Review: Salt and Sanctuary (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed by Adrien Montgomery, posted Aug 6, 2018, last updated Aug 12, 2018
Aug 6, 2018
  • Release Date (NA): August 2, 2018
  • Release Date (JP): August 2, 2018
  • Publisher: Ska Studios
  • Developer: Ska Studios
  • Genres: 2D Action RPG
  • ESRB Rating: Mature
  • Also For: Computer, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
It's the Dark Souls of 2D action platformers, but actually this time.
Adrien Montgomery

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What and why is Salt and Sanctuary?

Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D action platformer with mechanics strikingly similar to the Dark Souls franchise, only with Salt instead of Souls and Sanctuaries instead of Bonfires. Well, the differences between the games run a little deeper than a simple change in terminology, but most everything you see in a typical Soulsborne game has a direct parallel represented here. Corpse runs, a currency for levelling which is dropped upon death, flexibility in stat builds, equipment loads, creeds/covenants, enemies respawning after resting, blocks, parries, dodge rolls; while the game is unabashedly aping the Dark Souls format in many ways, what results is a game which feels less like a two-bit knock-off, and more like a capable repurposing of familiar mechanics into a strange and distinct new experience.

Borne of Salt

Before any action is a character creation screen, where you choose your starting class. While the game gives you a relatively sparse number of choices for each category, it does provide some very... "loud" styles and colors from which to choose, so one can easily craft the anime DeviantArt character of their dreams.

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Each different class starts off with certain stats and skills to wield the weapons you're given, but it's a boost that quickly becomes irrelevant as levels increase. For my first run, I chose the "Chef" class, which gives absolutely no skills whatsoever, weak armor, and naught but an iron frying pan to smack foes, yet it meant little as all equipment gets swiftly replaced. Like the Souls games, an auxiliary personal item is available, untethered to your starting class, which can provide a slight boost. A notable difference, however, is the inclusion of developer-designed challenges that make things more difficult. While the addition of challenge modes is fantastic, as it eliminates the guesswork spent trying to design a challenging yet possible run for oneself, none of these options provide any reward upon completion. As a result, they're purely there for those who like to run challenges, however it would have been a treat to have some kind of bonus for the foolhardy. How great would it be to be gifted a golden frying pan with arcane buffs and high damage after completing the whole game with only a frying pan? The answer is pretty dang great, I would hazard.

And into Blood

Once your character has been crafted, you're dropped into the dank belly of a rocking boat with neither context nor tutorial. (The tutorial actually comes after your first bossfight.) There's a bit of dialogue with one man just ahead as he informs that bandits have overtaken the ship, and instructs you to protect the princess currently onboard. He then gets run through from above, Aerith-style, and the game expects the player to at least figure out the attack and jump buttons without instruction. Advancing through the thugs and rogues to the deck, a Stygian abomination from the briny deep waits as the first boss of the game. More than likely, this will destroy whatever remains of your health in one swipe, and the game fades to white.

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Exploration

Things fade back into a view of the ashen shores of a bleached beach, salt falling from the sky like snow. Thus the true game begins... After choosing one of three starting creeds and opening up the first Sanctuary, you're given some allotted starting potions and then freed to go exploring the world, one realm at a time. In each zone, the Sanctuary will serve as a hub to stock up on replenishing health items, level yourself, summon NPCs, and respawn once killed. Whenever resting at a Sanctuary, all of the enemies that have been killed return, so the challenge is to make smart usage of healing items to press onward through the gauntlets of platforming and combat to reach the next Sanctuary.

This world does not submit itself so easily, however, as there is no map to speak of and many twisting pathways to make mental note of, requiring the player to construct the map entirely in their head. It's a tense, risk-reward type system; challenging how far you're willing to push onwards before resting, and it works exceptionally well. Exploration is made even more rewarding by the focus on shortcuts back to safe zones unlocked through progression. Many critical shortcuts are telegraphed by the appearance of an iron gate with a switch on the other side, which is a great technique to allow the player to be consciously navigating towards it as they adventure, but there are also instances of less obvious shortcuts, allowing for "A-HA!" moments when an inconspicuous wooden door is opened only to find oneself back at the starting Sanctuary. It's a great feeling of personal progression when the layout of a dungeon just "clicks" into place.

