Ska Studio’s Salt And Sanctuary was one of the first games to successfully translate the foreboding atmosphere of Dark Souls into two dimensions. In the five years since then, many others have done likewise, from Hollow Knight to Vigil: The Longest Night (which also draws on Salt And Sanctuary), all building on the Soulslike core of exacting combat, lone exploration and dark discovery.
It’s no surprise that Ska wants to do something different with its sequel, Salt And Sacrifice, although the direction it’s taken is a little unexpected. The signs were there when the game was announced, but playing the preview build brings home that Salt And Sacrifice really is a hybrid of Souls and Capcom’s Monster Hunter series.
It’s not monsters that are on the menu, however, but mages. In Salt And Sacrifice’s world, convicted criminals can avoid execution by choosing to become ‘marked inquisitors’, banished to a land corrupted by magic where their only purpose is to hunt rogue wizards. The game starts as you become one of these inquisitors, having been found guilty of a terrible crime (you actually select your crime when creating your character, and it determines the starting item you receive – as an arsonist, I got some fire bombs, as a heretic I received a mysterious stone tablet). You undertake a magic ritual that ensures you resurrect in a sort of undead form each time you die, and off you go.
As a premise, it feels very much like a Souls game, and in the opening section it’s particularly reminiscent of Demon’s Souls, when you get battered by an impossibly powerful boss then awake in a base camp that acts as a hub for your operations. Here you can chat to a handful of NPCs, level up, craft and upgrade gear, or purchase goods. In the course of my adventures I also came across a couple more characters who then made their way to the camp to set up shop.
In this demo version, one of the NPCs quickly introduces a major new feature. The one core aspect of Dark Souls that didn’t feature in Salt And Sanctuary was multiplayer functionality, but that’s present in full force this time around. You can expect to find covenant-like ‘factions’ in Salt And Sacrifice that enable different kinds of social interaction, from summoning co-op help to offering your services in return, invading other players to aiding those being invaded. There’s also a password system so you can work specifically with a friend, and you can leave messages for other players.
Again, very much what you’d expect from a Souls game, and early impressions outside of camp do little to challenge that conception. I warp to a place called Ashbourne Village, and work through its gentle hills slicing up goblins and trolls with neatly timed flurries of my sword (I chose the ‘highblade’ class for my first character, dressed in samurai-style armour, armed with a katana and bow). Exploring a little, I soon dive into a warren of caves before resurfacing, fighting a boss monster, and unlocking new shortcuts. I also find the game’s first Metroid-style permanent upgrade, a grappling hook.
By this point, however, there are signs that something else is afoot. Initially it’s details, like how I can pause to gather berries from bushes or chip minerals from crystal formations. Then suddenly I’m assigned to my first hunt, and now I’m following a smoky trail. Before long I spot my target – a pyromancer – out in the open. It summons hellish minions to attack, and I have to see those off. When I finally land a series of strikes on the mage he teleports away, and I follow the trail. I barely notice that the hunt is taking me in circles, until eventually I corner the mage in an empty patch of land I’d passed through minutes before, and that becomes the arena for a final showdown.
In this way, Salt And Sacrifice’s locations are not corridors to pass through and survive, but spreads you wind through up and down, forwards and backwards, gradually expanding in circumference as you succeed. Defeat a mage and you must ‘devour’ their heart, which literally opens doors for you. Indeed, until I gobbled up my first heart, I could barely get anywhere. Entrances to other parts of Ashbourne were magically sealed, and even a talking tree wanted nothing to do with me. Afterwards, the world was my oyster, or this part of it at any rate. Presumably, the final game will comprise a series of such areas, which you’ll warp to separately from the hub.
Something else that stands out in mage pursuits is that they attract the attention of other enemies in the area. It seems that everybody hates mages, and will set about attacking them – as well as you – whenever they get the chance. There are also zombie-like husks that pop up in the wake of mages that attack anything they find. Plus, aside from the specific ‘named’ mage you’re hunting, you may cross paths with other roaming mages, and if these spellcasters encounter each other they’ll fight amongst themselves. As you can imagine, the clockwork reliability of Souls games soon gives way to more organic and frenetic running battles.
Monster Hunter DNA filters through to the camp, too, as each new type of mage I find unlocks a set of armour, weapons and charms that I can craft from the unique materials they drop. Our pyromancer and his minions obviously leave behind flame-imbued bits and bobs, and before long I’ve got a red hot version of my katana – not much use against the pyromancer, but very handy against the ice mage I’ll meet soon. Naturally, gathering enough materials to make full suits of armour and levelling up to use them will take a lot more effort, which is why it’s worth taking on any random mages I meet on my travels.
From these opening hours, there’s plenty of promise in Salt And Sacrifice, and it certainly seems that Ska Studio has grasped the appeal of Monster Hunter as much as it did Dark Souls. Even so, I’m not sure the balance is quite right yet. There are times when combat gets chaotic in a way that doesn’t gel with slow and steady Soulslike character movement and stamina management. It’s particularly frustrating when battles spill over onto the edge of the next screen and you can’t see what’s happening. Final mage showdowns can get messy, too – sometimes a combination of magic homing missiles and area-of-effect spells can simply feel unfair, and it’s too easy to get stun-locked by certain projectiles, ensuring you can’t avoid follow up melee strikes.
My other concern is that, although each mage has different attacks, minions and elemental affiliations, so far they’re all quite similar to fight. I’ve come up against five types – fire, ice, water, poison and lightning – and all are near enough the same size, shape and speed, which doesn’t feel distinctive enough for a Monster Hunter-style resource grind.
Still, all the multiplayer and customisation options point to more variety, as do further areas in the game with who knows what kind of enemies, mages and hazards to endure. For a small studio like Ska, Salt And Sacrifice is a bold assemblage of parts, from which it may well create its own monster.