Sharpen you sword, crack out your compass and prepare to get very salty indeed. Ska Studios are back with a brand new game, Salt and Sacrifice. Leaning heavily on 2016’s hugely popular Salt and Sanctuary, Sacrifice takes a lot of good and adds a sprinkle of its own magic.
Magic being the operative word here. This plucky little developer blends Soulslike, Metroidveinia and Monsterhunter genres to deliver something entirely fresh. It is 2D alchemy at its most ambitious. But whether the result is gold, or something less auspicious, remains to be seen.
How one derives fun from a product tends to be highly subjective. Therefore ALL forms of review are opinionated and should be taken with a grain of salt (pun intended). So let’s analyze Salt and Sacrifice, through the lens of more objective metrics such as; graphical fidelity, characters/story, content/length, controls & gameplay, and then finally, sound design & cinematics. This product was played on a 3060 8GB, 32GB Ram, with an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 – 3.6 GHz. For full transparency: this content was reviewed using a purchased copy of the game.
Just as you would expect from the sequel to Salt and Sanctuary, Sacrifice is, without a doubt a stunning game. Ska has again created a beautifully charming, albeit sombre world filled with sumptuous animation, flowing flora and fierce fauna. Gone are the muted tones of Sanctuary. They are instead replaced with an altogether more vibrant world, packed with glowing runes, with fluorescent highlights illuminating your path through the many zones on offer. It’s certainly a change from the pastel pallet from the 2016 game and a welcome one at that.
Hand-drawn character and enemy animations are flawless, only bested, just by the extraordinary Cup-Head. Sacrifice naturally presents us with a huge variety of weapon art and enemy variation, with the style dipping artfully into the macabre on frequent occasions.
Ska Studios have certainly expanded the pallet in Salt and Sacrifice
The team’s decision to depart from a large interconnected map instead adopting a hub-based approach allows for more biome variety. Backdrops change from a dilapidated village, your typical Sanctuary fair, to blizzard-beaten snowscapes, poison-soaked swampland and mystical, rune-swept forests. A great decision graphically, at least, although the impact on the gameplay is perhaps slightly less successful. More on that later.
Characters and Story
Here I am a little less certain that the team’s ambition lives up to the delivery. Full disclosure, infrequently do I care too much about the story in Soulslikes. Blame that on the genre trope of having to dig the lore out from between the cracks in your shoe. I simply don’t have the patience. There are plenty of YouTubers that garner a living from explaining that convoluted mess. Who am I to deny them their due? Sacrifice is no exception. And whilst you won’t need to read every item description for the penny to drop, you will have to suffer inexhaustive, rambling NPC dialogue to grasp even a fingernail purchase on the story.
Suffice to say, I’m not entirely sure what the story is in Salt and Sacrifice. Something to do with Gods and ravenous mage hunters consumed with delusions of power, or something. On the particulars of the lore, I couldn’t be less interested. But…
Mage hunting is the name of the game in Salt and Sacrifice, but are they friend or foe?
The overreaching story has something of Shadow of the Colossus about it. You’re the good guy, ostensibly, ridding the world of the evil of the mages hell-bent on perverting the land. But as the story unfolds, illustrated in particular with the Librarian NPC’s quest, things aren’t what they seem.
I won’t go too heavy on spoilers here, but it’s a great subversion of the expected. To an extent, it somewhat redeems an overly convoluted attempt at depth from lengthy, laboured NPC dialogues about gods and mages and who cares what. Somewhat.
Content and Length
Absolutely no two ways about it. There is a solid amount of game to play here, considering the price. My Let’s Play lasted over 30 episodes, clocking in at close to 24 hours. Six biomes, each with a unique set of mages to hunt. They all of course include several usually diverse areas to explore in natural Metroidvania style. In these belt-fastening times, at £12.99 it packs a serious bang for your buck.
As for the content itself, there’s a satisfying amount of variety in the enemies faced. at least to look at. Although outside of mage fights there’s a heavy reliance on melee. That said, the core content loop features a variety of bosses scattered about the level that, once defeated become farmable for their upgrade mats.
This in turn opens up a vast array of customization, each mage presenting the player with a number of weapon options spanning various possible player builds. Each mage has its own armour set, too ranging from lightweight dex-orientated to something to suit the chonkiest of Havel monsters. In my Let’s Play, I barely went more than a couple of episodes using the same armour and weapon build. So it seems that in this instance, variety is the salt of life.
The portal, accessible in the hub area gives the player access to six biomes, each with a unique feel and character
On mage hunts, a clear focal point of Sanctuary once you’ve knocked one off, you open up a number of more challenging versions of that hunt to revisit for yet rarer drops. Whilst I can imagine this is something that would appeal to the Monster Hunter community, it wasn’t something I dipped into too much unless I was missing a specific upgrade matt for a tantalising new two-hander that caught my eye.
Final note, there are a number of covenants and PvP options in Salt and Sacrifice. Unfortunately, I never managed to engage with any of them, I presume because by the time I got round to playing the game the user base had dwindled to nothing. A shame, considering the games only a couple of months past release. Not a critique I can level at the developers as such, but fair warning.