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Salt and Sanctuary starts off rather linearly, then steadily begins to branch outward into more and more alternate paths, creating a feeling of vastness by the midpoint of the game, until finally condensing itself into a singularity at the final boss. While so much of this game's exploration is built around the concept of not having a map readily available to you in-game, I unfortunately needed to reference an online map often at the game's broadest moment. This threatened to kill my immersion in the game completely, taking progression to a grinding halt as I desperately searched hither and yon for the next place the game wanted me to go, and it was by far the lowest point of the game for me. The game employs Medroidvania-like progression elements, with new abilities and platforming techniques allowing you access to previously gated areas of the world, but without any kind of map to see where these might be, backtrack through every area you'd previously been to is necessary, searching for a new way forward.

The sparks of battle

Combat itself is simple yet challenging in an "easy to learn, difficult to master" kind of way. There are two attack buttons, Y for light attack and X for heavy, and each broad weapon type has its own unique moveset. Light attacks can string together a combo of around 2-3 unique hits, all depending on the weapon, while heavy attacks typically are one-hit. Using a heavy attack at different points in a light combo, or by holding up or down on the control stick, will perform a different type of attack, such as launching the foes skyward for an aerial combo. Each weapon deals stamina damage alongside regular damage, much like the Souls-clone game Nioh, however you cannot actively view the enemy's stamina gauge, instead relying on learned instinct to read the flow of battle. Attacks can be charged up, lending themselves to around 20% more HP damage and significantly more stamina damage, making enemies easier to stagger. If you're using a piddly-wink dagger, you'll need to be lithe on your feet, as not every attack will cause every enemy to stagger, whereas if you're wielding an axe the size of a small domicile, you shouldn't have trouble causing just about anything to stagger backwards when hit. Deplete all of an enemy's stamina, or perform a parry, and you'll have the opportunity to press A to perform a visceral attack, dealing massive damage. Parrying in this game is extremely satisfying, as it feels so much like Dark Souls 1's insta-parry-frames as opposed to the sluggish parries of Dark Souls 3.

In fact, things generally move at a much quicker pace than any of the Souls games, feeling much closer to Bloodborne or Nioh. In addition to the quick flow of combat, there are two sets of weapons available to toggle between with the press of a button (with the unequipped set not having any impact on your current equip load), enabling quick decision-making, switching from quick to slow melee combat, or close to ranged, depending on the situation. All this makes for a very capable-feeling player character, meaning the game can throw hoards of tricky enemies at you in one go without it becoming unfair. As a result of that, there ends up being a good variety of different enemy layouts, keeping things alive and fresh from start to finish.

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Unfortunately, one downside is that the game massively favors large, heavy weapons over the tiny, quick ones. For example, during my second run of the game, I started as a whip-wielding hunter and spec'd myself heavily into dexterity over strength. Whips, as expected, scale best with dexterity, and heavy weapons scale best with strength. After finding the Kureimora, a greatsword, it became evident that this weapon had longer reach than the whip, much greater vertical range than the whip, was quicker than the whip, had less endlag than the whip (why??), and dealt more damage, despite my stats not complimenting the weapon whatsoever. Because the game's only check for wielding a weapon is looking for whether or not a single perk has been taken in the level-up tree, not requiring certain stats the way the Soulsborne games do, the heavy weapons end up hugely overclassing just about every other form of weapon. There needed to be a lot of tweaking done to their damage and attack speeds if this current system wanted to be completely balanced, but no build is completely un-viable, so there's always fun to be had in anything.

And goodness, does this game have quite the variety of builds to choose from. There's a plethora of interesting weapon types to both find and transmute, with a lot of thought going into one's build in particular. Unlike the Soulsbornes, where it's possible to simply level any stat at any point, Salt and Sanctuary uses a branching tree of nodes which grant stats and unlock the ability to wield different spells, weapons, and armors. Because everything is locked behind something else, with multiple routes from which to approach each node, it behooves the player to optimize their builds beforehand, and doing so is incredibly satisfying. Of course, the game affords the room to change things around mid build, and eventually let's you become a master of all trades, so to speak.

