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Salt and Sanctury, an in-depth review

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After spending some quality time recently with the excellent Hollow Knight [GOG][Steam], I found myself wondering what my next 2D Platformer/Fighter was going to be. As it happened legendary porter, Ethan Lee (aka Flibitijibibo) had me covered. Salt and Sanctuary [Official Site, Steam] launched on Windows on May 17th 2016, but just under two months later he had it converted for Linux (and Mac).

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I’m slightly ashamed to say that it’s taken me over a year to discover this gem. Now, having spent over 30 hours in the last fortnight building two utterly different characters in the game (videos below), I thought I’d spend a little extra time convincing you all just exactly why you need this superb game in your lives.

Note: Salt and Sanctuary is often described as a “2D Dark Souls”, but while there are certain similarities (which I list below), what puts me off this description is that I associate Demon/Dark Souls with crippling difficulty. Yes, you will die a lot in Salt and Sanctuary, and yes, the boss battles can occasionally seem overwhelming at first. However my experience of the difficulty curve here is that Salt and Sanctuary is both very much more forgiving and even encourages the occasional risk taking without unfairly punishing you.

With that out of the way, here’s the breakdown.

Plot
The game starts with an epic boss battle straight after you’ve chosen your character who is escorting a princess across the seas in a ship. After losing the ship, you’re washed up the shores of a mysterious island with one goal; find the princess at any cost.

However, while the lore you’ll experience in the game is detailed and absorbing, needless to say, you’re not here for the plot! You’re here for the wonderful fighting mechanics that will keep you absorbed for, at a guess, around 40 or so hours of gameplay. Assuming that a single play-through will sate your appetite. Fair warning… it probably won’t!

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Mechanics
So why all the Dark Souls comparisons? Well, let’s count the ways:
  • You collect Salt from vanquished enemies and later use it to level up.
  • If you die, whatever killed you will steal all your Salt, but if you go back and kill it, you’ll get it all back. If instead you die again (or on your way there), you’ll lose that Salt forever. In fact, in my example Mage video, you’ll see exactly that happening.
  • You rest at Sanctuaries where you can spend your Salt to level up and replenish all your healing potions, but when you do so, all enemies in the game (apart from bosses) will respawn.
  • Equipment only weighs you down when you equip it. Your inventory is otherwise unlimited.

However, husband and wife developers, Ska Studios, have done much to make Salt and Sanctuary its own beast. The game’s “Tree of Skill” is truly gigantic and encourages diversity and experimentation. There are very few truly “bad” builds that will come from even your first play through. You can go heavy tank/melee, heavy tank/magic, ninja cleric, swordsman, sword and shield, greataxeman, you name it. The only thing you could conceivably do wrong is possibly a little of everything and no specialisation at all.

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Fun fact: this is the first game I’ve played where I’ve spent significant points on the encumbrance statistic. Why? Well, if you’re not using a shield, or two handing a weapon so that you can “block”, you’ll need to use the game’s roll mechanic to keep the hits from landing. You get a bonus to your roll speed and overall “nimbleness” if your equipment (including weapon) is less than a quarter of your overall capacity!

The ability to equip two entirely different main hand/offhand and charm combinations and switch between them near-instantly is crucial to most set ups. You'll need this for bow/dagger for fighters, or fire/lightning for mages, for example. Even if you’re going to specialise in just one weapon, it’s a great idea to have one loadout configured with a one-hand weapon and shield, then a two-handed set up in the other. That gives you a quick change from defensive to offensive stances at the click of a button. Certain boss battles will benefit from this quick switch since the bosses will routinely switch their style at a certain point of the battle too, just to keep you on your toes!

Another nice mechanic is the stamina system that prevents you hacking away with your axe or sword continuously, or rolling constantly. In addition, if you overuse your stamina, you’ll eventually suffer fatigue, which lowers your overall stamina – this is especially true of magic, which consumes a portion of your maximum stamina in addition to the “focus” required to cast the spell. The spells in Salt and Sanctuary are especially powerful, so this natural limit prevents you spamming them for an easy win.

Finally, each big hit you take in the game can also cause “wounding”, which similarly lowers your overall hit points. Big hits might also stagger you, leaving you open to attacks which you can no longer block until the stagger animation completes. Similarly, your big hits can stagger enemies.

These detrimental “wounding” effects can be mitigated by spells and potions, but remember that replenishing those at a Sanctuary will also restock all the enemies in the game!

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Art, Sound and Atmosphere
That's right, “art”, not “graphics”. Yeah, I went there. Bear with me.
Some Steam reviews have laughably called out Salt and Sanctuaries graphics as “muddy”. This reinforces my general derision of Steam reviews and reminds me that some people clearly have no soul. This game is not for them. Don’t be like them.

That said, Salt and Sanctuary is undoubtedly a dark game. Indeed, darkness is a mechanic, necessitating the use of either torches, light charms, or the casting of the imaginatively named “Light” prayer. Later, the game will play on the light mechanic and introduce special effects to your torches in a Metroidvania fashion, allowing you to materialise light bridges. Just make sure your torch doesn’t run out when you’re standing on one! Or indeed, do anything that affects the offhand holding the torch while standing on one. I’ve died both of those ways, so I pass these wise words on to you. You’re very welcome.

