I really wanted to love Salt and Sacrifice, and for a little while, I did. As the sequel to one of my favorite soulslikes, Salt and Sanctuary, it hit all of the buttons I had hoped it would: challenging combat, a huge variety of grotesque and intimidating enemies, fun boss fights, and an expansive world to explore. But there’s a monster-sized twist to Salt and Sacrifice’s gameplay formula: It introduces Monster Hunter-like elements, complete with repeatable boss hunts, roaming area bosses, and exhausting chases of your targets through gigantic zones. It’s a risky experiment, and one that doesn’t quite pay off.
Right out of the gate, Salt and Sacrifice doesn’t initially seem all that different from its 2016 predecessor. It still has that signature gloomy and grim Ska Studios flavor, though all of the hand-drawn art and animations have been completely redone for the better; the tutorial borrows heavily from the Dark Souls school of teaching you the bare minimum, then crushing your spirit with a tutorial boss that’s technically possible to beat, but you’re not really supposed to; and combat maintains a very quick pace despite being tied to a fairly strict stamina meter that highly discourages button mashing.
These bits that Salt and Sacrifice inherits from Salt and Sanctuary are its strongest points. There’s a ton of playstyle customization thanks to a wide variety of different weapons types; combat is deep, satisfying, and impactful; the zones are fun to explore with meaningful rewards tucked away in hard-to-reach areas; there’s a refreshingly easy to initiate co-op mode; and several options for PVP as well.
But the two games are actually very different on a fundamental level. Instead of having one continuous map, Salt and Sacrifice is actually split up into five zones, each of which are enormous and sprawl out in every direction, with progression through them primarily gated by doors that only open when you devour a certain amount of named Mage hearts. You do this by initiating Mage Hunts, which are Monster Hunter-esque boss fights that have you chasing down a particular Mage all throughout the map, engaging it in several small skirmishes until it eventually settles into its proper boss arena, at which point you’re locked into a traditional boss fight.
It all looks fine on paper, but in practice, this blending of Monster Hunter, Metroidvania, and Soulslike is a far from perfect mix. For one, you’re never given a map. Just to reiterate, these zones are huge, often with entire sublevels that take place above ground, underground, in large castles, and in the skies. Trying to chart a path back to the boss you were fighting, the salt resource you dropped after dying, or the locked door that you’re now able to open is far more frustrating than it needs to be. Sure, Salt and Sanctuary didn’t have a map either (I also wish it did), but its absence matters less in that game because its levels are much more linear in their design.
E3 2021 Screens – Salt and Sacrifice
To add on to that, while there are plenty of checkpoints in the form of obelisks that act as respawn and restock stations, there’s no way to fast travel between them or even choose which one you want to start at when you first go from the main hub to a zone, which amounts to lots of retracing your steps through the same enemies, the same traps, the same platforming challenges over and over again, which gets very repetitive.
Then there are the mage hunts themselves, which come with their own set of drawbacks. The final phases when you actually fight the boss in their walled-off arena are generally pretty fun. They can feel overwhelming when you first encounter them – but after a few attempts, you start to see the openings for you to dodge, block, or attack, making them regularly land in that sweet spot of being difficult but manageable.
It’s the chases that are the problem. The big issue is that you never know what else is going to be there when a Mage decides to teleport to an area. I often found myself having to contend with two Mages at once, or a Mage that just camped a ledge and made it nearly impossible for me to get to where I needed to go, or a mage that would spawn extremely tough and durable enemies in an area that was already full of extremely tough and durable enemies. Mercifully, damage persists on Mages while you’re chasing them so you don’t go back to square one when you die, but the bummer is that you have a limited amount of restorative items. On a few occasions I found myself spending 20 to 30 minutes chasing a Mage around the map, exhausting my resources to the point where I only had a few attempts before I completely drained myself of healing flasks by the time I reached the actual boss fight. I would have to quit out of the hunt, farm more flasks, and then do the whole thing over again. Salt and Sacrifice ended up taking me 25 hours to complete, and far too much of that first run was spent retracing steps, farming materials that felt like they should just replenish at a checkpoint, and battling bosses that I had already beaten three or four times before.
On the plus side, at least the five levels are fun to explore. They are each very visually distinct; they all have an incredible amount of enemy variety, with few if any repeated enemies across them; there are a large handful of Mages to find and hunt; hidden treasures that are well off the beaten path are fun to find, as well as hidden NPCs that will return to the hub once you find them and offer some sort of helpful shop or multiplayer function.
Embracing the Grind
The good news about the Monster Hunter influence in Salt and Sacrifice is that if you’re the kind of person that welcomes the grind and doesn’t mind the extra repetition of beating the same bosses multiple times, there’s a very satisfying progression of loot that awaits you. Just like how every monster in Monster Hunter has their own specific set of craftable weapons and armor you can make from their remains, so too are there unique weapon and armor sets for every Mage you defeat. I always looked forward to going back to the hub and checking out the new weapons and armor I could craft after downing one.
Most weapons gained from Mages also come with unique skills that add fun new facets to combat. My trusty half-spear that I got from killing a Chronomancer gifted me with the ability to place down a pillar that would slow down time for anything that walked within it, along with the ability to call upon spectral blades that would slice up anything in a large range above me, which proved to be incredibly useful. Using these skills did require some pivoting on the skill tree to adjust my build, but fortunately you’re given a limited number of respec points every couple of levels that allow a great amount of flexibility when it comes to customizing your character.
There are also hidden tomes throughout each zone that unlock Fated Mage hunts, which are repeatable hunts that can be used to hunt specific Mages in order to collect the upgrade or crafting materials that you need. I felt like I had my fill of repeatable hunts just from the frequency that they’d spawn in world after I killed them once, but again, for those who are all about the grind to complete their armor sets, it’s nice to have the ability to revisit these hunts in a structured way.
What saves Salt and Sacrifice from being a skip is its multiplayer options. While you can do the Dark Souls style of cooperation and PVP that’s tied to various in-game items and NPC factions, the real star of the show is the simple cooperation board that allows a host to enter a passcode, have their partner enter the same passcode, and boom they’re playing coop together. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s just such a unique experience to be able to play through a soulslike from beginning to end with a buddy without ever having to jump through any hoops.
It helps too that the implementation of co-op is top notch. There are fun emotes to bring a bit of much needed levity to what’s otherwise an aggressively dark adventure, enemies are scaled to make the challenge still very prevalent even with another body, and the drawn out hunts are much less of a chore when you’re able to do it with a friend. Playing in coop turned instances that would’ve infuriated me as a single player, where I’d get bopped by an extremely hard to see trap, or juggled to death by a boss, into shared moments that I could laugh at with a friend.