Salt & Sanctuary: A 2D Dark Souls That Doesn’t Feel Enough Like Dark Souls

Everything I love about Dark Souls is everything that makes me want to scream in Salt and Sanctuary [official site].

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that, but there’s no escaping that 2D stab ’em up Salt & Sanctuary is designed to be one thing and one thing only: an indie Dark Souls. And by ‘indie’ I just don’t mean whatever the hell that even means from a development perspective any more, but rather stylistic go-tos such as platforming, side-scrolling and big-eyed characters. This is pressed, like so much Playdough mashed into a child’s dinner, on top of Dark Souls inspirations which run all the way from Souls – sorry, Salt – collection which is lost upon death to one handed/two handed weapon switching to even suspiciously similar fonts.

Sometimes it goes too far in emulating its icon – overwrought names such as The Sodden Knight and The Festering Banquet lack a certain delicacy – but rarely does the game ever embrace the humour which might be required to make its silly names and tousle-haired moppet characters work.

I’m showing my hand too soon, I admit. I found Salt & Sanctuary consistently irritating even though I could not in good conscience call it bad, to the extent that I struggle to be level-headed when describing even basic aspects. I didn’t finish it, because I bounced off it in irritation. It’s one of those cases where I can’t entirely identify why, but boils down to that I was not enjoying myself, even though I had expected to.

Though it borrows heavily in both mechanics and presentation, it is not a simple clone. There are changes from Dark Souls, and some of them are thoughtful ones – for instance, the acquisition of stone idols which unlock various shopkeepers at campfires sanctuaries, and must be deployed wisely in order to save a schlep back and forth. There’s also a move to a dual currency: Salt for levelling up and gold for purchases, and while some degree of remixing is only wise, it does mean that the clarity and purity of Dark Souls’ one-currency-to-rule-them-all system becomes unnecessarily muddied. The reality is there’s just one more thing to farm, and as such XP and gold collection takes charge of proceedings more than it does in Souls games.

This is also because S&S, in my experience, doesn’t manage to evoke that sense of slow discovery and understanding that exploring a new Souls area does, so I feel much more inclined to go fiddle with my stats than to push on and find out what’s waiting ahead. Part of this is simply the perspective – you don’t really get to worry about what’s around the corner because either you can see it all or it’s clad in darkness, in which case obviously something nasty is in there. But there’s also much more finding levers to open doors, or hopping between platforms and climbing ladders, and somehow it feels that much more like repetition rather than honing. The Ghosts’n’Goblins and Castlevania roots of Dark Souls are that much more evident, I suppose, and the result is a game which feels more mechanical than organic, more game-like than place-like. I strongly suspect that sings to others more than it does to me – I have never clicked with Castlevania either, I admit.

I felt that a lightness of touch is lacking from the world design too – I don’t feel that there are mysteries to be teased out, partly because this is an artificial world of ladders and platforms rather than a convincing place, and partly because NPCs splurt far too much lore at me.

Here’s the key thing, and even if, worryingly, I can’t entirely lay a finger on why, it speaks to an important difference: in a Souls game I want to push on, challenge myself, run the gauntlet again, get vengeance in the event of a death. In S&S I feel irritated and acutely conscious of what I’m going to have to repeat to get back to where I was. The runs from a respawn point to a boss are, if anything, shorter, but the bosses I’ve faced feel more like a war of attrition against a health bar than going mano-a-monstero in a convincing, heartpounding fight.

Boss’ loops and routines are so much more obvious from this perspective and without complex 3D models, and to counter this their attacks happen in more unpredictable, frustrating orders. I don’t feel excited; I feel like I’m doing chores.

All that said, it’s slick and it hangs together, and there’s been a great deal of thought and care put into weapons, enemy behaviours and the puzzlebox layout of levels. On a nuts and bolts level, Souls has successfully been transposed to 2D, and there’s just a ton of stuff to sink into here. What I struggle with is coming up for a reason for its existence: if it’s going to borrow quite this much from Dark Souls, why play it instead of Dark Souls? Maybe you’ve played all the Souls games to death, maybe this is cheaper, maybe you’ve got a crap graphics card, maybe its side-on, more brightly-lit appearance is less intimidating than Souls’ gloom-clad spikes and viscera.

All understandable reasons, but none of them quite enough for me to want to continue with this in preference to, say, Souls 1 – also cheap and not too technically demanding. ‘Why am I playing a not-as-good version of Dark Souls when I could be playing Dark Souls?’ was the question which haunted me, and eventually saw me drop S&S entirely.

