A friend of a friend of mine, an accomplished level designer for many games that you’ve heard of and played (cool story, eh bro?), describes Dark Souls and Bloodborne as the future of games. He says the direction ahead for gaming isn’t in power fantasies; it’s in fear, confusion, and punishment.
The greater the ambivalence and apathy these games show toward us, the player, the greater our satisfaction in besting them. I’ve been a major fan of the Souls series since I read an article about Demon’s Souls during the E3 at which the game was first revealed. The author remarked on how odd this little game was, and how it was almost exciting that the title’s reveal marketing wasn’t a grand procession. The article went on to explain that the game demo was tucked deep away in the very back of the Atlus booth. Its attendant seemed outright confused by the project and had little vocabulary with which to describe it to the press.
That’s all changed. This is a world post-Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne. As a gaming community, we are keenly aware of the appropriate language to describe these games. The allure and mystery has faded. We have traversed the wall of fog, so to speak.
The language in question—built from the vocabulary FromSoftware created—is part of the very fabric of Salt and Sanctuary. The game is the equivalent of the ‘decoder ring’ kids used to get in spy kits advertised in the back of comic books. It’s taken the language structure of Dark Souls and swapped out the words. The lexicon might differ, but the grammar hopes to provoke the same emotions all over again.
As a result, I approached Salt and Sanctuary with a mix of eagerness and mild dread. I was excited for the impending release of Dark Souls 3 and was ready and willing to get a bit of warm-up punishment. I had been playing a lot of games that bent to my will too easily, and was ready for a more potent test of pattern recognition and reflexes. I wanted to feel adrift in a world that was equal parts beautiful and horrifying, to feel lost but nonetheless be meandering towards my goal. While for some, Salt and Sanctuary might afford those opportunities, I was left feeling rather cold during my time with the game. It made me wonder what specifically felt off about the experience: why did it feel so different from the embered warmth I had been expecting?
Salt and Sanctuary is absolutely competent at translating the platforming and movement of a Souls game into a two-dimensional affair. It’s also mysterious; it draws the player forward into a sprawling structure, with areas giving way to each other in a layered manner (this feels like a positive at first, but not all is as it seems). All of these qualities then, are present and accounted for. ‘Souls’ are replaced by ‘Salt’, and ‘Bonfires’ have become ‘Sanctuaries’. If the game got any closer to actually being Dark Souls it might raise the eyebrows of the suits guarding Bandai Namco’s IP treasure trove. And, for the most part, I’m cool with that.
What the game is missing, to my eye, is the important ‘X factor’ that Miyazaki, the mastermind behind Souls, describes as ‘dignity’. See, in the back of the Dark Souls art book (a sad, paltry collection of drawings that wouldn’t pass for a giveaway in Japan, but I digress), there is a translated interview with the creator himself. He talks about issues he ran into in the early days of Souls’ development with attempting to convey the visual world to his artists. When he described an ‘undead dragon’ that would fill the player with dread, the artists would return with a gory, towering beast. Miyazaki would send them back to the drawing board. It took time for him to teach the artists that exposed flesh was not the most terrifying thing that could occur in the lands of Dark Souls – emptiness was.
Anyone familiar with the Souls series will know that there is a surprising lack of gore for a game so steeped in violence. Even Bloodborne, title aside, is reluctant to show anything even faintly resembling a disemboweling. That is because the profound sadness at the core of the game’s universe—the husk of what was once a land filled with beauty—is by far the most terrifying part of the experience. Every creature—each of these Lords of Cinder, each of these holders of the flame or users of the blood—has given their heart, their very light and soul, to the promise of a greater world. In some incarnations they succeeded in bringing about grand eras, only to inevitably have their light dim and the darkness take back what the flame had once illuminated.
This literary structure is also present in the very manner the game reacts to the player’s presence. Indeed it is simultaneously waiting for the player and entirely apathetic to his or her arrival. The enemies are merely watchdogs of their crumbled world. They stand in wait, holding their position with the greatest poise their rotting bodies can muster. The world is both expecting the player to approach and yet tauntingly dismissive of attempts to take any effective action. If the player is killed, the responsible creature is unfazed and returns to his post, only to await the next sorry Hollowed who might dare take a stab.
This dignity seems to be missing from Salt and Sanctuary. For one, the art very much betrays the lack of FromSoftware’s touch; the game looks like an episode of Salad Fingers spoofing Dark Souls. But other details suggest a failure to truly understand Souls’ unique appeal. There are points at which enemy NPCs just sort of rise from nothingness right under one’s feet. This eliminates one of the key components of a Souls game, taking stock of your upcoming situation and planning accordingly. Granted, players are regularly tricked, but this only works because it’s been established that most situations can be planned for. By not taking the time to set this expectation, Salt and Sanctuary simply teaches players to always be ready for more bad guys.
Then there’s the fact that the game is set in 2D. This is for obvious reasons. First, it makes the game original in its own right, granting it a unique identity beyond the shadow of its older cousin. But it also allowed the small team to create a large adventure with the means at their disposal. I appreciate and understand this. Unfortunately, our brains are not really designed to take stock of 2D geometry in the way that a Souls game demands. There are no maps in this genre: this places a focus on memorization and understanding of the world. These elements of the experience are an essential part of any Souls game. The player must remember how to reach different areas and how exactly they are connected to one another, or else they’re gonna have a bad time. One unlocks shortcuts to eliminate backtracking and intertwine the loose threads of the world into a single, fascinating whole. All of this can be managed with relative ease thanks to the fact that our brains have a natural ability to navigate a three-dimensional world. 2D just isn’t the same.
Imagine tracing your finger across a large maze plastered on a wall and you’ll soon see the difficulty inherent in trying to find your way back to a branching path that might be needed to progress further. Games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid remedy this issue by providing the player with a map. In following Souls’ lead and ditching the map, Salt and Sanctuary unwittingly creates a whole new kind of disorientation, one that doesn’t seem able to generate any satisfying resolution.
This is nitpicking, I know, and maybe I’m being unfair. In other cases I might be more forgiving of these kinds of issues. With Salt and Sanctuary, however, they really begin to encroach on the Souls-ian aspects of the game that I find most essential: the odd little touches that make them unlike anything else on the market.
So, why the hell is this article so long? Why so many petty, nitpicky issues with the game? Is it even worth playing? I do think that for many people, Salt and Sanctuary will be a relatively pleasant excursion, and one that might even be worth the ~12 hour play time. It is a competent take on the genre, and probably has enough surface-level qualities to justify the journey for many players. As a relative facsimile of Dark Souls it might even scratch that particular itch for a lot of people. Speaking for myself though, I find the game a pale imitation of its forebears.
In the end, Salt and Sanctuary is a bit like the Hannibal Lecter of the gaming world. Although it’s wearing the face of royalty, there just isn’t the same level of dignity in its interaction, leaving me well aware that I’m speaking to someone other than the dark prince I’ve come to know so well.