Salt And Sacrifice review: a 2D metroidvania with surprising depth

Salt and Sacrifice is a 2D metroidvania hunt-a-thon that puts you as a condemned prisoner in a perilous kingdom. Magic corrupts the land, giving rise to monstrous creatures and voracious undead, and the source of all this destruction, Mages, must be hunted down and devoured their hearts if the Kingdom is to survive. Like Ska Studios’ previous outing, the game features tough battles, extensive gear options, and colossal bosses to defeat. But while the scale has increased and the combat and visuals are as slick as ever, there are some growing pains that just keep the game from its full potential.

When you start up the game, it is immediately clear that you are in for a visual treat. The design and details are just so beautiful: from the way firelight gives a soft glow to the surroundings at dusk, to how the mist lazily over the cobbled steps in a musty dungeon, it’s all so beautiful to look at. Ska Studios have always had a recognizable art style – imposing architecture and grungy moppets – but it’s clear here that they’ve upped their game in the best possible way. According to the developers, each asset is created from scratch and that care is reflected in every frame.

After choosing your character class (and being embodied in true soul-like fashion by an overpowered boss monster), you’ll wake up in Pardoner’s Vale. This is a base camp where you can level up, build or improve equipment, buy or sell items, pet your cute antler, display trophies you’ve acquired while hunting, and chat with various NPCs you can find in the world encounters. This is also where you’ll find the Mirrorgate, a portal that allows you to travel to different regions as you unlock them. You have to traverse these regions and collect clues to start Mage Hunts, which are boss battles that serve as the main activity of the game.

In Salt And Sacrifice you can pet the deer.

As in Salt and SanctuaryYou will still string light attacks, heavy attacks, dodge rolls, parries and blocks together, but the attacks and moves are significantly faster and smoother this time around. The weapons you’ll be using are now more like Monster Hunter’s hunting gear, as each weapon type has its own moves and paired weapons like swords and shields are inseparable. This may at first give the impression that there is less variation in how the player can arm themselves, but in practice it ensures that each weapon has a unique identity rather than feeling redundant. A flame rod and a lightning rod have the same basic attack pattern, but they have completely different Runic Arts (special abilities unique to certain weapons) that perform different combat roles.

That said, there were some issues with the combat that made me wonder why certain mechanics worked the way they did. Stamina regeneration is stopped when damage is sustained, making it incredible easy to get stunned to death in case you are likely to run out in a fight. In a similar vein, if you happen to get knocked to heaven (and Mages absolutely will in their claustrophobic arenas for the final fight), there are no i-frames to stop you from literally juggling death. I had several deaths where I was hit while in full health and yet died because I never got a chance to stand up and defend myself. This problem is exponentially exacerbated when you consider that some Mages routinely roam in areas where there are already many other enemies, usually while trying to fight those enemies.

The enemies you’ll fight are varied, ranging from your standard gobbos and skellingtons to evil popes and dudes with human bodies but, like a housefly’s head. Again, the art direction really shines here, and I can’t stress enough how interesting and creative the enemy designs are. It seems the development team knew they were going to pull it out of the park, as they thought it appropriate to include a nice bestiary in the pause menu, cataloging every skellington that was torpedoed and gobbo smashed. Each region has unique enemies that fit the regional theme, and even the most minor of enemies can knock you down if you’re not careful. When I wasn’t tossed like a rag doll, I really enjoyed stabbing them, slicing them, and conjuring them to death.

After finding a clue and starting a Mage Hunt, a subtle particle trail will lead you to your quarry (the particles themselves change to reflect the element of the Mage you’re pursuing; a neat and compelling touch). Mages need to be fought a handful of times in the level before you can kill them properly, and during this roaming phase, they’ll spawn thematic mobs before dashing off to a new arena. Each region not only has a certain number of Named Mages, which must be defeated to break the magic seals that prevent access to certain locations in the region, but also roaming Nameless Mages that spawn periodically to shake things up. The Nameless Mages are especially useful for farming parts and experience, with some unique gear.

Speaking of parts, the crafting system in Salt And Sacrifice, like the weapon style, will be very familiar to all Monster Hunter fans. Mages and their mobs drop parts that can be used to craft themed gear, granting elemental damage, resistances, and Runic Arts similar to the Mage they’re made from. It can be a chore to find a specific type of mage to get the parts you need, but you already get enough material by playing the game that if you find yourself particularly attached to a weapon or piece of armor, you can constantly upgrade it to keep up with the later, more difficult levels.

The regions are quite large, divided by underground areas and dungeons and the like. As in any metroidvania worth having salt [pause for pity laughs] you will glimpse unreachable areas to return to once you get the necessary traversing items. You also unlock shortcuts, platforming and stumble into oh so many traps. The traps in particular are some of the nastiest I’ve come across in a game so far, and many of them are almost invisible if you don’t know what to expect. I suppose they wouldn’t be very good traps if they were marked in bright neon, but it rarely felt like stepping on a hidden staircase due to negligence as opposed to trickery with darkness, color palettes, or objects in the foreground blocking my view of them.

Still, for all its quirks, Ska Studios has a solid entry here. I don’t think I ran into many problems that couldn’t be fixed, and I had a lot of fun with the game despite some annoyances. If Salt And Sanctuary was Ska Studios sheepishly imitating a more successful formula, Salt And Sacrifice is those who confidently find their way. For a game about tearing out hearts, obviously a lot of heart went into it and Monster Hunter fans in particular should not pass this one up. Just don’t expect perfection.

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