Salt and Sanctuary / Salt and Sanctuary: Drowned Tome Edition

A game by Ska Studios for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita, Switch, and Xbox One, originally released in 2016, with the Drowned Tome Edition released in 2018.
Salt and Sanctuary is an action-RPG very much inspired by the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, offering a high level of difficulty, a complex interconnected world that the player is free to explore, and a limited number of health-restoring safe areas called sanctuaries. Rather than souls, the player finds himself collecting salt, which is gained by defeating enemies and lost upon the player’s death. If the player is killed, he is returned to the nearest sanctuary – at the cost of 10% of his gold – and he can regain his lost salt by returning and slaying the enemy that killed him… or getting killed again and losing his precious salt forever.

At the start of the game, the player is able to customize the appearance of his character, altering the sex, hair color, eye color, and facial hair, as well as choosing an origin country for the character, which affects his or her skin tone and facial features. More importantly, the player is able to select a class, which greatly affects how the player engages the game.

Classes include an armored swordsman in the form of a knight, a magic user in the form of a mage, and more specialized classes such as the hammer-wielding paladin, prayer-bound cleric, dexterous thief, and adventurous hunter with a crossbow and whip. Or, if you want to make things harder on yourself, you can start the game as a pauper with just some farm equipment and a wooden shield, or a chef whose starting weapons are a long-handled iron pot and a handful of potatoes that can be tossed at enemies for minimal damage (and which do not restore the player’s health). Players wishing to add further challenge may begin the game in hardcore mode, restrict themselves to only using magic or one of the game’s weakest weapons, or even remove armor, blocking, and/or healing items from the game.

Supporting this array of classes is a robust skill tree that allows players to spend points to upgrade vital stats, allowing them to specialize characters toward a specific class, or branch out to add new skills. Upgradeable stats include strength, endurance, dexterity, willpower, magic, and wisdom. In turn, these stats can help players deal more damage with strength-based weapons, become more accurate with long-range weapons, carry more equipment, and cast more powerful spells.

Additional upgrades allow the player to wield new types of weapons and equip better armor, which allows him to add further enhancements to his selected character class. For instance, if the player selected the knight class, it’s important that he also spend some of his upgrades on higher armor classes – and increase his carrying capacity to equip heavier armor without becoming overencumbered – or the knight will find himself taking heavy damage from tougher enemies and bosses.

Weapons and armor can also be upgraded by utilizing the services of a blacksmith. In fact, unlike most action-RPG titles, the land is not filled with treasure chests containing new weapons and armor; instead, the player may upgrade his chosen equipment multiple times in order to increase its effectiveness.

Upgrading equipment is no easy task, however, as doing so requires both salt and rare items that are occasionally dropped by defeated enemies (though some are available for purchase if you can find the right NPC). This encourages players to engage in combat – at the risk of losing salt – and to delay levelling up their characters, further emphasizing the game’s hard won victories. Gold is actually far less valuable than salt, as gold is only used for making purchases, and most of it is retained upon the player’s death.

When the game begins, the player finds himself on a ship at sea which has been boarded by some people in masks. Fighting your way through, you eventually reach the deck of the ship where a hulking black Cthulhu-esque monstrosity stands before you. While it is technically possible to defeat this creature, you are hardly equipped for the task, so chances are that you’ll be rendered unconscious in just two or three hits.

You awake to find yourself in fog and shallow water near a beach, and you press on, soon encountering an old man who tells you about sanctuaries and begins asking questions about your religious affiliations. It’s not entirely clear from this exchange, but your answers to these questions determine your creed and therefore which sanctuaries you can fully utilize, the first of which will always be aligned to your chosen creed.

Being associated with a given creed allows you to summon additional NPC’s to sanctuaries that can upgrade your weapons, teleport you to other sanctuaries, and sell you items, equipment, and spells. Throughout the game, the player encounters a number of sanctuaries and candle-lit safe havens, which allow the player to heal and save his progress. That said, it’s possible to sin against your own creed and pledge loyalty to another (and to have these sins forgiven), and certain rare items allow you to convert a sanctuary to your own creed.

