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.
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.