Facing the unknown.
Let’s play a game. I will list some features but I won’t name the franchise I’m describing. It isn’t personal, I love those games – as much as I hate them. The thing is, if I produce any more “X game is like D*** ***ls with…” I will have to end my career as a writer. And I don’t want to do that. Plus, there are already enough memes about it. So, here we go:
Countless deaths with the possibility of recovering what you have lost. Huge enemy bosses whose pattern you have to discover. Special places where you can level up, obtain a checkpoint, “rest” and make unique decisions. Every enemy can kill you with a few hits, even the weakest one. Messages that players left on the ground – expect trolling, of course. Dark locations with labyrinthine designs, created specially for getting lost. Strange but charismatic NPCs with anxious souls. (Saw what I did there?) I could go on, but you get the idea.
Salt and Sanctuary is a wonderful but demanding 2D Action RPG game. It was originally released two years ago for the PS4, PSVita and PC. A few weeks ago, Switch owners gained the opportunity to dive into new obscure and punishing lands. And die. Multiple times. Ska Studios crafted not only a fantastic video game but a mesmerizing experience. One with an specific sensation all over it: fear.
Don’t get me wrong. Salt and Sanctuary isn’t a horror game, despite the fact it has some evident elements from the genre. However, like Lovecraft once said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Playing Salt and Sanctuary is being affraid of every corner of the screen, not only because anyone and anything – traps and bad jumps – can kill you, but the nervous sensation of not knowing where to go, what is that over there and what the hell you are doing every five minutes.
We have a pretty succinct tutorial at the beginning of the journey, explaining the basic movements, and that’s it. You are half naked in the jungle with a knife, do what you can, mate. The real tutorial relies on having to speak to some ambiguous characters, read items’s descriptions and do a great deal of trials and errors. Sadly, I did all of the above in my first walkthrough (17 hours) and still didn’t know what half of the items were for, what some NPCs were really looking for, how to discover a bunch of sweet secrets or what was the main purpose of everything.
I was constantly facing myself with the unknown, and in the end I found out I still didn’t know pretty much anything about this world. That reminded me of another game we all played: life. The best part – and key difference – is that the lack of guidance and help didn’t felt unfair. On the contrary, it was exciting and captivating.
Leaving the deep dumb analogy behind, I have to be honest with you. This experience isn’t for everybody. Like any hard video game, it demands your time, patience and the skill of not throwing away your console after the boss killed you with 1 HP remaining. We have a precise and fast-paced combat, with an enormous list of melee weapons – axes, swords, spears, whips, reapers, hammers and more – and powerful – perhaps a bit too much – spells. A huge ability tree to pick new stats upgrades from may confuse everyone at first. You decide how you play.
I decided to be a strength dependant knight, without caring too much on focus (mana) and the eventual use of bow and arrows. Later, when I created my second character, a spellcaster, I noticed the journey became much more easier. Nevertheless, I wasn’t angry with the difficulty of my first walkthrough. When you have an excellent control of your character, which responses as fast as you need in every situation, you can’t be mad about difficulty.
Salt and Sanctuary provides some quite original mechanics to the genre. When you get to a bonfire, I mean, a sanctuary (the resting place), it’s normally empty. You decide what NPCs it will have, using a maximum of four statues per sanctuary. You find these statues along the various locations available, and include merchants, clerics, mages, blacksmiths and others. Crucial decisions have to be made, as you can’t “kick” a NPC once you summoned them into the sanctuary.
The economy is divided by salt – used for leveling up, upgrading your gear and killing you in real life when you are hypertensive – and gold – practically for buying items. Sometimes you will need to use both, and other times also some certain specific items you’ll find or the enemies will drop. When you die, the enemy that killed you steals your salt and you get one chance to recover it if you killed them in your next life. If your killer is a boss, you only need to deal a certain amount of damage to it. And if you’ve died by traps or platforming, a kind of ugly raven appears exactly where you passed out. Gold is another story: every time you face death, you will lose a good amount of your savings, without the chance of recovering it. Die multiple times and you are broke.
There are a few downsides I have found during journey. If you prefer using the Switch in handheld mode like me, the first hours will be rough. I lost several lives trying to distinguish between enemies and environment, because you don’t have a clear view of every element until you get use to the cloudy and foggy art style. The disorientating and no linear structure of the main quest kept me hooked and added strong emotions to the experience, but boy, it can be infuriating at times not finding the small passage between zones, the damn key or doing backtracking. Lots of backtracking.
Although most of the dangerous creatures you will fight have an artistic and clever design, there are some generic and uninspired ones – including bosses. And last but no least, it’s a shame that the Switch version doesn’t have any new content. It has been two years since the original came out and we are getting the exactly same game. Not the same experience, though, because now we are playing it on Switch, and that makes every game better, right?
A game to be played and replayed over and over again. The variety of classes and ways of dealing with your enemies, the addition of New Game +, permadeath and special challenges, trying to get every ring, spell, pray, armor and weapon – over 600 hundred unique ones – , the possibility of playing co-op and the never ending feeling of becoming a masochist and liking it… Salt and Sanctuary has been a harsh journey. It also has been one of the most challenging ones I have experienced this year.
A copy of Salt and Sanctuary for Switch was provided by Stride PR on behalf of Ska Studios. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.