Salt: Hands On With Some Open World Piracy

I would never have imagined, just a few years ago, that we’d be spoilt for choice when it came to open-world adventure/survival games. I remember back in 2010 writing about my wish for more games that would just let me hunker down, find a cave, and survive the elements.

At the time, a few suggestions for games offering this were made, but many were very primitive (in the wrong ways), or far too close to management games. But now we’re overwhelmed with them! Just recently there’s been the mix of genteel to ultra-terrifying with Eidolon, The Forest, Darkwood, The Long Dark, Miasmata, Rust, 7 Days To Die, Nether, Project Zomboid, Don’t Starve… and now you can add first-person early-access explore-me-do Salt to the calmest end of that list. My thoughts so far, and 25 minutes of in-game footage, below.

You wake up on an island, in a sea filled with islands. On your person you find a note explaining that another explorer found you here, unconscious, and did not disturb a chest of items that he assumed must be yours. And a basic guide to crafting. With this knowledge, you explore your randomly generated little island, grabbing an improbable number of logs, and searching for that chest. Treasure! Or indeed, some bits of cloth and coal. But that’s just what you need to build what you need most of all: a boat.

Salt is about nipping from island to island, gathering resources, exploring secrets, and chopping up mad-faced pirates. The emphasis is off the hardcore surviving, and onto the calm exploring. Each island is pretty small – it’ll only take you ten or fifteen minutes to harvest it for goods, and attack any pesky pirates who might be inhabiting. You can then loot their corpses, raid their gatherings, and move on, never pausing to question who is the real pirate here?. Your simple boat catches the wind in its sail, and you steer your way off to the next.

The deliberate steering away from panicked survival makes for a much more relaxed affair. Hunger is in there, but it’s very sensibly done, not a constant, nagging pressure on you, rather something you need to occasionally attend to. And while pirates will hobble up behind you now and then, there’s no danger of a sudden zombie horde showing up and scaring your bits off.

He's just sleeping. Forever.

The world is procedurally generated, but if you go with the default version, it’ll be the same for everyone. The idea here is to allow for a community to map it, share locations of villages or treasures, and allow it to be a shared – if separately – space. However, you can also seed completely unique maps and face things entirely alone.

To aid you with this, there are recipes in your starting guide for making a compass, sextant and other rudimentary navigation gear. Or you can just look at the sun or moon, and figure out at least a compass point. Also, you can mark islands you’ve visited by leaving crafted flags behind, which I invariably forget to do.

Developers Lavaboots are keen to impress upon anyone considering buying the game that it’s definitely an alpha of the game, and encourage people to check out the free trial before putting $15 down for the lot. The trial version apparently limits you to a certain number of islands, and doesn’t allow you to seed your own worlds or play the hardcore mode. I went straight for the full version, because heck, it’s an open-world exploration-n-piracy game. Throw money at screen. But it certainly remains the case that this is early stuff.

Right now, the interface is a disaster. The inventory slides in from the right in multiple tabs, which is nice but ugly and clumsy. And to craft anything you have to close that, and then open an identical inventory along with a very poor tiny crafting window on the left. Double click in one and it appears in the other, and if you’ve a combination that creates anything, you click to make it. Want to read your crafting recipe book at this point? You can’t. You have to close the crafting side-in, and re-open the inventory one (which are, let’s remember, identical), despite the crafting book being bloody visible. Presumably this is all placeholder, but hopefully it’s holding the place for a completely different, far less fiddly, and all-in-one solution.

This is also, obviously, buggy, slide-ins getting stuck open, but hey, early access. A bug that perhaps needs more rapid fixing is the windowed version of the game’s frequent failure to capture the mouse cursor, meaning turn around then click and you’ve left the game – never a good thing when a plate-faced pirate is hitting you with his axe.

It’s an odd mix of pretty and ugly, too. Very often I’m taken aback at a gorgeous vista, sunlight glinting through the leaves on trees, or the reds of a sunrise behind a distant island. Other times I notice that most of the clumsy ground foliage is in 2.5D, following you around as you turn like it’s 1994. I’ve mocked the pirates’ moon-faces twice already, and they’re either cute or laughable – I cannot work out which. They are definitely not pirate-like, that is certain. But pretty wins out, despite not managing the breathtaking realism of The Forest, or the cartoon exquisiteness of Eidolon.