That’s me, though. I pushed through my fear and embraced Dark Souls belatedly recently (to the point that I’m now putting hours into Bloodborne every night), but I appreciate that for many the prospect remains too fearsome. Salt & Sanctuary is, to some extent, a little easier and certainly more accessible – it’s not drenched in deliberate opacity, for sure – so I think the Souls virgin would get more out of it than a Souls veteran. There are even open prompts about what to do, such as directives to go reclaim your lost Salt upon death – everything that was discovered for oneself in Souls is explicitly stated here.

That said, before too long you’ll be running into enemies which feel cheap and result in infuriating sudden deaths. All this only raises the question of who it’s really for, given how much it recycles and very consciously homages; there’s even a ‘Praise the Salt!’ message very early on.

Be in no doubt, S&S displays great technical skill on the part of its creators, and also I truly do believe that Dark Souls’ concepts and ethos will one day be beautifully reinterpreted. I’m just unconvinced that Salt & Sanctuary manages to either get the best of Souls quite right or do enough to have its own identity. It’s fine. Fine! I just can’t work what, or who, it’s for.

[Salt and Sanctuary is out now.

From this site

60 Comments

  1. Dready says:

    I picked this up a couple of weeks ago on launch day and really enjoyed it. At times I even found it more frustrating than DS, which has become my go to game for a nice relaxing time :D

    I love the game for what its doing and really enjoyed the hand drawn art style.

    Alec, as for what its trying to do I have to agree with you. Who knows who/what it’s aimed at, maybe everyone, maybe themselves as a little homage, but I think they did a great job overall.

  2. MetalShadowChaos says:

    You’ve focused a lot on the Souls half of it’s DNA, but personally a lot of my love of this game comes from it’s Castlevania half. I love Salt and Sanctuary because it’s familiar mechanics from the Soul series transposed into a Castlevania game, and while we’ve gotten a lot of Metroid inspired games as of late, it’s been a long time since I’ve played anything that really felt like the Castlevania half of the Metroidvania genre. It comes into it’s own by the end, wen you get a bunch of traversal skills, and more direct exposition. I love it’s art too, potato-people aside. I feel it sets itself apart from Souls and Bloodborne with the nautical theme and the focus on creepy historical figures and events, rather than documenting the decay of a kingdom/city.

    Beyond that, I simply didn’t experience any of the annoyances you did, I enjoy all the bosses, I feel no more frustrated by corpse runs than I do in any Souls game, and I think it embraces it’s humour far more readily than it’s spiritual predecessors. I mean, you can literally dress up as a potato. Not even something like the Catarina set, literally just a potato costume.

    I suppose it’s just one of those cases where for no particular reason your brain has just gone “nah” and it hasn’t clicked, which is fair enough. I had the same with The Witcher 3, I know it’s excellent and can talk for ages about all the great stuff it does, but I hated my time with the thing and I don’t want to play it. It just seems unfair to call it “a not-as-good version of Dark Souls” to me, thugh as someone who likes I I’m clearly biased.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Yeah, it’s not for me and I’m in the odd situation where I can’t entirely put my finger on why – but am glad to hear that it clicks so well for others.

      • Phinor says:

        Whether you managed to put it into proper words or not, I kept nodding my head throughout this article. Agree with just about everything you said, S&S just isn’t doing it for me for whatever reason. Probably the most irritating part was enemies who had attacks and special moves that hit me even though I was nowhere near their attack, teleported me into their eating animations etc. I had managed around four hours of the game but encountered yet another enemy with such teleporting abilities and that was the final straw, I uninstalled the game 15 seconds later because it just wasn’t fun for me. I never had that thought with any of the Souls games no matter how infuriating some encounters were.

      • Boibi says:

        I’m really glad that you recognize that the game is really adored by some people and that even though it’s not your cup of tea that doesn’t make it a bad game.

        I find 2D Action Platformers to be my all time favorite genre. And with 100s of hours in all 3 Dark Souls games, this was an easy buy for me. I find it drawing me back more than Dark Souls games ever did. It calls to me.

        • Boibi says:

          Also, the “Praise the Salt!” message was definitely left by another player, and not the devs.

      • Rupoe says:

        But, hey… how about Bloodborne, huh? Isn’t that game the best?!?