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While combat, character building, and exploration are similar to Dark Souls, I found Salt and Sanctuary much less punishing, for better or for worse. Acclimation to the combat in the beginning lead to my fair share of deaths, but as things went on, the death screen was seen less and less frequently. During a first playthrough, I never once lost my salt permanently (without doing so deliberately), and it never took more than 2 tries to fell a boss. In fact, most of the bosses could be tanked through with nothing but the stockpile of creed-given healing without the need to truly internalize and understand their attack patterns. I'd even go so far as to say that the bosses may be the easiest parts of the game, and even the final boss was quickly buried before going through even half of my healing potions. This was before realizing that the amount of healing available can be expanded through leveling up devotion to creeds, so other players will likely have even more healing available than I did. Sufficed to say, I wish the bosses hit a lot harder and were more difficult to dodge than they are. I will, however, mention that the game features a NG+ mode which increases in difficulty up to +7. The true challenge of the game may just lie in these extra playthroughs.

Salternative playstyle of the Nintendo Switch

So how does the game perform on Nintendo's new and widely popular console? Well, I can definitely say that I was disappointed, though not in a way that completely ruined the experience.

The first thing I noticed upon booting the game was that rebinding controls, a feature that exists on the PC version, was completely absent from this port. Another oddity I noticed was that the sound in handheld mode was extremely quiet, requiring the volume to be turned up to uncommon levels just to hear things. Environments also look much darker than they did on my PC, especially when it comes to handheld mode, with some crucial elements simply being masked in darkness where they were not previously. This, combined with how tiny everything looks on the Switch's 720p resolution screen and the lack of a brightness option, makes for a lot of straining and squinting on the part of the player. Luckily, docked makes things a bit easier to see, except...

Technical performance becomes quite a major downside in the transition to the Switch, especially if running in handheld mode. While the game targets 60 fps in both modes, I found that whether in docked or handheld mode, there are many instances where the framerate would dip, and sometimes, simply lock itself to chugging at 30 fps for a second. Unfortunately, if you're playing Hagar's Cavern or the Dome of the Forgotten in handheld mode, it'll be doing this heavy chugging more often than not, making for a rather miserable experience. Even when not absolutely choking on itself, there will be the now-and-again repeated frames, which roughens the whole experience slightly. As a result of all that messiness, I estimate to have died around twice as often in the Switch version as the PC version.

With Salt and Sanctuary being comprised exclusively of 2D assets with few heavy effects being shown at once, I don't understand why the Switch shouldn't have the power to run this game at a solid 60 fps. Combined with the other little niggles mentioned above, I'm given the impression of a sloppy port. I can say that the game is still "good" when played on the Nintendo Switch, but also that the PC version is the far superior, running at a genuinely solid 60 fps. For those considering between PC and Switch versions, it might be useful to know that the PC version is capped at 60 fps, so sadly those with higher refresh rate monitors won't be able to make things any smoother than that.

I also managed to trigger a glitch in the Switch version, where the boss "Tree of Men" would not drop my salt when it was meant to, which is after its health drops past the shown marker. That salt was lost upon my death when they shouldn't have. It's something I only encountered once, but thought it may merit mention.

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Verdict
Pros
+ Full couch Co-op support
+ Combat is simple, yet with a lot of room for mastery
+ Enemies are challenging and diverse
+ Engaging dungeon/world design
+ Lots of room for different builds and alternate routes
+ NG+ !!
Cons
- Performance issues bog down the whole feel of combat and just the game in general
- Lack of better signposting made for a lot of wandering around in the midgame
- Heavy weapons too strong, plz nerf
7 Presentation
Areas are distinct and interesting, with unique designs and vibes for each locale. The human character's squashed heads and big eyes were a bit offputting at first, but I easily acclimated to them with time. While everything looks nice, there were no really "breathtaking" moments.
8 Gameplay
There's a lot to chew on here combat and exploration-wise. The dungeons are labyrinthine, yet each room is distinctly recognizable in its layout, and it makes them a delight to explore. Combat is incredibly varied between the many different weapon types to find, and choosing how to build your character is extremely engaging. The only marks against this category come from the performance issues and hard to see elements in handheld mode, listed here because I consider these much more impactful to the combat than the presentation.
9 Lasting Appeal
With the ability to retain all weapons, armor, and stats across up to 7 additional playthroughs, this game has a ton of content to chew on, experiment with, and just play around in.
7.3
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
Salt and Sanctuary is an excellent love-letter to the Dark Souls franchise while still managing to provide a distinctly unique experience. As far as game design goes, this is a splendidly polished example of the Soulsborne mechanics appropriated correctly, and I eagerly anticipate playing all the way through NG+7 and beyond, just not on the Switch. Unfortunately, the dark screen and glaring performance issues in this port detract from the overall experience, docking points. On steam, however, I'd likely give this an 8 or a 9.


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