FromSoftware’s Souls series has seized the imagination of millions of people, earning itself a rabidly dedicated fanbase. The games’ deadly levels are designed to encourage measured consideration and precision from its players, their Japanese take on Western fantasy tropes casts the genre’s aesthetics under a twisted and unique lens, and they project a believable sense of weight that really hammers in the sense that you’re inhabiting a world. FromSoftware has certainly dug itself a desirable niche for its unique product, and it’s not a market that many have explicitly tried to exploit- the most notable attempt being Deck13 Interactive and CI Games’ Lords of the Fallen.
Enter Salt and Sanctuary, a 2D action-RPG that’s unabashedly upfront about its Souls influence. It’s developed by Ska Studios, whose back catalogue includes the skill-based action games in the Dishwasher series that perhaps prepares them to make a Souls-alike better than anyone might have expected. While wearing Souls on its sleeve might easily have rendered Salt and Sanctuary a forgettably pale imitator, the game shows a welcome competence that cements its status as a great game in its own right.
While Souls games introduce their main characters’ quests in a more esoteric manner, Salt and Sanctuary’s story starts with a much more familiar place: you’re escorting a princess across the sea when disaster strikes and your ship wrecks on a mysterious and deadly isle and you’re off to find your charge. As clichéd as this premise is as video games go, the game’s narrative unfolds to reveal a tale that weaves together themes of purpose, creed, and divinity. It creates intriguing lore underlying the experience as you delve into the world of Gods and monsters.
Creating your character is immediately familiar to Souls veterans as you choose your class and physical characteristics from a menu. Just like in Souls, your initial choice of class does not limit your ability to eventually wield any equipment or ability that the game has to offer; it simply pushes you in the direction of the gameplay style epitomised by each class with your initial stats and equipment. I normally favour agility in these types of games, but I fancied dipping my toes outside of my comfort zone so I chose to play as a Paladin from the list, amongst the Knight, Mage, Thief, Chef, Cleric, Pauper, and Hunter options. A really nice touch in the character creation tool is that instead of choosing a skin colour from a gradient palette, you’re presented with a map of countries in the world of Salt and Sanctuary, with your complexion matching whichever part of the world you specify your character as being from. While I won’t remember any of the names of the fictional lands I was shown, this option really helped to give a little bit of world-building context to a choice that we usually don’t think about beyond pure aesthetics.
Jumping into Salt and Sanctuary’s world and fighting off its hordes of hostiles is more reminiscent of the “feel” of Souls games than might be expected of a 2D action game. While the HUD and menus are very closely styled on Souls’ UI, I often found myself falling into very familiar mental patterns as I tackled enemies along my path. Apart from the relative ease of death (even minor enemies hit hard and can quickly chip away all of your health if you’re not careful, and you’d better be prepared to block or dodge the larger guys) I think that this largely hinges on the stamina gauge. Jumping, rolling, attacking, blocking, casting spells- all of these actions deplete your stamina bar, and if you’re caught in a tight spot with an empty bar you’re in a lot of trouble. This shared mechanic between Souls and Salt and Sanctuary means that you need to ration out each action before taking a second or two to replenish your stamina bar. Crucially, enemies’ attack patterns are finely tuned to force you to cleverly approach them with this in mind, and this measured ebb and flow is very, very familiar to a Souls player.
The other series that people will frequently compare Salt and Sanctuary with is the Castlevania series. The vast and interconnected areas of the world are as evocative of those games as they are of Souls. As you progress through the game you’ll unlock movement-enhancing capabilities like wall-jumping and the ability to contextually reverse gravity. Playing this game actually made me think about how facets of Souls games seem, weirdly, to have a literal or spiritual founding in Castlevania. It’s funny how these things come around.
The list of mechanics that Sanctuary borrows from Souls is long. Individual weapons have their own move sets. Weapons’ damage scales off of your main stats like Strength, Dexterity, and Magic, and can be upgraded with specific items at a blacksmith. Experience points are accumulated from enemies in the form of Salt (this game’s equivalent of Souls), which are lost when you die but can be picked up if you make it back to the spot where you died and defeat your murderer. Traps litter the game’s many and varied environments which you’ll need to learn to watch out for. Your equip load is affected by your endurance stat and affects your roll speed and ability to equip heavier weapons and armour. There are semi-regular resting places, called Sanctuaries, which replenish your healing items and allow you to spend your Salt to level up. Progression through levels reveals shortcuts back to checkpoints that make death-runs easier. Much of the story and lore is hidden away in item descriptions. The list goes on and on.
