Salt & Sanctuary is an action RPG with metroidvania elements developed and published by Ska Studios on PS4 and PC in 2016. Further ports for Vita, Switch and Xbox One were released in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. The plot puts the player in the shoes of their player avatar, a person traveling on a ship housing a princess intent on marrying royalty of an opposing nation to end the current war.
This peace effort is cut short, as the boat gets sunk by an attack and the player finds themself washed ashore on a strange island. With war being a certainty until the princess has been delivered to her new home, the player character sets out to find her in this unknown and hostile land.
There is very little plot to speak of in Salt & Sanctuary. The player's journey from beginning to end is very simple, as you simply make your way from area to area searching for the princess while collecting gear and abilities until you reach the final boss and pick an ending. On the way, you'll run into a handful of NPCs with their sanity intact that either say something cryptic or speculate about the nature of the island you're all stuck on.
The vast majority of story material is stowed away in the copious of lore note present in the game. Every enemy, piece of gear and even the leveling system (!) has something to tell you. I haven't pieced it all together personally, since I found the presentation (which is bleak and kinda ugly in parts), the dreamlike nature of the world combined with the speed of which you can make it through an area didn't incentivize me to stick around and puzzle stuff out.
The overarching stuff like how the game takes the saying "salt of the earth" and makes it an integral part of humanity and their relationship with gods and the game's central conceit are rad as hell though, so the game is not without imagination. But to get the most out of it, I think it's best to treat each area as its own little macabre story with minimal connections to eachother before trying to puzzle out the inner workings of the various lands, creeds and creatures. And if that's not your thing, you can just gawk at the cool monster designs and appreciate the game on that level.
In the grand metroidvania pantheon, Salt & Sanctuary sits in its own corner, as it is a lot slower and deliberate compared to its peers. Mobility options exist and there is a fair share of platforming, but even when fully decked out by the endgame, the game still puts a lot of weight on its somewhat meticulous combat.
The major limiting factors that separate this game from others like it is the stamina meter, which dictates almost every available action. Unless you're running through an earlier area with an upgraded weapon, you're gonna have to take in the environment and be ready to block or dodge past the game's vast assortment of enemies and traps. Which is harder than I'd like sometimes, as the environments are often dense with small details that will spell your doom unless you're close enough to the screen to pick them out from the background.
Actually fighting is pretty simple as long as you can internalize the limitations you're working under. Your stamina usually won't let you do more than a combo and a dodge at a time, so that dictates the flow of combat. Against regular enemies, one of you will probably be dead within seconds, but during boss fights, there is enough time to develop a satisfying back-and-forth battle. Especially since consuming healing items takes a couple of seconds and only by learning boss patterns can you find a safe spot to heal.
But the game's 2D nature does come with some limitations. I've already mentioned how hard it can be to see certain hidden enemies or traps, but there's more to it. Since you can't move around enemies, your only choice to get past them is to kill them or roll through them. Depending on the size of the enemy, this can be pretty hard in the heat of the moment, especially if failure to get past them means you get a shockwave of death shoved up your butt.
To help with this, blocking attacks is pretty strong as a defensive action (parrying even more so, if the enemy is humanoid enough), as it is multi-directional. But that still doesn't mend the fact that weapons that require high mobility and precision (like the weaker daggers and spears) don't stand up to the heavier weapons, especially when dealing with flying enemies. It's simply so much better to be able to delete enemies from the equation quickly and stunlock bosses than it is to try and rely on evading and doing multiple weaker hits.
Beyond the core combat mechanics, there are some other useful tools to make use of. Not the literal tools though, as most consumables like arrows, throwing daggers or bombs are just terrible. But the guns and magic are good.
Guns are very simple & direct, but magic is a lot more interesting. It comes in two flavours, Spells and Prayers. Most of the Spells have an associated element (Fire or Lightning), which lie in opposition to eachother. Using too many spells of one element offsets your elemental balance and hurts you, meaning you have to alternate between at least two spells or use a special ring to negate it in exchange for less damage. It's a nice way of making sure you don't rely on a single spell as a mage.
Tying into that is the Wounding/Fatigue system. As you lose health or use stamina, your max limit slowly decreases. If you use a spell, it'll drop your max stamina severly. The only way to restore you back to max is to rest at a Sanctuary (checkpoints), use a healing Prayer (which heals Wounding at the cost of Fatigue) or a special type of healing item.
