It took Ska Studios just over a year to get its side-scrolling action game onto the Vita, but the wait was worth it. Salt and Sanctuary takes the best of Metroidvania-style games and Souls-likes and condenses it into the ideal portable experience.
Thanks to Sickhead Games, a developer who has ported games like Axiom Verge and Darkest Dungeon to the Vita in the past, Salt and Sanctuary found its way onto a platform that’s been mostly abandoned, even by its creators. The Vita deserves more games than it gets, and Salt and Sanctuary is proof of why.
The game’s often compared to Dark Souls because of its underlying currency: packets of salt that can be used to level up your character but which are also lost upon death. Like souls in FromSoftware’s series, the game’s economy makes the cost of failure two-fold. Instead of just dying and failing to progress, the player also loses what little advantages they accumulated along the way. The farther you venture into the Salt and Sanctuary’s world, the more you run the risk of having the rug pulled out from underneath with an untimely death.
But the game and its handheld port are much more than just an admirable 2D-clone of the 3D brutality perfected on consoles and PC. Trading in the macabre vistas of Dark Souls or Bloodborne for a side-scrolling camera that conceals as much as it displays, Salt and Sanctuary brings a magnifying glass to exploration that makes it more easy to be surprised and overwhelmed. A sprawling map of graveyards, keeps, forests, and even floating fortresses, all connected by dark corridors, tunnels, and restful “sanctuaries,” the game takes the horror of confronting deadly monsters in close quarters and ups the ante. There are fewer ways to escape and fewer places to escape to.
In this regard, Salt and Sanctuary is much more a response to games like Metroid and Castlevania than say, Dark Souls II. Those games construct labyrinths and then project them onto walls, creating an experience closer to hide-and-seek than a warrior’s gauntlet. This connection is more obvious when you consider that Salt and Sanctuary gates certain areas by pushing them just out of reach until a new ability is found that will let the player traverse what had previously been an impasse. It’s a game where finding dead ends is as much a part of it as dying. Combat is a cornerstone of the game—you will stab a lot of things—but the journey emphasizes the places you discover along the way rather then what you kill when you get to them.
This type of exploration takes on an even more claustrophobic feel when you shrink it down to the Vita’s form factor. While other games might suffer from the transformation, Salt and Sanctuary benefits from being confined to a window only a few inches long. Like a tense conversation in a film exacerbated by close-ups piled on top of one another, substituting the length of a person’s face for the rest of the world beyond it. There are several moments in the game where the player will be asked to climb up to a ledge they can’t see or drop down to a platform just out of view. Sometimes there’s nothing waiting off-screen, and other times it might be a boss that’s too powerful or a drop that’s worth a full life bar and then some.
Salt and Sanctuary makes leaving the safety of environments you’ve conquered for parts unknown an exercise in reckless abandon. Like a child running away from crashing waves at the beach, the game toys with expectations, blurring the lines between risk and reward to make exploration less calculated and more a series of incremental leaps of faith. On console or PC, the game can be reduced into a sprawling, grindy, brawl-fest, but at the size of a mass-market paperback, the survival exploration game sitting in the background gets brought into sharper focus. Like the first time you bomb through the floor to reveal a deeper, more dangerous maze in the original Metroid, Salt and Sanctuary’s at it’s best when it’s keeping the player in the dark.