapped. You get killed by a gigantic monster at the top of the ship (death to a big tough boss right off of the bat? Check), and wake up on a shore somewhere. Quickly, you’ll meet up with someone to converse with (say yes to his questions) and you can set up your first sanctuary - the game’s safe points.

In a sanctuary, you have multiple options including leveling up and setting skills with items gained in doing so. If your sanctuary is setup to your chosen deity, then you can also make an offering from stone statues located around the land. These include things like stores and multiplayer (this latter one summoned through the sellsword statue). However, multiplayer seems to be limited to local co-op, and potential for PvP, though again, it’s local. If there is a way to actually interact with others online, I never stumbled onto it.

The combat system of the game is very fun, and the game is played as an action platformer. Some weapons combo more than others, with a sword being able to throw groups of people into the air and perform multiple hits while the whip, which has one attack, is the same for both air or ground swipes. You can also combo with spells and secondary projectiles - Crossbows and Pistols - by ending your combo with a dash backwards, and a short forwards. On the subject, shooting takes some getting used to. You can never be truly 100% accurate, and it’s a difficult thing to control, due to it being fidgety with the control sticks. Eventually, it gets easier to use it mid-combat, but it never becomes easily possible to use this for long range, with great accuracy. With somewhat skittish controls on it, combined with a limited amount of time to aim, you’ll likely have to take multiple shots if from afar, just to find out where you need to shoot the rest of them. That kind of trial and error while using limited ammunition supplies is not ideal.

This doesn’t end up being too huge a deal, but it makes the bow a bad choice as a main piece of weaponry. I recommend keeping the crossbows and pistols for an offhand weapon, if you want to forego a shield. And believe me, you do. Shields in souls games are often a strong way to get through PvE, being able to reaction-block projectiles or incoming attacks, or keep a giant tower shield up, and block everything coming that way. In Salt and Sanctuary, they aren’t too viable. Due to the way enemies attack, you’ll usually need to keep a shield up for long periods of time to continue blocking, because most enemies have low downtime between attacks, or even flurries of them. This will either drain your stamina or your patience, because it makes it difficult to counterattack. In the Souls games, shielding most attacks causes the enemy to recoil, giving you an ample chance to counterattack. Either this, or if they’re a bigger threat, they’ll have an extended amount of downtime - at least enough to get a hit or two in before raising guard. However, enemies in Salt don’t have either of these. Most enemies in the game provide little chance for attacking through manipulating their downtime. And there’s no recoil to anyone hitting something, and that includes your shield. Like the ranged aiming, this just feels like one of the compromises in moving to a 2D platform, because there is less detail in the bodies and animations to cue you in for timing purposes.

The biggest kicker is that there’s a parry, but it’s too difficult to utilize, thus making it more of a detriment to attempt. Because most enemies don’t have much - or any - wind up to their attacks, it becomes more of a guessing game than skill. You should be able to assess, mid-combat how you’d be able to parry an attack by judging when they’re about to swing and how fast they’re going to strike. But combat doesn’t last long enough against most enemies to make this possible, so you’re either going to fumble trying or you have to end up fighting the enemy a large number of times to possibly understand how they work. This ends up being a big issue as the game progresses, largely in a later castle. This is the area where I became frustrated with how the game created difficulty. In Souls games, things aren’t necessarily unfair, rather they’re difficult, and have easily exploited weaknesses that don’t just stem from stat-checking the enemy or finding an unintended way to fight them. Obviously, there are outliers, as all games will have, but the formula is tried and true, and works well for the Souls games.

In the Souls games, despite everything that the enemy has over the player, the player has a way to exploit them. The enemy will attack often, without a stamina detriment, but they leave themselves open. The enemy can hold a shield forever, but a player can break their guard, leaving them wide open to retaliation. An enemy can deal half of your life in a single hit, but they’ll attack slowly, and methodically. This leaves them open to counterattacks. Some enemies attack super fast, but don’t deal much damage per hit, and don’t take much of a beating before going down. There’s rarely an ‘unfair’ mechanic, something without counter-play. Some attacks can’t be blocked, but they can be dodged with the roll button. Some attacks attack in a wide sweep, making it only possible to dodge one way or hope you can block through it. But in exchange, they leave the enemy readily open to a counter, if you’re able to dodge it. In Salt, it feels more like the developers simply didn’t want the player to win, or you need to have purely better stats than the enemy, leaving very little skill involved in the match-up (or a lot of luck).

