There’s something to be said for applauding the tribute band. The Fleetwood Mac and Guns or Roses of this world play the songs with all the energy and bravado of their idols and now and then deliver a performance that’s just as good, if not better, than the real thing.
Welcome Salt and Sanctuary to the stage. This little platformer wears its influences loudly and proudly, and one of its great strengths is that it never tries to be anything other than a tribute. Salt are souls, creeds are covenants and sanctuaries are bonfires. This is Dark Souls: The 2D edition, and the good news is that it’s brilliant.
Two years on from its release on the PlayStation 4 and PC, and time hasn’t robbed it of anything. Yes, there are more Souls imitators than ever before (add Nioh and The Surge to that growing list) but Salt and Sanctuary continues to scratch an itch for a Dark Souls game given the retro treatment. The fact that it’s now portable is an added bonus. This is a port I’ve wanted to see for well over a year.
You play a nameless shipwrecked sailor left to survive on a mysterious island. The early in-game tutorial is nothing more than a message in a bottle, then another, then another, a wonderful nod to the famously matter-of-fact tutorial messages in the Souls franchise. As you process, the world unfurls itself and becomes the star. The Shivering Shore, the godforsaken strip of beach that ushers you into this strange world, soon gives way to a village of scarecrows, haunted woods, a bandit’s hideout, lighting-struck castles and more. The set dressing is familiar but the level design is inspired, and the 2D plane means secrets are buried high and low and stuffed into nooks and crannies. Shortcuts take you to the doorstep of locations you passed hours before, like a piece of paper folded back on itself, the shortcut acting as wormhole between these two points. Everything is interconnected, just as it should be, and there are entirely optional areas you might only stumble across on your second or third playthrough.
Of course, intricate, interconnected Metroidvania-esque worlds have been done plenty, and games like Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight are Switch-compatible too. What gives Salt and Sanctuary the edge, perhaps, is the simple pleasure of accruing salt to level up your character. All the while you explore, you’re putting money into the piggy bank and investing in a skill tree as you go along. The branches of the tree contain different abilities that fall within one of six categories – strength, endurance, dexterity, willpower, magic and wisdom – and it’s entirely up to you the character you want to build. Magic-users and melee brawlers can both sign up for duty, as can players who favor a bow and arrow.
Boss fights are end-level proving grounds, but picking out a hardest and an easiest fight is going to vary from player to player. These encounters can be as tough as nails if you’ve under-specced or a walk in the park if you happen to get lucky. You might breeze through the Kraeken Wyrm, a fight I struggled with, but die a thousand deaths at the hands of the Disembowled Husk, a boss I beat first time. The road to sanctuary – and safety – is going to be different for every player.
Take your time, however, and you’ll find a game padded with secrets and stuffed with strange little bits of lore everywhere you look. You’ll want to take your time to procure the best gear as well, chipping away at the 35-hour campaign bit by bit. Your willingness to indulge the game might take a hit when taxing jump sequences take their toll past the midway point, but you’ll persevere regardless, because the thrill of victory almost always makes the hard work worth it.
On a technical level, Salt and Sanctuary is good, if not perfect. There are occasional slowdowns and the move to the Switch has meant that, in docked mode, it can’t quite match up to the PS4 original, with text and environments looking marginally lower-res and slightly blockier. In handheld mode on-the-go, however, it’s a striking piece of work that doesn’t tax the Switch battery. The only thing you’ll have to bear in mind is that you can’t pause the game (another nod to Souls), which can make train journeys interesting to say the least, especially when you’ve got a commuter trying to barge past you and the Disembowled Husk standing in your way on the screen in front of you. Choose your priorities – and by that I mean, ignore the commuter. One thing I did notice is that the Joy-Con sticks occasionally feel imprecise or slippery, and don’t register those all-important inputs properly. If I’m going for true platforming precision I’d probably favor a DualShock 4.
In the end, though, Salt and Sanctuary on the switch is a steal. The digital version is available right now for $17.99 and a boxed copy – the Drowned Tome Edition – will launch on October 30 for $29.99. The latter comes with a physical cartridge, the original soundtrack, a two-sided poster, a map of the world and a 20-page manual. Personally, I’m having so much fun I wouldn’t recommend waiting, but it’s a nice touch for existing PlayStation 4 and PC players who want something a little extra special. By hook or by crook, get your hands on this gem and praise the sun it’s made the – ahem – switch to Nintendo’s console.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Ska Studios.
This little platformer wears its influences loudly and proudly. Salt and Sanctuary is a tribute act of the finest kind, distilling the essential Dark Souls experience in 2D.