2016's Salt and Sanctuary was a solid, if slightly perfunctory, Soulslike Metroidvania. It presented a satisfying world to explore, chunky combat with plenty of enemy variety, and a series of tough bosses to take down. Developer Ska Studios has now confirmed a sequel is on the way in the form of Salt and Sacrifice, which significantly expands the multiplayer element of its predecessor. I got the chance to sit down with a preview build of the new game to see if it stacks up. Will it be able to fill Salt and Sanctuary's bloodstained chainmail boots?
On the surface, it might not look like much has changed in Salt and Sacrifice. It's still sporting the same super-deformed visual style as Sanctuary, and nominally, it's still a Metroidvania platformer with Soulslike combat. This time around, you're a Marked Inquisitor, a branded criminal whose job is to hunt down and kill the faceless abominations known as Mages. The preview build doesn't offer much more in terms of narrative context, but I'm sure the finished product will be full of the kind of obscure lore and background detail Soulslikes are known for, especially if Salt and Sanctuary is anything to go by.
If you're expecting a straightforward follow-up to Salt and Sanctuary, you're probably going to be disappointed by Salt and Sacrifice. Eschewing the organic feel of its forebear, Salt and Sacrifice goes for a more mission-based structure. The interconnected Metroidvania world and handcrafted bosses are still on display, but they don't feel as much like the focus this time around. Dotted throughout the land are objects from which you can obtain missions to hunt down Mage enemies. These missions entail finding the Mage in question, then hunting them across whichever level they happen to be in, whittling down their health until you can face them in a final climactic showdown.
Ska Studios describes this process as a "multi-stage pursuit", and that's telling of how the developer sees the new game. Although this is still a Metroidvania, the Mage hunts give it an almost live-service feel. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch for Ska to implement an endless, randomized version of these missions. The Mage enemies are pretty repetitive, and although their designs are intriguing at first, that novelty wears off quickly when you're fighting them constantly. Missions don't feel individual or detailed enough to sustain a playthrough; it's worrying that during my limited time with the game, I grew tired of battling these enemies long before the game stopped tasking me with finding them.
Perhaps this change of direction will appeal to a new audience, but I can't see it going down particularly well with the crowd who loved the first game. Gone is the sense of slow, careful exploration; since Mage enemies can appear pretty much anywhere, it's a dice roll as to whether you'll encounter one on a route or not, meaning you can never truly learn patterns and rhythms like you could before. This is where Salt and Sacrifice's main problem rears its ugly head: it seems to want to be two games at once, and its two halves can never quite find a way to coexist.
The Metroidvania elements of Salt and Sacrifice still work just as well as they did before. The world is huge, and there's a lot to discover. Even in the preview build, which only contains a handful of the finished game's areas, I was still astonished at just how many new locations I managed to find just by wandering around. There's a village overtaken by monsters, a cave complex, a swamp area, and a castle, to name but a few. When Salt and Sacrifice is being a Soulslike Metroidvania (that is to say, when it's essentially just its predecessor), it works pretty well.
For me, though, the new Mage system just doesn't cut it. This mechanic feels like it's been shoehorned in from another game. This is pure conjecture on my part, but Salt and Sacrifice feels like it didn't start life as a Salt and Sanctuary sequel. It feels like Ska began with the idea to create a multiplayer live service-esque game in which players teamed up and hunted down Mages across various biomes, and then decided to stitch the Metroidvania elements to what they'd already created in this vein. Hunting Mages always feels like it disrupts exploration and discovery rather than augmenting it.
It doesn't help that in the preview build I played, the combat felt very wonky. Obviously, there's plenty of time for Ska to iron these elements out, but as it stands, there are serious problems. The Mages feel staggeringly overpowered, able to fill the screen with projectiles and attacks you have no hope of dodging or reacting to in time. I played as the Paladin, and at no point did I feel like my shield or armor was coming in handy. Common enemies and bosses alike feel like they have no wind-up time for attacks, so they can easily chain devastating combos together in rapid succession. This meant my shield felt useless and I couldn't dodge effectively without removing my armor entirely, invalidating the point of a heavy build.
Another big problem is that some of the mechanics feel like regressions from Salt and Sanctuary. There is, as far as I could tell, no dedicated healing item that replenishes itself upon resting at "obelisks" (read: bonfires). The Hearthen Flask can only be refilled if you collect a certain item, and many obelisks are situated far from those items, meaning a lengthy and tedious trek every time you run out (and if you're learning a new boss, you will run out frequently). Salt and Sanctuary already solved this problem, so it's bizarre to see Sacrifice fail in this regard. Soulslike combat is dependent on trial and error, and having to grind for healing items between boss runs kills the pacing. This was a problem in Bloodborne and Demon's Souls, too, but I'd expect Sacrifice to have learned the lessons imparted by those games.
Salt and Sacrifice feels like it was designed to be played co-op. Ska has intimated that this may be the case; in a PlayStation Blog post, the developer said it had created this game "from the ground up" to be a multiplayer title. Playing it in multiplayer would perhaps alleviate some of the issues; the relentless advances of the enemies would feel less insurmountable, and perhaps there would be fun to be had in hunting down Mages alongside a friend. Solo, though, the Mage hunts quickly became a chore and felt like they were interrupting what I really wanted to do, which was to discover more of the world Ska built.
It's admirable that Ska Studios wants to expand the formula that worked so well for it with Salt and Sanctuary. Just making the same game again would have been dull for both the developer and players who want to see innovation, so it makes sense that Ska would strike out with some experimentation. Unfortunately, I don't get the sense that the new additions to Salt and Sacrifice work at all. Its Mage hunts feel like an unfinished concept for a totally different game, and its Metroidvania elements are constantly stymied by the need to hunt more samey Mage enemies. At the moment, this isn't feeling like the sequel Salt and Sanctuary needed, sadly.
TechRaptor previewed Salt and Sacrifice on PC via the Epic Games Store using a code provided by the publisher. The game will also be available on PlayStation consoles.