There’s definitely a solid experience to be had here as it is. There’s already stuff to discover, surprises to be found. And with no expectations, and quite happy to just knock fruit out of trees and enjoy sunsets, it’s a real thrill to then find myself a dilapidated pirate ship I can try to patch up. You can see all that happening in 25 minutes of my playing the game, here:

I imagine there are some who are suffering from open-world explorer fatigue at this point, but I’m certainly not amongst them. It’s like my gaming birthdays have piled on top of one another – big, not wholly deadly worlds, where I can gently explore. “Walking Simulators” the wretched decry them. Walking Simulators I gratefully agree – what a lovely thing to add to our wonderful world of gaming.

And Salt, while currently limited in terms of its crafting options, has the potential to carve its own niche. The developers have already stated their intended direction for the project is to focus on adventuring and role-playing. Which they define, rather wonderfully, as “do awesome things to get nice loot, and feel good about yourself.”

Their immediate plans include adding the ability to build homes, allowing players ways to “settle”, and that will add a huge amount to Salt. A base to go back to, add to, a centre-point from which to begin expeditions and to return to when exhausted, will make a splendid difference. They of course also plan to add more island types, more wildlife and baddies, much more to craft and sail, and most importantly, fishing. They also throw in “quests and lore” at the end of their list, which opens up another whole world of potential.

Right now, I’m really happy with what’s here, despite its earliness. The menus and crafting are currently dreadful, but I imagine we’ll see significant improvement there over time. A Java launcher for the Unity game means it’ll check for updates each time you launch, so you’ll have all the latest content. As it is, the world is just a pleasure to pootle about within.

Salt is available as a free limited trial version, or you can get the current version of the full game for £9.40/$15.

27 Comments

Top comments

  1. DGatsby says:

    John Walker'in around. Haha. Why didn't you hire me?
  1. Tei says:

    Its weird because survival used to be a very niche genre, with one title every 15 years or so.
    But now theres plenty of these.

    • Geebs says:

      A cynic would say it’s largely because it’s pretty easy to throw some Perlin noise at a heightmap, put it in front of some light scattering, add trees and call it a “procedurally generated exploration and survival game” and start selling it before you actually figure out what the game bit is. Fortunately, I’m a cynic.

      • Assaf says:

        :)

      • Mittens89 says:

        Yep, im a cynic too. I came to write pretty much the exact same thing.

        The only one that looks half decent is probably The Forest. The rest, well they all look/play the same, don’t they?

          • celticdr says:

            What!?

            Windwaker was instantly boring?!

            How dare you besmirch the mighty Zelda with this talk!

            Off to the gallows with ye (I’m keeping with the pirate theme).

        • Tei says:

          2014 survival games are somewhat like a Terrence Malick movie. And I liked some of them. I trough “The New World” was really good.

        • padger says:

          You can hardly compare The Forest to Eidolon, or Sir, You Are Being Hunted to The Long Dark. They are all radically different. That’s what’s so interesting about this phenomenon. It’s a huge proliferation of game ideas from a single seed, and they’re all different.

          Being cynical about it doesn’t change that the actual games are entertaining, and each have their own themes and mechanisms.

          • Geebs says:

            That’s not really what my thought process was, although I guess I could have put it a bit more clearly:

            – these things are really easy to prototype
            – these things are really hard to finish
            – that’s why, when such an idea becomes popular, it’s easy for a bunch of teams to produce something which looks superficially like it’ll be really easy to complete
            – hence a lot of similar projects are announced at about the same time in a “playable state”, but it takes longer than expected for them actually to come out.

            RPS seem to like these things because they’ve all had such a surfeit of playing games that a nice, contemplative break without much actual gameplay must seem more appealing than shooting dudes. I have the opposite problem; when I got bored with traditional gameplay, I started writing procedural landscape wandering simulators. It’s fascinating to make your own (I’m working on rain and erosion at the moment, which makes lovely dynamic flow maps), but the problem with procedural content is that if you’re exploring somebody else’s, you’re basically trying to scry meaning out of a noise function, and I don’t find that very intellectually appealing.