Following the lead of the Dark Souls games, very little of this is communicated directly to the player. The player is essentially alone in a hostile landscape and the game is designed around a certain amount of failure. Players wishing to share their misery with a friend can summon a “sellsword” to their sanctuary and initiate offline 2P co-op and PvP combat. Still, even with a friend, the world is no more hospitable, as enemies dish out more damage when going up against two players, and they can absorb more damage before being destroyed… so players are advised to bring along a skilled companion.

Players have a health meter that is drained by attacks, traps, and fall damage, and they are able to carry a limited number of items that fully restore the meter over time. These restoratives are replenished with each visit to a sanctuary or shrine, which also respawns enemies in the area, per Dark Souls standards. In a nice touch, these items differ based on the sanctuary whence they were received.

It’s possible to carry more of these restoratives by spending upgrade points on poultice pouches, and there are also smaller restoratives that may be found as occasional drops from defeated enemies. Still, a full bag of restoratives isn’t much of a crutch for sloppy combat skills, as consuming a restorative is a slow and risky process. If you find yourself on your last sliver of health during a tough encounter and then attempt to heal, you leave yourself open to attack. Worse, you may find yourself poisoned, and unless you have an antidote handy, you’ll be watching your health meter drain as you chug healing potions to fight back the effect.

There are numerous temporary buffs that the player can use to aid him in combat, such as adding elemental effects to his weapons or causing his stamina meter to refill quickly, but each of these takes time to apply as well, which makes them particularly tricky to use during the game’s frequent and challenging boss encounters. Once the player knows where a boss is located, he’s better off using a temporary buff immediately before entering combat. After all, using up a nice lightning upgrade and then getting your face smashed into puppy chow means that you’ll lose any items that you used in combat, as the game auto-saves on the death, preventing you from simply reloading a save and trekking back to the boss with a full accompaniment of special items.

Boss creatures appear in designated areas throughout the game world, although the player is often given very little warning that he is about to wander into an inescapable boss area. Bosses tend to be strong and swift, destroying players with little effort if their attacks are not properly blocked or dodged, so players must pay close attention to their patterns.

Players must pay close attention to their character's stamina as well, as it depletes quickly when attacking, and also depletes when performing a dodge roll or when blocking an attack. If the player’s stamina is drained completely, his attacks become very slow (though the accompanying stat can be upgraded in the skill tree). A fully charged stamina meter allows the player to perform a multi-hit combo – mixing weak and strong attacks for different effects – potentially stunning larger enemies and bosses and preventing them from initiating their next attacks.

Players may be killed multiple times by the same boss without permanently losing their salt, allowing for the cumulative loss to be restored if the player manages to take the boss down before being killed by another enemy. Once the boss has been vanquished, it is gone forever, usually leaving behind a few nice items and/or keys needed to progress further in the world.

The game world is nonlinear, allowing for exploration in multiple directions, slowly opening as the player finds keys or – less frequently – gains new abilities. The player has a basic 1x jump and the ability to grab and mount ledges, but his overall movement speed is slow and deliberate, and the player must alternate between blocking, moving, and attacking in order to get through even the simplest areas.

Bow-wielding enemies can attack from a distance, animals can run toward the player and pin him to the ground, some undead creatures rise up from beneath the player’s feet, and traps are sprung on the player with very little warning, making even basic navigation a challenge. The game world consists of multiple interconnected areas, and the player slowly unlocks shortcuts as he progresses, allowing him to more quickly return to previously visited areas and sanctuaries.

The world is filled with hundreds of unique items, which may be found in chests, by defeating enemies, or purchased from NPC’s. Among these are numerous passive buffs such as rings and charms, which allow players to increase their attack damage, increase defense against physical and elemental attacks, reduce the cost of spells, and even increase their ability to heal.

The game’s art style is dark, gritty, and bloody, with character designs in line with the developer’s previous titles (see 2D CRED section below), featuring lanky hunched characters. The game world is filled with fog, crumbling castles, manmade traps, and hideous monsters lurking in the depths.