    • LacSlyer says:

      Condensed my initial response to the article because this basically sums up my entire feelings. Calling this a Souls clone is quite honestly an insult to the two people who worked on it.

  3. Fuligin says:

    This game is actually very good, and it does the “nested world” approach to level design better than any Fromsoft game since DS1. It’s Castlevania with a Souls twist and it works magnificently

    • Suits says:

      I found that, while alot of areas connected to one another at some point. You would usually never need or use these pathways. Instead just teleport between shrines via a Guide

      • Boibi says:

        Sometimes I just wandered around because I liked seeing the world, and not because I had to.

  4. LacSlyer says:

    I think far too much focus gets put on how Souls like this game is when it’s just as much, if not more, Castlevania/Metroidvania.

    • Rizlar says:

      Visually it’s absolutely copying Dark Souls, presumably the audio too and it seems also the core mechanics and combat.

      Sounds like the devs have done a good job and lots of people enjoy it but honestly this review reads as the only way I could possibly feel about it – not as good as Dark Souls.

      • LacSlyer says:

        Yes, visually without actually playing it I can see how you’d get to that conclusion. That doesn’t make it the truth though.

        • Rizlar says:

          But it does explain the comparisons (as I also pointed out it’s not just visuals, though that may be enough on it’s own).

          Can’t help but feel that something trying so hard to recreate Souls superficially will fail to capture the spirit of the thing. I mean yay, Castlevania style games, but that doesn’t explain why it’s aping Dark Souls so heavily.

        • jgthespy says:

          I think you might be blind. You should get that checked out.

    • baseless_drivel says:

      That might be part of the problem — the visual experience is very tightly tied with our expectations. It’s kind of like if you were served a fine beef steak that looked like a cake. Even if it tasted like excellent, many people would find it very unsettling and would have trouble enjoying it because there’d be that conflict between the eyes and mouth.

      It’s probably the same thing in this case. This game is so very obviously and heavily inspired by the Souls series in both visuals and gameplay that people can’t help but think “Souls”.

      People see a cake, and they expect to taste a cake. People see Souls, and they expect to play Souls. Any deviation from that, even if done well, will inevitably rub some people the wrong way.

      This kind of visual (and aural) association is the subject of millions of dollars’ worth of research in just about every field that involves consumer products, ranging from food to toilet paper. This game, being a more amateur affair, probably didn’t have the benefit and foresight of that kind of knowledge.

      If this game had been released before Souls, it could’ve been better judged on its own terms… but this game probably wouldn’t have existed either. Instead, it’s forever going to live under the Shadow of a Colossus.

  5. Suits says:

    This was the perfect game for me to play after having done everything in Dark Souls 3 and just before the new Witcher 3 expansion. I ended up doing the whole thing 2-Handing a great sword/scissor, didn’t like what shield were about. While in Dark Souls I usually have a medium shield off-hand.

  6. TΛPETRVE says:

    Well, Dark Souls is the closest we’ll ever get to a “true” 3D Castlevania, so it’s really just things going full circle. I’d say Salt & Sanctuary actually does a few things much better than the Souls games, in particular the way it ties creeds and sanctuaries – i.e. covenants and bonfires – together. The only thing about S&S that really wedges my crack is the abysmal writing, which is all sorts of embarassing.

    • Unsheep says:

      I disagree, they have little of significance in common:
      * Castlevania is an action platformer, Dark Souls is not
      * Dark Souls has RPG elements, Castlevania does not
      * Castlevania has a clear storyline, Dark Souls does not
      * Castlevania is 2D, Dark Souls is 3D
      * you have limited lives in Castlevania, not in Dark Souls

      So games like Volgar the Viking, Spelunky and Shovel Knight have actually more in common with Castlevania than Dark Souls does.

      The only thing they share is having a Gothic atmosphere, but so do a hundred other games.

  7. gabrielonuris says:

    I was never a fan of the Soul’s games, but there is something in this Salt & Sanctuary that made me put it on my wishlist… Maybe it’s for me, but I don’t know why.

  8. Monggerel says:

    I disagree completely. It’s a 2d Souls ’em Up with wall jumps and air dashes and lore I couldn’t care less about and brutal platforming and difficult combat. So it’s like Dark Souls, but quicker and arcade-ier. So I love it.
    I could never care about the high-minded aspects of the Souls games like lore or the poetrificial beauty of crumbling etc and I just stuck with them because the combat is good, dressing up a virtual doll is fun, and the music is also good, and the levels are also fun to navigate around. Anything deeper than that seems like grasping at shadows for me. The Souls Series’ brooding bleakness is just evocative free-association. It paints a mood (or a few) successfully then it gets the hell out the way of my enjoyment and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Salt and Sanctuary doesn’t do that, but that’s hardly a mark against it.

