Salt & Sacrifice – Game Review

I received a review code for Salt & Sacrifice on May 12th. That was three months ago..

Typically, when I get a code for something, I make a point to focus my attention on it and review it in a timely manner. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, a timely review generally has more value for you, the game buying audience of my little blog. Secondly, and with full disclosure, if I write reviews of the games I request, I tend to get more review codes as a result. I don’t feel that I have any obligation to provide a good review to any game, but I do feel some obligation to generate at least some kind of content whenever someone is generous with limited review codes.

This all has nothing to do with Salt & Sacrifice, but I hope it illustrates a point: I had a very hard time sticking with and finishing this game.

As a big fan of most of Ska Studios previous work—including the spiritual prequel, Salt & Sanctuary—I was anticipating Salt & Sacrifice for a while. When I got my code, my wife and I jumped into co-op immediately and played for a few hours. By the end of our first session we both came to the same conclusion: this game feels off, and I want to play more Elden Ring.

The existence of Elden Ring hangs like a dark cloud over Salt & Sacrifice. I often gravitate towards Souls-like games between the big From Software releases, but Elden Ring is such a massive and awesome game that it has lingered in the conversation for months. I’m still working my way through it today, and I’m looking forward to my next session with it.

But as my co-op sessions in Elden Ring grew shorter and further apart, and obligations got in the way, an opportunity to go back to Salt & Sacrifice opened up. The idea of playing this game in co-op was out the window—my wife had mostly lost interest—but I wanted to try to see it through. Or, at least tolerate it until I couldn’t anymore.

Elden Ring takes years of lessons from the studio’s Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and countless copycats, and invites you to explore a massive world of possibility. Sure, bosses can be a massive challenge, but there’s always a new path to explore when they get too frustrating. It’s a game that feels in conversation with their previous titles. It understands that even the biggest super fans of this genre may be looking for something a little more freeform and relaxed.

Salt & Sanctuary on the other hand, is cruel. It does not care whether you’ve already endured the most unforgiving Souls-likes or have limits to your patience for frustration. Bosses are unpredictable and spam hard-to-dodge, high-damage attacks with no pauses in between. Many of the bosses feel impossible the first time, and unfair the next dozen attempts after that.

When From Software tricks players with skeletons hiding around corners, those tricks usually result in a single death. You laugh, you learn, and you move on. Salt & Sanctuary offers no such respite. A trap that nearly kills you is just as hard to see the 3rd or 4th time as it was the first. The enemy who stands at the edge of a platform and baits you into taking hits is always going to be standing in that exact annoying spot. The 2D nature of the game makes things that should be one-time gags endlessly infuriating.

For a while I absolutely hated it. Sure I was making progress, but I wasn’t having a lot of fun. Then, things started to click into place.

I never really stopped being a few bad moments away from quitting, but I also got more and more committed to finishing it as I progressed. The game never stopped being cruel, but I started meeting it on its own terms, spamming throwable items and magic attacks to stun-lock bosses. I became as ruthless as the game, and for that I got to enjoy a smoother experience.

But Salt & Sacrifice seems disinterested in teaching you this approach. It does not care. For that it’s going to repel a lot of players, Souls-like fans, Ska Studios fans, and Salt & Sanctuary fans alike. This is a niche game, for a niche audience that is looking for challenge and a Souls-like with some new ideas.

Well, maybe new isn’t the best word. This is a very derivative game, down to the story that plays like Dark Souls fan fiction. But it remixes concepts from Dark Souls, Metroid, and Monster Hunter into an interesting blend.

Those last two may come as a surprise, but they are genuinely big aspects of the game. Most of the bosses drop crafting materials. After you defeat them the first time, you can pursue them in hunts again and again for the drops needed to make powerful new weapons and armor. It’s a smart system too, as it gives you a way to grind without running through the same enemy encounters over and over. Each hunt introduces random enemies into the environments and has you pursuing bosses all around the levels. Often, I’d discover new secrets just because a particular hunt sent me down a path I’d never been to.

The nonlinear world spans a hub and five different levels that you have to explore and backtrack through once you gain more tools and keys. The lack of a map or fast travel system is yet another way this game can be needlessly cruel, but it’s also very satisfying to find your way back to a locked door and finally open it. And again, it all feeds into the idea that you’re supposed to spend more time in these levels going on hunts.

It’s a smart blend of 2D subgenres that may turn off original Salt & Sacrifice fans, but may honestly be the exact thing that compelled me to return to it again and again. The mix isn’t perfect though, as systems from that previous game are also present, and it can all conflict with itself at times.

As I got further into the game, I wanted to change up my playstyle and experiment with different weapons. But while the hunting system makes it easy to pursue new crafting materials, the character leveling forces you into builds, without a good way to entirely respec.

The worst part is that it’s entirely unclear how the system operates until it’s too late. I spent most of the game under the impression that I could redistribute points whenever I wanted. I didn’t realize until I started moving a lot more points around, that I was consuming a material I only acquired by leveling up. Once I ran out, I was essentially locked in my Dexterity/Arcane build.

This meant that my weapon that scaled based on Dexterity/Arcane became the only obvious choice. Dumping a ton of upgrade materials into it cemented that choice even further. A game more willing to lighten up a little, could have offered far more replay value just by letting you efficiently experiment with weapons and builds.

So while I think Salt & Sacrifice has an oddly engaging cocktail of systems and challenges, I can’t say it comes together perfectly. No matter how much I grew to ultimately like the game, I can’t excuse some truly weird decisions. A game with co-op that was essentially dead on arrival, yet still has no option to pause? A system of upgrading talisman-like buff items that never seems to actually improve anything? A callout telling you your game “will be saved” even though you’ll start back at the hub every single time you end a session? There are baffling, unnecessary choices here.

It’s why it’s all-the-more impressive that I came around on Salt & Sacrifice and came to really enjoy it. I can’t help thinking about it. And even though I’m back around at New Game Plus with even harder bosses and none of my Metroid-style upgrades, a small part of me is thinking about going back for another spin.

If you play Salt & Sacrifice on my recommendation and end up hating it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But, if you’ve got thick skin and you’re open to a challenge that often feels insurmountable, maybe give it a real shot. You may find yourself in the same Stockholm’s Syndrome-esque prison of an oddly satisfying experience that I ended up landing in.

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