          • padger says:

            That makes sense. That said, it’s interesting just to have a new genre, whatever the drawbacks of how they’re being conceived/made.

    • rebb says:

      Why is this the case though ? Details are HayZ.

  2. shimeril says:

    That looks all kinds of awesome to me.

  3. Wounder says:

    It’s interesting and enjoyable, but I’d kill for just a hint of how I’m supposed to discover recipes. And Googling for “salt recipes” doesn’t help. At all.

  4. padger says:

    Damn, this looks intriguing. Has such a welcoming flavour to it! No grimdark at all.

    I’ll have to queue it behind The Forest and PA, of course.

  5. Skeletor68 says:

    ‘The developers have already stated their intended direction for the project is to focus on adventuring and role-playing. Which they define, rather wonderfully, as “do awesome things to get nice loot, and feel good about yourself.’

    I could kiss them. Anyone know more games with this design philosophy?

    Terraria seems close and was an absolutely joyous experience for myself and my girlfriend (despite never getting multiplayer working on her mac).

  6. Shiloh says:

    Unreal World is still where it’s at for me, although I’m also keeping an eye on Unveil, which seemingly has some interesting mechanics beyond the usual starve/freeze/get killed by badgers stuff. Oh, and it has a round-eyed, tousle-haired hero called Keith as well so can’t be all bad.

  7. KingFunk says:

    Sounds nice, although I’m not sure the pirates are really necessary – Miasmata was probably my favourite game I played last year and that was essentially combatless.

    There were so many things I liked about that game – the way you were essentially left to choose your own aims and then how the systems interacted to steer your experience. I’m trying not to write too much cos I tend to gush about that game.

    One thing I will say though is that any game with a thirst mechanic is improved by glugging beer (IRL) when your character takes a drink…

  8. eggy toast says:

    When the developer and the article say its in Early Access, I assumed that meant on Steam, but apparently it does not, sadly.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I remember back in 2010 writing about my wish for more games that would just let me hunker down, find a cave, and survive the elements.

    Interesting coincidence — just the other day, I was chatting about my wish for just this. Specifically, I was sitting in my apartment while the rain battered the windows and musing about how it would be nice to see real weather in a game.

    Not Minecraft-like weather, where it just occasionally rains/snows at random and is a minor inconvenience, to be dismissed by the nearest bed. Rather, the sort of weather that you can predict (to some degree), either via technology (e.g. radar) or via more primitive means, but that sometimes shifts direction or comes in at high speed and surprises you nonetheless. The sort where you might have a Rain Day where you stay home and focus on local tasks whilst listening to rain patter against your roof, or where you might get caught in the open and scramble to find some form of shelter before it hits in full force. The sort where it’s enough of a discomfort, or sometimes even danger, that these things are advisable or even necessary, and where you’d only willfully ignore terrible weather in the most urgent of scenarios. And a game with enough solitary things to do — or dynamic enough NPC companions — that being stuck for a while in some spartan cave, listening to the storm outside, isn’t boring and is a nice change of pace instead.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that’s a pretty niche desire, and conflicts with a lot of other game design philosophies. Game heroes aren’t “weak” enough to be bothered by a bit of rain (unless it fits the story, e.g. start of Tomb Raider). And in a game where the fun is exploring and surviving, it may be hard to come up with compelling gameplay that involves staying indoors. And NPCs generally aren’t dynamic and compelling enough that they would make interesting company in a cave in a storm; or, if they are, then their extent of social interactions are a limited, exhaustible resource. And if the person you’re stuck in a cave with is actually another human player, you’d be pretty lucky to get interesting conversation, and incredibly lucky to get in-character conversation. And that’s if they don’t just kill you for fun.

    Guess I’ll have to wait for AIs and holodecks and whatnot.

    • toxic avenger says:

      I dunno, that sounds really rad to me.

    • frightlever says:

      Ever play Morrowind? Plenty of times I’d pop out of a building, take a look at the surrounding dust storm and say naw, fekkit, I’m staying in today and doing alchemy.

  10. DGatsby says:

    John Walker’in around. Haha. Why didn’t you hire me?