We take salt for granted but salt has played a major role in mankind’s survival. In fact, salt was once regarded as one of the most important commodities and led to early trade between various civilizations. The Egyptians of High Egypt, for example, exchanged salt for its weight in gold and ancient Roman soldiers were paid in salt when at war. In various religions, salt represents physical well being, vitality, permanence, loyalty, purification, protection and longevity. It also has metaphorical associations with life, death, and rebirth. It heals, it purifies, and it wards off evil. However, salt can also kill, and it is this duality that makes it clear why the 2D platformer Salt and Sanctuary treats salt as the most valuable element you can collect. Salt is essential in life and salt is essential in the game – a currency that can be collected from killing enemies and later, invested in leveling up your character; his or her armor; and the weapons you collect. And yes, you can lose your salt in battle but you are given one chance to reclaim it, if and only if, you manage to take revenge on whoever it is that killed you. It’s a nod to Bloodborne no doubt, but thematically using salt as a medium of exchange perfectly suits the gothic platformer that Ska Studios set out to make.
Salt and Sanctuary is so good, I honestly think this might be one of the most under-rated games ever made
Salt & Sanctuary wears its inspirations on its sleeve. It borrows the lore, character progression, class system, and even checkpoint system of the Dark Souls series along with the world progression, level design and the non-linear landscape of the earliest Castlevania games. Paying homage to two of the most beloved video game franchise while still finding your own voice is no easy task, yet the two-person team at Ska Studios made not only one of the best indie games in recent memory but arguably the best couch co-op game available on the Nintendo Switch. After sixty-five hours exploring every nook and cranny; fighting every beast and villain, collecting every weapon and item, and memorizing the labyrinth of environments you must journey through – all I wanted to do was play the game all over again. Salt and Sanctuary is so good, I honestly think this might be one of the most under-rated games ever made.
In Salt and Sanctuary, you’re tasked with escorting a princess by the sea who is to be married to an opposing country’s king in order to secure peace across two nations plagued by war. Just as your journey begins, it is cut short when a group of bandits attack your ship, murdering the crew and leaving you by your lonesome to battle a Lovecraftian horror, best described as a giant Kraken resembling Cthulhu. Midway through the battle, the ship is wrecked, leaving your soldier to wash up on an uncharted, nameless island. There, the player meets a mysterious old man who gives them an icon to offer to a shrine at a nearby sanctuary. In doing so, you swear an oath to a specific Creed – one of nine in the game. While there’s not much of a plot to be found here, Salt and Sanctuary is brimming with lore and at the center of it all is the different sanctums to pledge your allegiance to.
Think of these sanctuaries as a safe haven or the equivalent of how bonfires are handled in Dark Souls. There, you can summon merchants such as blacksmiths to upgrade your weapons and if you desire, you can even buy new gear. The main purpose of the sanctuaries, however, is to allow you to replenish your health, level up your character and make an offering to your faction. It’s the religious angle that the game takes that sets it apart from its contemporaries. Despite its appearance, Salt and Sanctuary is a stylish spatter-horror exercise, which uses religious zeal to examine the intersection of fear and faith.
The game’s real coup is in how it repeatedly shifts our allegiance from one Creed to the next
Some sanctuaries are occupied by Creeds that are different from your own. The catch is, you can’t convert to that sanctuary’s creed unless you desecrate your own, something that comes with a high price. Desecrating a Sanctuary of a Creed is considered a sin and will turn any NPCs in all Sanctuaries under that creed hostile to you. Furthermore, the ending is decided by your Creed and the choices you make.
The game’s real coup is in how it repeatedly shifts our allegiance from one Creed to the next, cross-examining the notion that barbarism is best countered with more of the same. Of my 65-hour playthrough, the biggest highlight came when finding the Blackest Vault, an optional area that is only accessible after desecrating a sanctuary and then allowing its followers to straight up murder me. It’s a sacrifice you must make in order to pledge an oath to the Order of the Betrayer, the so-called “evil” aligned creed that has exclusive access to a set of items and dark magic you may (or may not) need to complete your journey. Adding insult to injury, your devotion to that creed will be reset, and you will not be able to rejoin that creed again unless you are lucky enough and find the Candlelit Lady, who can cleanse you of your sin. Joining the Order of the Betrayer also comes with another sacrifice as it curses the player with darkness. It’s a steadfast, haunting dissection of fundamentalism. It’s also a choice I just had to make, not just to satisfy my curiosity but because when playing S&S, you only have one chance/playthrough to join this Creed. If you answer no, you’ll never know the outcome.
As indicated above, Salt and Sanctuary allows the players to make several choices throughout the game, something that not only makes it worth revisiting again but something that will also appeal to two types of players: Those who take pleasure in piecing together all the clues and understanding the lore and those who just want to hack and slash their way to the end. And while we’ve been inundated with Metroidvania-esque 2d platforms as of late, the world of Salt and Sanctuary feels so much bigger than most of its peers and more importantly, each stage is “blessed” with a variety of its own unique enemies, boss battles, visual aesthetic and atmosphere that is derived from medieval murals to Ptolemaic diagrams.