For those who master the game’s challenges, multiple New Game+ modes await.

Salt and Sanctuary was developed by Ska Studios, headed by a husband and wife team made up of developer James Silva and artist Michelle Silva. The game was developed over the course of three years.

Prior to Salt and Sanctuary, Ska Studios developed Charlie Murder, a punk rock beat 'em up with RPG elements where you and your band mates face off against the forces of evil. Each member of the group has different abilities ranging from a berserker to a magic user to a beefed up drummer that can toss cars. You fight the minions of Hell which have been unleashed upon the earth, along with a Death Metal band called Gore Quaffer, powering up by getting tattoos, buying new punk outfits, and mixing beer.

James Silva originally began work on Charlie Murder after the release of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, his first major release, but shelved it to pursue other titles. Interestingly, James first met his wife during the development of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, as she was performing bug testing on the title prior to its release. The year after the game’s launch, Michelle introduced herself to James at PAX and they began dating soon after.

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai won Microsoft’s first Dream Build Play competition in 2007, which earned James a cash prize and an Xbox Live Arcade publishing contract. The game was released on XBLA in 2009 and followed up with a more polished sequel, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile in 2011. Like Charlie Murder, both games are dark, highly-stylized beat ‘em ups featuring a resurrected hero who must bash his enemies into bloody oblivion. Rather than using his fists, the Dishwasher deals out death with meat cleavers, chainsaws, and other melee weapons, and even blasts enemies away with a shotgun and machine gun.

While there are upgradeable weapons, and even a rhythm action guitar minigame, the action in the Dishwasher games focuses more heavily on high-speed weapons-based combat and big finishing moves instead of the RPG trappings offered in Charlie Murder. The combat is faster paced with more importance placed on dodging and quick reflexes than leveling and equipment. Also, while there are numerous undead enemies, the Dishwasher’s primary foes are robots.

Dead Samurai is a single player game, although a second player can take on a rather unconventional supporting role (can you say “ghost guitar”?) in the main campaign for offline co-op, and there are online arcade modes for two players. Vampire Smile offers two playable characters, each with their own single player campaign, as well as online or offline 2P co-op for its campaign and arcade modes.

On Xbox Live Indie Games, the developer also created ZP2K9 and ZP2KX, released in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The “ZP” abbreviation stands for Zombies and Pterodactyls. Both are arena combat games featuring online and offline multiplayer for up to 10 players, and they can be played in single player against bots.

A number of traditional competitive multiplayer modes are available, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill. Weapons include various guns and melee weapons, as well as nontraditional armaments such as the freeze gun, shrink ray, and an AK-47 that fires cats. As players compete and level up, they unlock new items, customizations, and combat enhancements.

Both games are extensions and refinements of the developer’s first commercial release, Zombie Smashers X4 Guitarpocalypse, which was released on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2008. This is also an arena combat game, this time for up to 4 offline players. However, the arenas are more constricted and have out-of-bounds areas similar to those found in the Super Smash Bros. series.

In 2009, the developer released I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 – also known as the first $1.00 zombie-themed Xbox Live Indie Game – which was developed over the span of just a couple of weeks. Despite its simple gameplay and short development time, the game was a critical and financial success. The game is a top-down twin stick shooter pitting the player against a constant stream of zombie invaders and a number of other enemy types.

The game was made specifically to be a cheap over-the-top experience that revels in its simplicity, as enforced by the screamed theme song that plays in the background. The game can be played offline with up to 4 zombie-slaying friends. Players use shotguns, machine guns, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and other weapons to cut down the endless hordes.

In 2012, the game was ported to the Windows Phone as Z0MB1ES (on teh ph0ne). In addition to the gameplay offered in the original game, this version also includes a new mode called ENDL3SS Z0MB1ES!!1, which features a more structured experience with rooms to explore and branching paths. Another new mode is TIME VIKING, which features twin stick shooting in a sidescrolling environment as zombies go flying overhead and the ground rises up beneath your feet.