    In my opinion.

    • Geebs says:

      I completely agree with you. I also like the fact that the minute-to-minute combat is much more challenging, and the weapons are much more varied than Castlevania ever really managed. Plus, the bosses are far more interesting than the ones in DS2.

      The constant falling deaths are pretty damn annoying, though. Looking at you, gaol boss.

  9. preshrunk_cyberpunk says:

    I absolutely love this game <3

  10. Fnord73 says:

    Oh please oh please cant we skip the PC only! stance and talk about Bloodborne and the work of genius that it is?

    • BenMS says:

      The issue with that is that the PC-only thing isn’t a “stance”, it’s a strict policy. That’s what RPS is for, PC gaming. Everyone here who has ever enjoyed a Souls game knows that Bloodborne is excellent, there’s no debate around that. There is plenty of Bloodborne coverage to be had on all sorts of good quality sites all over the internet, and RPS adding their take on it would probably be redundant.

    • Ragnar says:

      Isn’t that what the forums are for? There’s a section where you can talk about console games, shows, comic, music, books, etc.

    • Unsheep says:

      Well, RPS is all about PC gaming, that’s why you don’t see Bloodborne, Uncharted 4 or Halo 5 reviews on RPS. It’s self-explanatory.

  11. notcoffeetable says:

    I feel like I could copy and paste this review as why I bounce so hard off Dark Souls every time I try it.

  12. The Algerian says:

    You should try Volgarr The Viking if you’re looking for a 2D action-platformer game that feels Dark Souls.

    I’ve tried S&S, and I honestly think it can’t hold a candle to either of these games.

    • trjp says:

      Worth noting that Volgar is RIDICULOUSLY hard – so much so that I suspect many people just quit and forget they own it…

      • The Algerian says:

        I’ve beat it to 100% completion, all 3 endings and all Steam achievements.

        And now it ruined me for pretty much every other 2D action-platformer games.

  13. trjp says:

    I’ve never really enjoyed a DS game and yet I picked-this-up and I’ve had some fun out of it for sure…

    First thing it did is reinforce how much DS is just a Metroidvania in 3D (replacing “you don’t have the item to come this way” with “come this way and die instantly”)

    I also find this game had a better fit between exploration and levelling and a combat system which is a BIT less ‘block or die’ or ‘dodge-roll for hours’)

    It lacks the feeling of desolation you get from DS but as a GAME I think it’s a superior thing – esp as it doesn’t hide it’s mechanics and is less of a dick in terms of sneaky/unpredictable deaths (tho ‘between screen’ deaths are a bit cheap)

    • Unsheep says:

      Yes, media has a tendency to ignore actual gameplay mechanics when they make these kind of comparisons.

  14. Kyir says:

    You really hit the nail on the head with the vague sense of irritation permeating the game. I’ve given up and come back to it multiple times, and it’s always the same feeling. Every accomplishment comes with the sense of “that shouldn’t have taken nearly as long,” every boss is “when am I going to be done with this?” There’s no sense of gravitas or excitement to any of it, and while it’s certainly not a BAD game, I really don’t have fun playing it at all.

    • trjp says:

      You just described by feelings on Demon Souls AND Dark Souls to a near-perfect degree.

      If you’d brought-in my hatred of the stupid weightless corpses you drag around like an idiot, you’d have nailed it. ;)

  15. shadow9d9 says:

    The writer seems obsessed with Souls. I say who cares. This is its own game. Also, no mention of coop. Bad review.

    • trjp says:

      You cannot talk about this game without talking about DS because it’s taken SO MUCH from those games that it’s cheeky bordering on actionable.

      It’s only mitigation is that I enjoy it MORE than those games, but I’m not kidding myself, it really has taken too much from DS and lacks enough of it’s own thing to stand-out as it might.

    • slerbal says:

      Oooh coop. Now that is interesting for me and my wife. I shall see if it is something she might be interested in.

    • HothMonster says:

      Good thing it isn’t a review?