Despite all of these similarities, though, Salt and Sanctuary distinguishes itself with myriad differences and innovations which shake up the formula and raise the game beyond its “clone” status somewhat. Your default healing items replenish your health gauge, but also diminish your maximum health until you next rest at a sanctuary or shrine. Every action that drains stamina has the same effect, adding an extra cost to casting magic and prayers on top of the focus bar which depletes as you cast spells to limit your usage between rests. This system really makes you think about rationing your actions and spells, preventing over reliance on healing or overpowered abilities.
Levelling up is also distinct- cashing in your Salt for levels gifts you with Black Pearls that you spend to unlock slots in the expansive Tree of Skill. Nodes to increase your base stats and healing item reservoir brach out along paths that unlock the ability to specialise in the use of different equipment and abilities like armour types, weapon types, and spells. I was blown away by the sheer vastness of the tree, although I quickly grasped how to navigate it to pursue appropriate upgrades for my build.
The titular Sanctuaries are more than a replacement for bonfires from Souls’ checkpointing system. They’re tied into your chosen Creed (the specific Gods you follow) , and so can offer different items and upgrades to match your play style. Creeds work similarly to Covenants in Souls games, and can offer different bonuses from the effects of their healing item to the availability of certain high-grade weapons. At a Sanctuary you make offerings in the form of small stone statues to summon NPCs to give you little bonuses and services for the area. Summoning a Guide allows you to teleport between Sanctuaries, while the Alchemist allows you to transmute weapons into better ones. Creeds are levelled up by acquiring a greater Devotion level, which increases the item pool for the NPCs that you can buy stuff from.
Some Sanctuaries are automatically dedicated to a Creed that’s different from your own, but you can Desecrate the place with the use of a certain item to convert the Sanctuary to your own Creed, allowing you to use its services. This turns any NPCs in the place hostile, however, and you must defeat a guardian before the spot is fully claimed.
Salt and Sanctuary sports a Dark Souls– esque dark fantasy aesthetic, working from a traditional western fantasy design with twisted gothic overtones. Despite taking its cue from Souls, Salt and Sanctuary’s initially familiar look reveals its visual style to be just as unique and inspired as FromSoftware’s. The hand-drawn artwork and stilted yet expressive animation paint a moving picture that’s a touch more cartoonish than most gothically-inspired works, but Ska Studios owns it.
Indeed, Ska Studios’ talent for arresting visual design is exemplified by the varied and imaginative enemies you’ll clash with over the course of the game. From the more classical feral beasts and men to some more truly bizarre creations, your bestiary fills with a vast array of creatures that often perturb, sometimes terrify, and always intrigue. This is no more true than in the case of game’s many the bosses, who tend towards massiveness.
The increased sense of scale really amplifies that fear of the dangerous and unknown as you approach each boss for the first time, which you’ll often know is a few steps away when you see the candles marking each encounter. The number of lit candles represents the win/loss ratio of the boss in that area- the more players die to a certain boss, the fewer candles are lit. This simple mechanic is really effective at building apprehension before you’ve even stepped into the boss fight, and it’s a stroke of genius. This feeling is only compounded when you enter an arena only to be staggered by the size and unfamiliar moveset of that particular beastie. It’s all down to learning that particular creature’s abilities and weaknesses, but Salt and Sanctuary does a swell job of raising the stakes when you’ve reached each boss. And that final, frenzied hit that takes them down is all the more fist-pumpingly satisfying for the way that time slows to highlight the felling blow.
Salt and Sanctuary is, by any measure, a resounding success. It stands on the shoulders of giants, yes, but it’s earned its spot up there. Ska Studios didn’t simply set out to copy Dark Souls in a 2D plane; they intimately understand what makes those games great, and use that not as a blueprint but as a canvas. It might be a derivative work, but it’s still a damn fine one with a slew of original ideas of its own. I’d recommend Salt and Sanctuary to anyone that appreciates skill-based action-RPGs in the vein of Souls or Castlevania in a heartbeat.