So, despite being dark, or perhaps because of it, and strengthened by the moody music and hard hitting sound effects, the atmosphere in Salt and Sanctuary is absolutely exemplary. The game’s detailed lore adds to this, for instance allowing you to choose from three creeds at the start of the game, but introducing many more as your journey unfolds.

It’s a game which looks good in screenshots, and yet loses something at the same time. It’s the animations and wonderful attention to detail in Salt and Sanctuary that really makes it stand out from the crowd. Even something as simple as using a Bell of Return is a joyous moment, as your character kneels in reverence and holds the bell above him and coaxes a single note, transporting him instantly to his last Sanctuary. It’s heartfelt stuff.

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Linux performance
I’m pleased to report that I’ve not experienced even the slightest hiccup relating to Linux. I think I experienced a few seconds of judder here and there as I was running through certain areas, the Red Hall of Cages I think it was, but I can’t think of anything else to report. My PC is a beast admittedly, recently purchased and you can see the details of that in my profile, so this isn’t unexpected. However, I’ve not experienced any gamepad problems, resolution issues, sound problems, crashes or defects of note. A fantastic port by Mr Lee, without a doubt.

Summary
Needless to say by this point in the review, I’m blown over by Salt and Sanctuary. The atmosphere, gameplay, mechanics, lore, play length, re-playability and sheer polish puts this title squarely into my top ten games of all time. No, I’m not listing the other nine, or at least not right now, but rest assured that its quality will ensure that it’s a long time before anything comes along to challenge Salt and Sanctuary’s well earned place in that list. Buy it. Buy it now.
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27 comments
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micha 24 May 2017 at 11:20 am UTC
It was a major surprise last summer.. really love it!
FutureSuture 24 May 2017 at 12:26 pm UTC
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I am just waiting for Salt and Sanctuary to become available on GOG. Once that happens, I am guaranteed to purchase it. The game looks, sounds, and feels incredible. The excitement is unreal!
Ockert 24 May 2017 at 12:40 pm UTC
Just picked it up. Thanks for the info.
metro2033fanboy 24 May 2017 at 1:28 pm UTC
wat? is this on linux?! haha...didnt know! Steam whishlisting!
Kyrottimus 24 May 2017 at 2:13 pm UTC
While I found Salt and Sanctuary to have the right structure (map, items, abilities, etc.) for a great foundation, some of the most important and oft-overlooked game mechanics seemed very sloppy to me. I found the controls to be terribly sluggish and unresponsive. Stamina meter was far too limiting. Gear upgrades seemed way too few and far between (either too expensive or just too few options to upgrade). Enemies were either way too easy or frustratingly too hard (for example, there was this zombie mob with an axe, now while slow, the zombie can swing that axe probably 3-5 times a second and could really take a beating; if you were hit twice you were dead, and good luck killing it before your stamina maxed out and you had to back off to rest).

It had so much potential, but I felt so handicapped by all those little, yet disruptive, foundational gameplay mechanics that kept me from returning to it.

Can't say I would recommend it. "So what are good examples of tight controls?" you might ask...well with platformers, two come to mind, Trine and Mark of the Ninja.


Last edited by Kyrottimus at 24 May 2017 at 2:13 pm UTC
dude 24 May 2017 at 2:39 pm UTC
Salt and Sanctuary was a big surprise, 48 hrs played, 73 hours in Hollow Knight. Now I just need to find the time to play another character in S&S. Excellent games, both.
slaapliedje 24 May 2017 at 4:48 pm UTC
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Did they fix the game pad set up? My brother and I were planning on playing this co-op, but it seemed the game pad setup was broken.
scaine 24 May 2017 at 4:48 pm UTC
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KyrottimusEnemies were either way too easy or frustratingly too hard (for example, there was this zombie mob with an axe, now while slow, the zombie can swing that axe probably 3-5 times a second and could really take a beating; if you were hit twice you were dead, and good luck killing it before your stamina maxed out and you had to back off to rest).

I know the ones you mean - in Bandit's Pass. Yeah, they're tough, but I enjoyed the challenge. And remember that before you got to the point where those guys were knocking lumps out of you, you were given plenty of warnings of how difficult that area is!

I guess, if you hit a tipping point of frustration with the game, then I understand why you'd give it up. For me, I just realised that I needed either heavier armour, longer reach, or a ranged weapon. So I went away to find other areas on the map to score some upgrades and came back better equipped.

That's why I love this game - different characters have different challenges with different enemies. It took one try for my Knight to defeat the Mad Alchemist, but nearly ten attempts with my mage. So far, I haven't quite hit the frustration tipping point!
scaine 24 May 2017 at 4:51 pm UTC
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slaapliedjeDid they fix the game pad set up? My brother and I were planning on playing this co-op, but it seemed the game pad setup was broken.

Well that's weird - as Liam noted in his announcement article back in July last year, the game's gamepad detection is flawless, seamlessly switching from keyboard to gamepad depending on if you press a key or button.

I used both Steam Controller and a wired Xbox360 pad for this game and they're both perfect. I can't speak for anything else though, sorry.
slaapliedje 24 May 2017 at 6:14 pm UTC
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I think it was the second player's that wouldn't work right, and through the Steam Link most likely. I'll have to give it a shot again, it's been awhile.
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