Back to where I started this point, in this castle the enemies were just terribly thought out from what I see. The first thing you encounter is a gigantic, armored shield knight. It’s menacing, many times your size, and it looks like something that might give you a fun, fair fight. You expect it to be slow, but be something where, if you mess up a dodge, you lose. That’s what I was expecting. What I got was something that would use low windups, or can combo without a windup, and would do over half my health in a hit. And did I mention that some of its attacks are ranged, despite not having any way to tell they may or may not be, sending a shockwave through a very small movement of the shield? Its move set consists of both a shield bash, with a good windup, but a very unassuming animation, without much movement to tip the attack off. The other is a smash with its hammer, which has a great windup, and a great animation, throwing its weapon to the ground with force. They both send out ranged shockwaves, but not both of them should. The shield smash has too small of an animation to warrant such a large attack, or such a wide area of effect. But aside from that, the followup is what gets me.

If you dodge through the knight when it does this attack, you would assume that you can quickly follow up with a hit or two, due to it just exerting itself into an attack that should leave it momentarily staggered. This isn’t the case. Instead, it immediately sends its weapon to the other side, without any windup, and without any indication it would do so. It has the same exact animation, and does the same damage, but lacks all the forethought and counterplay. This means you have to perfectly dodge through him twice to get an attack in, and even then you have little time to react, as it keeps up the flurry of hits, but with a slight downtime between this ‘combo’. And it takes a monstrous amount of damage. This is not a good enemy design, because it relies on luck more than anything, or an extended amount of learning on the player’s part, making it impossible to fight it properly the first time, or even the first few times. It also has more moves than I listed, but that was just an example.

The only real way to fight in this game is to drop the shield, and roll through it all. While this is certainly fine - being the more optimal way of playing through Souls should you be adequate at rolling - it’s depressing to see that it’s the only way to play through. This also makes it hard to want to take heavy armor, because it’ll slow your roll, making it much harder to utilize it. You already have to be near perfect, due to a very low number of invincibility frames, where you’re not able to be hit at all during a roll. This leads into a glass cannon build being most efficient, so that you can kill stuff fast, and still roll properly. Again, it’s not a terrible thing that being squishy is the best way to go. It just feels unbalanced and slants the game to a particular style of play. In the Souls games, I generally end up going for something with medium armor, wielding a strong shield. I keep the medium armor so that I can roll properly, and the shield for something I can’t roll out of, or when a weaker attack will stagger off, to make it an easy counter.

There doesn’t seem to be a technical medium armor in this game, being light or heavy, but by judging the weight you can class it as such. The leveling system makes this a bit difficult though, should you still want to level in a way that lets you get higher damage or utility, either through buffing your stamina or dexterity, or unlocking the ability to use stronger weapons, based on the weapon’s level. It’s a generally interesting idea, and provides different thought to how you’re going to spend your levels. Instead of just getting more stats which lets you wield later weapons, you have to advance to a certain point to use a weapon. The way you unlock skills (through a rather large tree) instead of just stats is actually quite cool, and it works well for the weapons. However, with the armor system, this provides a conflict. You have to do the same for armors, getting higher levels unlocked to you, so that you can carry them around. If you’re trying to get heavier armors, you also need to put points into your carry weight, because you pretty much need to maintain a quick roll if you want to be efficient. The issue with this however, is you’re losing out on damage, because you aren’t putting levels into strength or dexterity, or into unlocking your stronger weapons. This leads to a conflict of being able to take a hit or deal out hits. It makes sense on paper to balance offense with defense, but in the end the armor is so undervalued that you are better off going with my glass cannon approach.

Become too tanky, and you’re taking too long to kill enemies, making it more difficult to win a war of attrition. Over time you’re going to take more damage, since you won’t be able to just kill the quick enemies immediately, making fights more crowded. Salt and Sanctuary is very adept and throwing lots of creatures at you all at once. However, if you stat only into damage, you’ll obviously die fast should you take hits. It still seems the optimal way to go, but makes the game feel cheap since it is already hard to detect when an enemy is going to strike, and now you can only take 2-3 hits before succumbing. As always in a Souls-like game, you can’t expect to take too many hits. This is expected, and appreciated. This gets back to the problem I have with the lack of proper windup animations before attacks.

In all, this game has extra difficulty through downfalls in the system, rather than more fairly elaborated difficulty through complexity in enemies or areas. Despite all these outlined grievances, this game is very good. It has a great overall atmosphere, obviously reminiscent of the Souls games, including similar enemy archetypes. This isn’t a bad thing, since it has a unique art style. Salt's sound design is nice, with a lot of ambient noises alongside the action or exploring. However, something that feels off is every once in a while there will be random rock music which softly plays in the background. It’s neat, but doesn’t usually fit the rest of the game's style. It is also odd because it just seems to happen randomly while I am walking about. It would perhaps at least make sense if some event were triggering it - but nothing of the sort seems to prompt it.

