It has been exciting watching Ska Studios grow over these years. From I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 and ZP2K9 to The Dishwasher and Charlie Murder, each Ska Studios project gets larger and larger in scope. So it’s fitting that Salt and Sanctuary, Ska Studios’ latest, is their biggest and most ambitious project yet. Salt and Sanctuary sets out to translate the design philosophy and atmosphere of the 3-D Dark Souls games blueprint to a 2-D action/platformer. The end result shows that Salt and Sanctuary’s heart is definitely in the right place, even if it’s not often successful in execution.
Salt and Sanctuary has you in the role of a caretaker of a princess who is being shipped across the sea to a neighboring kingdom for a political wedding to end a horrible centuries long war. In the middle of your journey, your ship is attacked by a horrible sea monster, wrecking it and leaving you stranded on the coast of a mysterious island filled with murderous zombie-like enemies and previously thought lost kingdoms. So starts your quest to rescue the princess. It’s not the most complicated setup, so I was generally OK with it being tossed aside just to get the game going. Bizarrely though Salt and Sanctuary keeps bringing this quest up during dialogue sequences, and then even stranger yet introduces a plot twist at the end which feels unearned and wholly unnecessary for how underdeveloped the whole thing is.
Salt and Sanctuary is even more serious with its world building, with a detailed bestiary and elaborate descriptions for most of the enemies and items. But no matter how much I read, I couldn't care less about its world. These legendary civilizations I explored lacked the tangibility of once being real places or lacking an environmental narrative to follow, resulting in me not feeling invested with any of it. This becomes important as Salt and Sanctuary started to ask me to be invested with the mystery at the heart of this island, which I never did, resulting in me feeling more and more lost as to what I was actually supposed to be doing and why.
Mechanically the gameplay fairs better as Ska Studios’ expertise with 2-D action thanks to The Dishwasher games comes through. Combat feels appropriately heavy and aggressive thanks to its Dark Souls influence, with dodging and parrying enemy actions feeling very natural to execute upon in a side scrolling space. Platforming also feels good to pull off initially for simple sequences, but gets more frustrating the more traversing abilities are acquired and precision becomes more key. This became annoying as Salt and Sanctuary starts to shift more towards platforming than combat, which is definitely not its strong suit, especially for how finicky and glitchy the game can feel at times, exacerbating these issues even further whenever I died during a long platforming sequence which didn't feel like my fault.
And while there are no platforming boss encounters, some of these glitchy issues can be found here. Almost all of the larger monster boss fights felt cheap and buggy in some pretty bad ways. Trying to roll through some of their giant hitboxes and being pushed back out of it, or glitched out attacks which ignored my shield even if it otherwise would’ve been blocked, always felt terrible. These issues became more glaringly for how remarkably easy I found most of the boss encounters to be when they did worked right. Most bosses would take me 2-3 attempts, with a handful cleared in a single go. To be entirely fair there are a number of fun, challenging encounters, but I would say that after having looked them over again, most of the bosses are actually quite forgettable and easy to just plow through.
On the other hand, rewards for defeating these bosses, conquering the dungeons and getting a rare drop from a difficult enemy are all quite satisfying. From gaining and leveling-up a formidable new weapon to unlocking another of your refillable health potions feels good. The skill tree though is obviously the standout here. Once you’ve collected enough salt from defeating enemies (the equivalent resource to souls in a Soulsborne game) you can level-up and invest in Salt and Sanctuary’s expansive Tree of Skill. The Tree of Skill successfully establishes development goals for a character. Want to be better at using swords? Unlocking the Level 2 Swordfighter node will not only make you feel stronger with swords, but also allows you to wield stronger and better swords. This helps foster a sense of direction with character progression, which can be fairly murky to define in other Soulsborne games.
Visually the game is quite reminiscent of previous Ska Studios titles, albeit with a Cannibal Corpse album cover vibe combined with their webcomic like aesthetic this time around. Characters and environments are all really detailed and the visual effects for fog and blood splatters looks fantastic. Salt and Sanctuary successfully captures the dreary, foreboding atmosphere of a Soulsborne game which is a great accomplishment for a 2-D game. In addition, the soundtrack, while fairly short on tracks, has a great mix of metal guitars, classical music and chanting going on that feels appropriate boisterous and intense for the death metal atmosphere of Salt and Sanctuary.
While the Dark Souls franchise might be done for now, games like Salt and Sanctuary will keep its legacy alive going forward. Ska Studios gets most of the fundamentals of a Soulsborne game right with a weighty combat system, strong sense of progression and a grim dark atmosphere, Salt and Sanctuary falters when trying to carve out its own path in this subgenre of video game. Frustratingly precise platforming sequences, the boss fights being incredibly hit-and-miss, an uninteresting yet bizarrely involved plot, lackluster world building, and its more often than not glitchy nature undoes a decent amount of the good will it builds for itself in the beginning. I remember generally having a good time with Salt and Sanctuary, but looking back now it’s hard not to be disappointed during those moments when it does fall down.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)