You will learn to detest the word "obliterated". This dramatic yet depressingly apt term has been given the job of informing you that you've just died, and it precedes yet more words that you'll also come to hate. For example, the statement, "Alas, you have lost 7480 salt forever" will see that you clasp your head in your angry, sweaty hands as you come to terms with the loss. Games that take inspiration from the Souls series are slowly coming to the fore, and Salt and Sanctuary proudly presents itself as one such imitator, albeit under the guise of a 2D, hand-drawn, artsy indie game.
Do not let Ska Studios fool you, however. Its latest title may well appear less brutal at first glance, but it's by no means an easy ride. It's a vast, intertwined, hard action RPG, with a labyrinthine Metroidvania world to explore. The map unfolds in a similar way to From Software's influential series, with manifold doors (often locked) hiding items, secret areas, NPCs to engage with, and even the odd optional boss battle. Be hopeful that you don't stumble into one of those under prepared.
You begin the game aboard a ship, transporting a princess across the sea as part of a plan to bring about peace in this war-torn land. Disaster strikes, of course, when the vessel is attacked by a monstrous creature named the Unspeakable Deep, which is virtually impossible to defeat. Once the beast lays waste to your fledgling hero, you wake to find yourself alone on a misty beach. A stranger advises that you should seek sanctuary, and a few messages in bottles later, you're left to blindly discover the haunts and history of this intimidating island.
There are multiple nods to the Souls games here that any fan will be able to pick out immediately. The sanctuaries are your safe havens and save points, your only refuge from the bleak and deadly dungeons and ruins. One new idea prevails here, however, in that you can make Offerings, which unlock shopkeepers and other NPCs to reside in your sanctuary. For example, offering a Stone Merchant will unlock a shop in which to trade your gold for all sorts of goodies. You can even unlock the ability to play in co-op if you offer up a Stone Sellsword – we'll get back to this.
If – sorry, when – you die, you're dragged back to your last sanctuary and a percentage of your gold is taken, along with all of your salt. Salt is primarily used to level up, but is also important for upgrading your weaponry and armour, so you'll want to keep hold of it if you can. But inevitably, death will come, and the enemy that obliterated you will be carrying your lost salt, so it's not too difficult getting it back – unless they're miles away from your last sanctuary. Reviving yourself at these points also brings back any defeated enemies, so dying means facing all of them again if you want that salt back. It can feel unfair at times, with some cheap low-level baddies often dog piling you in large numbers.
Of course, it isn't unfair, really – it's merely a matter of learning your adversary's attacks and tells. The combat is swift, punchy, and satisfyingly brutal, with a good amount of strategic depth and variety in the weaponry to keep things interesting. You'll want to make great use of the block and parry, as it often doesn't pay to go too heavily on the offensive. Your stamina bar means that you'll constantly need to manage yourself, being careful not to spend too much on evading and then having none left to attack. There's real method to the action, then, and you're given room for two loadouts, offering you enough flexibility to mix up your play styles if and when you need to.
A quick glance at the skill tree will show you just how diverse the combat options are. It's a literal and dauntingly large tree, but you can see early on the character builds you can form; anything from your typical knight and his trusty sword and shield to a dagger-wielding cleric, who can make use of prayers to gain an advantage in battle. You can mix and match skills and stat upgrades as much as you like, and there's a huge quantity of weaponry and armour to find, so you won't be short of ideas when it comes to developing your character.
In fact, we'd advise that you create two or more characters if you want to see everything that Salt and Sanctuary has to offer, but that isn't the only reason. You can play the entirety of the game in local co-op, so long as you have another character to assign to a second player. This will make enemies tougher, but playing with a friend means that you can combine the abilities of two characters to take down the monstrosities that await you. It also makes the game far more fun, as playing solo can become stressful if you get stuck, and the lonely, bleak atmosphere can become a little heavy.
Do not underestimate Salt and Sanctuary: it'll chew you up and spit you back out, drawing from From Software's modern action RPG blueprints and translating the hard-as-nails gameplay to two dimensions. It demands your attention, never holds your hand, and rewards your patience and skill. Some players will find the lack of information too obtuse and difficulty too harsh, and a few cheap enemies and well-hidden traps will certainly frustrate. For those willing to go the distance, however, this is an intricate and fulfilling game just waiting to be conquered. As far as Souls wannabes go, this is one that's certainly worth its salt.