Developer/Publisher: Ska Studios
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PS Vita, PC (Windows)
This game is Dark Souls. It may be in the form of a two-dimensional platformer, but no matter how you look at it, this game is Dark Souls. And I love it.
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Dark Souls was developed by FromSoftware, and their series of action role playing games have become one of the most prominent franchises in gaming, highlighted by brutal difficulty, layered combat, and grim atmosphere. The games are shamelessly hardcore, and there’s only one way to “git gud” at playing them: dying over and over again. Needless to say, it takes a special kind of mindset to appreciate Dark Souls, but anyone who possesses it is going to love Salt and Sanctuary.
Almost everything in the game is a core mechanic of solo Dark Souls play. You start off by picking a character class, a weapon, and an item. You collect salt by defeating enemies and use it to level up and upgrade weapons and attributes. The combat involves rolls, parrying and riposting, while managing stamina levels. When you die, you drop all of your salt, respawn at a sanctuary and must retrieve it. You swear an oath to a creed which gives you certain benefits. At certain points, you fight a tough boss that drops a ton of loot upon defeat. You can even leave messages for other players that give tips on how to progress. There’s even a New Game Plus mode.
Sound familiar? Just replace “salt,” “sanctuary,” and “creed” with “souls,” “bonfires,” and “covenants” and you might get the idea that this is little more than a lazy rip-off. Except it isn’t.
The translation to a two-dimensional plane and the addition of a jump button, of all things, gives Salt and Sanctuary’s combat a unique edge over typical Dark Souls-like combat, one that may not seem too obvious at first glance. Your character as a whole feels more responsive, and is able to chain light and use heavy attacks more effectively than what is possible in three dimensions. Attacks from the air are key to getting the jump on enemies and are among the most satisfying moves you can pull off. The combat overall feels faster and more aggressive, and while by no means easy, is not as tricky as the comparatively slower and more defensively-oriented combat of Dark Souls. If you’re put off the Dark Souls series because of that, then you may well find a lot to like here.
The key element that makes this less of a rip-off and more of a tribute is the atmosphere. What makes Dark Souls so great is the idea that danger is always lurking in the darkness, and learning not just to anticipate that danger but to overcome it is your overall goal. Salt and Sanctuary is very much a game about exploring and what the game lacks in visual fidelity it makes up for with the sheer amount of areas to explore. It is very easy to get lost in this world and you probably won’t mind, since there’s a few goodies about, but venturing too far into the darkness may well result in your doom.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Salt and Sanctuary proves that it understands what makes the very thing it’s imitating so compelling in the first place. Ska Studios may only be a two-person team, meaning the spectacle and scope is somewhat limited, but they clearly love Dark Souls and had the talent to translate it into a great platformer that had me grinning with masochistic joy all the way to the end.
Don’t get salty about dying though, just git gud you scrub.