One thing to talk about is how vague the game is. The Souls games, to a degree, have a sense of mystery about the more intricate systems. Reinforcing or infusing weaponry is a little strange to get used to, or know exactly what it’s doing. Hollowing is difficult to tell the effects of at first, and complex fighting mechanics and timing aren’t oft explained properly. However, it has less ‘needlessly complex’ mechanics. Stamina works how you’d think, health makes sense and dying throughout the games makes near-immediate sense as to the penalties. Basic stats take getting used to, and learning scaling is its own beast. But Salt seems to have a large amount of non-explanation. It explains the basic controls, but that’s it. It takes a lot of time to learn what the mechanics are, and certain items (Especially rings) open up confusion as to what they do, since you don’t know what mechanics are called.

There’s a mechanic in Salt for example, where when you get hit, you get wounded. This lowers your maximum health until you heal at a sanctuary. This stacks, but I’m not sure how much of the damage you take is converted, since it was never explained. There’s also a ring that will reduce wounding, but I had no clue what it was, and even for a while had no idea what it was called, because it was never properly brought up. A similar effect is that you can lose focus. This is when you have stamina expenditure, it lowers your maximum stamina, until you get to the sanctuary. There’s a theme here. This one’s even less noticeable unless you’re a spell caster, as it lowers by extremely low amounts when not doing so. But again, there’s a ring that decreases this. Honestly, I have no idea if I would take this ring offhand, even if I were a spell caster, because I had no idea what this did. Random complexity without reason isn’t good, and causes unnecessary confusion. I am okay with trial and error, but perhaps a little less would have been warranted.

My last points will be relatively short ones by comparison to the others. The first is that the item descriptions are off-putting. Often, items will have a large amount of lore in their description, which is great. Helps with world building. The problem is that these are above the description of the actual item. This means you have to scroll down a bit to see what the item does, in most cases. Makes it confusing, and needlessly frustrating, especially when there’s a gigantic body of text for the lore. The next is related to story. The characters seem pretty bland. Perhaps I should look into it more, but there’s practically nothing to them. The story is already really thin, being that you need to save a princess from something, but who knows what that is. There are recurring characters, but honestly they could be completely new each time and I’d be none the wiser. They don’t mean anything, they’re just a model that is infused with zero personality. Most times, the characters don’t say anything of importance.

Little nuggets of actual story might get woven into a dialog box here and there, but most seem very stock emotionally and nothing new to the way they act. The last is the lack of online multiplayer, as I touched on earlier in the review. This one honestly isn’t that big of a deal, or wouldn’t be, if they didn’t tease it. There’s a stone sellsword in the game, which lets you ‘hire a mercenary’, but by this, they mean it lets you play in co-op. But don’t get your hopes up, it’s only local. While this is nice, I would honestly have preferred it be an NPC summon, or at least for it to be described in the item, which only states that it lets your hire a mercenary to assist you. The sellsword also sells you an item for PvPing with your partner, but again, it feels like it’ll be wasted, what with there only being local. And I’m not sure how it works, since I haven’t a chance to make use of it. I can understand them not being able to host servers, but this seems like an odd bit of functionality. I’m also not sure that there’s a way to replace merchants in your sanctuary, but since there’s a max, one of mine has this Sellsword in it, taking up a slot, because I figured it would be more useful.

Overall, this game is good. It’s nothing fantastic, and a good take on the Souls-like games, giving a different perspective in a familiar setting. The general combat is nice on the surface, with combos and quick movement being key. However, it falls short in terms of enemy complexity, usually ending up more annoying than rewarding due to the almost luck-driven way it operates. You beat a difficult enemy and usually it just feels chance and not like an accomplishment. The bosses are pretty well-designed, but I feel as if they need a fog wall, or something to indicate a boss is coming up. Again, it is a little thing, but when a boss beats you, they keep your experience like they do in Bloodborne. Some warning would be nice as I would be walking through an area just thinking to explore, and then suddenly I’m in a fight against some powerful foe, and usually not prepared to actually battle with them. Just be aware of the different kind of difficulty, because it’s just not as fair in general as what you’d be expecting from a Soulsborne title.

Game Information

PlayStation 4
Ska Studios
Ska Studios
Single Player
Other Platform(s):

Article by Chris H.

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