  16. mechavolt says:

    I totally respect your opinion about this game. But I’ve had a jolly good time playing co-op with the missus. I feel like it’s more Castlevania, though, with the skin of Dark Souls on top. And that’s perfectly fine by me.

  17. DragonDai says:

    Basically, if you don’t like the older style Castlevania games, no matter how much you like Dark Souls, you’re unlikely to enjoy Salt and Sanctuary.

    And that’s because for all of its outwardly similarities to Dark Souls, the heart and soul of the game is much more similar to other Metroidvanias. On the surface it’s strikingly similar to Dark Souls. But most of it’s deeper elements, it’s more fundamental aspects, are FAR removed from the 3D rolling, circle strafing of Dark Souls and much more in line with what you’d expect from a 2D platforming action exploration game.

    In short, Salt and Sanctuary is always called “The 2D Dark Souls.” And while it can certainly seem that way on the surface, I think this game owes at least as much, if not more, to the Castlevanias and Metroids of the past as it does to the Dark Souls of the present.

    • Unsheep says:

      Yes, that’s the risk when you make a tribute game like this; it looses it’s identity in favor of always being known as ‘that 2D Dark Souls game’. You can partly blame media for this, since they have continuously referred to the game as ‘2D Dark Souls’.

      However as long as the game sells I’m sure the developers are happy.

  18. Juan Carlo says:

    I really love it. Although, I admit I was really hyped for Dark Souls 3 only to realize my PC can’t run it. I’m waiting until the 1070s are released to upgrade. So “Salt and Sanctuary” is a less technically demanding fix to tied me over until then.

    Still, it’s a good enough game on its own that I don’t think that matters. I don’t have much to criticize it for. Its art style is bland (basically the psuedo-anime you see everywhere these days).

    It also way too easy to feel like a proper souls game to me. Part of this is due to class imbalances, though. Playing a thief is incredibly hard, whereas two handing a warhammer (or great scissor) makes the game almost two easy. I two handed a great scissor and beat all bosses save for 2 my first time through (the Witch of the Lake is really the only legitimately hard boss).

    The difficulty does increase to what feels like the difficulty of a traditional Souls game in NG+, though.

  19. April March says:

    You forgot to close the bracket at the very ending, as has been foretold.

  20. Tim James says:

    You were using a knife, weren’t you?

    The things I found to be irritating in this game are the same things that have always been irritating in the Souls series: the boss runs, the unnecessarily annoying enemies, etc.

    For me, the only other downside was the unfortunate limitations of a small development team, such as not enough animations to keep weapons and bosses fresh. I burned out after 60 or 70 hours (which is plenty, of course).

  21. renzollama says:

    I bounced off of the game also, specifically because I was tired of squinting at the screen attempting to distinguish between enemies and the background. Some of the early areas have the worst art design I’ve ever seen in a 2D game in terms of background contrast; I’m not colorblind and I have 20/15 vision, but I was literally running straight into stationary enemies regularly because I couldn’t see them. I haven’t seen anywhere near as much complaining about it that I would expect based on my experience, so maybe I have some vision deficiency that doesn’t affect me in other ways, but man…it was really irritating.

  22. Hamses says:

    Love this game. Am currently about 1/3 into NG+ with 25 hrs played and still want to keep going back. Looking forward to expansions or DLC – would be instabuy for me.

    Disclaimer: Have tried to get into the Souls games but keep bouncing off, and am a serial metroidvania player.

  23. Don Reba says:

    mano-a-monstero in a convincing

    Little-known fact: “mano a mano” means “hand to hand,” not “man to man.”

  24. duxdaro says:

    Game is AWESOME! In my history of console gaming i have only 4 platinum trophies and S&S is one of them. It just felt right to have it, to see everything producers have made for us. The only thing that it lacks is online multiplayer, so there was no tension that you could have been invaded by other players in any time. Maybe in some patch…

    • Niko says:

      Online multiplayer is usually not such an easy thing to do that you can just patch it in.

      • duxdaro says:

        But there already are online options like messages in bottles and other players graves. And some people figured out that you can play online with friend through PS4 Share play, so maybe it won’t be that hard to do ;)

  25. Agnosticus says:

    I’m ~4 hours in and really enjoying my time with it so far.
    No unfair bosses found yet!
    Have to try the (local) coop yet, but it seems to be well worth the asking price.

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  30. Unsheep says:

    Not enough like Dark Souls ?!
    I think the game is too much like Dark Souls, to the point where I’m surprised Namco hasn’t sued them.