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.