I like this as a way to encourage resting more than weapon durability, as it is driven by skill and choice over what is effectively just time spent playing. If you prep some magic potions and don't get hit, it won't be a problem. But if you don't, you'll have to swallow your pride, walk (or warp) back with your Salt, level up and try again with more knowledge and higher stats.
All of the game's RPG mechanics are heavily interlinked, but I'll try my best at explaining them in a sensible manner. It all starts with your chosen Creed, which is an in-universe guild that dictates what Creed consumables (replenishable healing items & buffs), equipment and spells you have access to.
Every Creed gives you access to the bare necessities, but there are enough differences to make each one feel different, particularly when it comes to each Creed's healing items. Experimenting with different Creeds beyond the initial 3 is a bit annoying though, as switching to a new one means you're losing access to whatever extra consumable you've unlocked through Creed work in the old one by trading in monster drops.
The same holds true if you find a Sanctuary already in use by another Creed. If you want to take it over for your own Creed and restore your access to those extra Creed consumables in that area, you can either violently take over the Sanctuary through a difficult battle, or spend a semi-rare item to do so peacefully.
Whichever Creed you choose, a Sanctuary's core function remains the same. Beyond resting and restoring Creed consumables, you can present offerings to summon generic NPCs, who will provide functions like sellling weapons or spells. They can also let you teleport to other Sanctuaries, make special weapons and even bring in another player for local co-op.
Most of these services take gold, which is plentiful, even though 10% of your total is lost on each death. About a third of the way in, you should have a large enough stack to get anything you want, at which point you might as well trade it in for the game's more important currency, Salt.
While Salt can be spent to upgrade weapons, its main function is to act as exp. Which can prove to be hard won exp, as you lose all of it upon death, at which point it'll manifest as a Salt Bat (from platforming deaths) or get absorbed by the enemy (or boss!) that killed you.
To get it back, you need to kill whatever holds it. Though for bosses it's a bit more complicated, as by damaging them enough you can get it back, but to leave the arena, you need to kill them. So to keep your Salt between boss attempts, the game demands you perform well enough to shave off about a fourth of their health each time.
Suffice to say, this is a strong incentive to play carefully and it does make for some very tense encounters if you've bitten off more than you can chew. Of course. if you make use of the copious amount of cheap teleportation items to return to a Sanctuary and level up as soon as you can, it'll never be an issue.
When you level up at a Sanctuary, you'll be given a Black Pearl, which is a tangible stat point that can be found as a handful of treasures in the world as well. You use these pearls to advance through the game's gigantic skill tree, which functions a bit like the Lillium Orb system in Tales of Xillia or the Expert Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X International/HD.
From the center, the tree branches out in 4 major directions representing the game's general builds (light equipment, heavy equipment, Spells, Prayers), with nodes alternating between direct stats, or equipment/magic unlocks that also give you stats. Plus there are some rare nodes which give you more healing or Fatigue potions.
Generally, you'll want to pick out a goal (say, rank 3 light armor and rank 4 polearms) to work towards, but usually you'll get something useful no matter where you're going. It gets a bit more complicated once special weapons enter the mix, as the way they scale may not align with what you've been levelling.
Thankfully, you do get a little bit of wiggle room thanks to Gray Pearls, which can be used to refund Black Pearls while retaining your progress in the tree. But even with that, planning out a build can be difficult without knowledge of available weapons. You automatically gain health every 5 levels, so you'll get stronger no matter what eventually. But some clearer direction on available weapons, or just more weapons to cover different stat spreads would be welcome.
The game world of Salt & Sanctuary is staggeringly dense. There are secrets everywhere, and with no map, getting lost is almost a given. Navigating between areas is usually fine though, but when I checked out a fan-made map after beating the game, I was stunned to see what areas were where in relation to eachother. It's all a senseless hodgepodge of keeps and caves by design, but they thankfully connect in a multitude of interesting ways gameplay-wise. There are so many hidden shortcuts that while not always super useful, help the game "shrink" as you explore and master the environments.
The other thing helping with that are the navigation powers, which are pretty spaced out compared to other Metroidvanias, but help you look at the environments in a new light all the same. I wouldn't call the platforming super good (equip load affects jumping distance just enough to not be noticable while still screwing you over), but it does its job outside of a few troublesome areas like the Pitchwoods.