Controls and Gameplay
The controls are exactly as you would expect from the developers of Salt and Sanctuary. In other words, close to perfect, and every part familiar to the seasoned veteran of this genre. The platforming is slick, your character scrambling up and down the nearest ledge, or traversing from hook to hook with the grapple in a never-tiring, fluid motion more at home in something like Sekiro than a 2D platformer. This coupled with the near-perfect, varied combat and you have a team that has all but perfected their craft. Absolutely as good as its predecessor, which is to be expected.
As for the gameplay loop itself, the developers explore a lot of exciting concepts. Some better, and some, in my opinion, are questionable when compared to the first game. I should note at this point that Sacrifice is absolutely not a direct sequel to Sanctuary, from a story and lore perspective, and the gameplay reflects this decision.
The variety of mages you will encounter in Sacrifice is something to be commended
In evidence for the good, each biome includes a series of mini-bosses, the mages for whom you have been employed to hunt. The level itself will also contain a number of locked doors, each requiring you find, then hunt down and “devour” a certain number of mages before they yield to opening. It’s a clever way of segmenting progression throughout each zone.
Rather than blocking progression with a literal boss standing in your path, it requires a little more exploration, requiring the player to remember where all previously encountered locked doors are. Chasing the mages around too often yields areas the player may not yet have ventured into, which again marks a novel take on exploration. Sort of leading by the hand, and as the exploration culminates in the inevitable boss encounter, quietly stabbing you in the face. Lovely.
The exceptional build variety available in Sacrifice is truly magnificent
As for the bad, we have a hub. If Salt and Sanctuary was Dark Souls, then Salt and Sacrifice is Demon Souls, or worse yet, Dark Souls 2. Oh dear, that difficult second game. It’s not that I dislike the hub, but compared to Sanctuary, it just doesn’t have quite the same flow to it, the same connectedness. Each biome feels very separate, and as such, the story just doesn’t carry through. This isn’t helped by a relatively convoluted, and forgettable story (oh god it is DS2 isn’t it…), and whilst it doesn’t make Sanctuary a bad experience, something of the magic and the majesty of the first game is lost.
Sound Design and Cinematics
There aren’t really any cinematics to speak of, so let’s focus on the sound. Each biome has its own background track, but this is more elevator “muzak” than anything you’re going to add to your Spotify playlist. It’s pleasant in so far as you aren’t playing in silence, but beyond that, I doubt the awards will rain down. Hollow Knight sound design, this is not.
Where the game does come into its own is the accompanying, visceral heartbeat of metal against bone. The “thwamp thwamp” of my trusty two-hander as it slams into the now broken vessel of a mage’s skull. Here, there is absolution. The team have done an incredible job at making every aspect of the combat sing, just as it did in Salt and Sanctuary. If I have but one criticism it’s the accompanying pling-plong of an achievement unlock, which seems a little out of step with the otherwise macabre setting of this deeply dark, rich experience.
Get a mage’s health low enough and it’ll stagger, enabling that final, deadly blow
The other call out is that as you engage with the mages dotted around each zone, once you get them to a certain health percentage the music changes. It’s a really nice audio cue that lets you know, outside of an all-out boss fight that you’re close to victory. With this change, the mage will often pass into its second phase, ditching the spam-summoning of minions in favour of employing its own move set to try and fend the player off. Great audio design, more of this, please.
Without any hesitation, I can happily say that my time spent with this game was hugely enjoyable. No doubt about it, it’s a fantastic game, offering exactly the same level of visceral combat, dipped in Soulslike tropes and placed effortlessly into a 2D setting.
Character build variety, enemy variation, challenge and balance are executed with deft precision, just like we first encountered in Salt and Sanctuary almost 6 years ago. All this is presented in stunning style, each hand-drawn animation adding its own charm and character to this otherwise cursed setting.
But it’s not without some criticism. The story itself feels like an afterthought, dialogue needlessly laborious and convoluted, saved only in an overarching “are we the baddies?” theme that will keep you guessing until the end.
Whilst the mages do present variety, you may find yourself fighting them again, and again
As for the gameplay, no doubt too the developer has taken a lot of risks, departing heavily from the fairly straightforward, Darksouls in 2D formula it perfected in 2016. Mashing together Metroidvania, Souls and Monsterhunter is brave. At times this works well, but for some, this just might not gel as well as something more straightforward. Farming for upgrade mats is one of my least favourite tasks in any game. So to make that an integral part of an experience will no doubt be divisive (it has been, just look on Metacritic).
So in conclusion, yes, Salt and Sacrifice is more than a worthy successor to Sanctuary and well worth your money. If you enjoyed the first game, or say Hollow Knight then this will undoubtedly scratch an itch of sorts. It’s not exactly as good as either of those titles, but as they represent the absolute best games available in this rather niche genre, that’s a tall, tall ask. 7.8/10.
Salt and Sacrifice is available now for PC, on both the Epic store and Steam, as well as for PlayStation 4 and 5, priced £12.99.
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- Overall - 7.8/107.8/10
A great, if not perfect example of Soulslike Metroidveinia
+ Combat just as good as Salt and Sanctuary + Fantastic art style + Huge amount of content for the price + A lot of ambitious new ideas – Convoluted story – Inter-connectivity ditched – Repetitive gameplay loop could divide players
“Video games are great. I should know, I’ve played some.”
Olly S, July 2020