It’s truly remarkable that two people made such a massive indie platformer like Salt & Sanctuary
The world of Salt and Sanctuary is gigantic, with massive temples, castles, swamps, underground dungeons, creepy cemeteries and dark forests, all interconnected by hidden passages and shortcuts. And much like Castlevania, areas on the map will be inaccessible until you unlock new abilities (like the air dash or gravity reversal) and each area of the map is littered with obscure secrets and hidden loot providing players with a good reason to retrace your steps. The Festering Banquet (the second area) looks like an underground Egyptian tomb while the Village of Smiles is a massive graveyard-like area infested with creepy scarecrows and deadly skeleton-like creatures. Meanwhile, Mal’s Floating Castle (an optional stage) is exactly what it sounds like– a castle floating in the sky and Mire of Stench sees your character running through a poisonous swamp. There are twenty-two areas in total, twenty-three bosses to fight, five side quests and over six hundred weapons, armor, and items to collect. Meanwhile, to get familiar with the lore, you’ll have to set aside some time and read popup text and speak to the NPCs you encounter along the way. It adds a layer of genuine mystery to the proceedings, but more importantly, as you unlock each level you’ll quickly realize how they all connect and appreciate just how incredible the level design really is.
It’s truly remarkable that two people made such a massive indie platformer like Salt & Sanctuary especially given – and I repeat – every one of the choices you make has a massive impact on the overall experience. Characters are immensely customizable, allowing you to brave the bleak horizon with dagger-throwing thieves, whip-wielding hunters, sinister mages, armored knights, magical clerics and even a fucken chef who begins his adventure with nothing but an iron pot at his disposal (I chose the Simon Belmont-like hunter for my first playthrough). As you make your way across the dark island, you will come across a wide variety of items that you can use to refine and improve your equipment. Unlike Breath of the Wild, these items won’t break. However, if you trade in certain weapons you may miss out on unlocking more powerful items down the road. This is a mistake I made when selling the Kureimoa, the first Greatsword you’ll come across and something you need if you ever want to upgrade to any of the other nine Greatswords in the game.
Much like the games that inspired it, Salt and Sanctuary is at times hard. You will die often, but the game gives you everything you need to survive. It’s not so much difficult as it is complex. For example, there’s a very large skill tree to navigate that contains different abilities that fall within one of six categories (strength, endurance, dexterity, willpower, magic, and wisdom). Weapons and armor can also be upgraded, and there’s a set of elemental magic powers to learn. When it comes to the boss battles, the trick is to understand their strengths and weakness. Murdiella Mal, a.k.a. the Queen of Moonless Sky, for example, is vulnerable to fire but more importantly, using arcane armour and weapons is highly recommended when fighting her.
The game leaves clues just about everywhere to help the player. There are messages found in bottles scattered throughout every level that tell you what to do and what not to do (although sometimes you can’t trust these messages) and often when conversing with an NPC, the character will drop hints that can help you in the near future. In other words, pay attention. Ska Studios even added a candelabra in each level to indicate when you are about to step into a room that houses a boss.
Salt and Sanctuary puts a lot of triple-a titles to shame
Yes, the game can be challenging but not in the same way a game like Celeste is. Celeste is a game that requires patience, determination and an ability to complete a sequence of precise jumps and dashes without a single mistake. Salt and Sanctuary is a game that requires the player to make choices and based on those choices, you’re either in for an easy ride or a challenge. Either way, gradually progressing through a campaign is incredibly rewarding once you’ve completed your task.
The game may not be original, but it’s undeniably exciting and at times awe-inspiring. From the electric guitar/synth, organ soundtrack to the predominantly hand-drawn animation to the gratifying combat, and local cooperative play, Salt and Sanctuary puts a lot of triple-a titles to shame. The fact that a husband and wife team were able to so much with so little, deserves applause. Regardless if you don’t like the art style (which I absolutely love) or aren’t interested in 2D action platformers, there’s no denying the artistic merit the game has. It just goes to show that way too many critics (I use that term loosely) don’t review a game for what it is, but rather what they wanted it to be. For anyone who gave this game a bad score or a negative review, I challenge you to create something better.
Oh, and did I mention it has some of the most creative enemy designs? With bosses like the Untouched Inquisitor, The Third Lamb, Kraekan Dragon Skourzh, Carsejaw the Cruel, The Tree of Men and Kraekan Cyclops, Salt and Sanctuary might have the best roster of any 2D game to date.
– Ricky D
Editor’s Note: I recommend that newcomers to Souls-like games read through this online guide before diving in. I wouldn’t read too much so as not to spoil the many surprises in store, but having a general understanding of each class and how the skill tree works, will help tremendously. Also worth noting; much like Metroid, Salt and Sanctuary does not have a map, leaving navigation entirely up to the player to memorize. I had no problem memorizing the layout since the map is designed to loop back on itself in a variety of ways, but some players may get lost. That said, you may want to take notes.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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