Granted: it might not look all that pretty (it is a Java game, after all), but for whatever Paradox Interactive’s Salem might lack in visual fidelity, it makes up for with inventive game mechanics and unprecedented cycles of vengeance. The spiritual successor to cult favorite Haven & Hearth, Salem is a permadeath (as in, your character is gone forever if they die even once), free-to-play MMO that lets you track down and kill anyone who messes with your property – that alone makes it worth noticing.
As the name would suggest, Salem takes place in a historical setting similar to the first settlements in the New World – only this version is a bit more whimsical, with fictitious creatures, items, and anglo-gothic lore referencing the works of fantasy writers like Lewis Carroll and H.P. Lovecraft. The basic game mechanics might even seem strange at first: instead of performing actions with mana or stamina, your abilities are all based on 16th-century medical theories. You’ll have to properly manage your four humors - blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile - if you want to succeed. Gross, yes, but refreshing in an “odd uniqueness” kind of way.
Gameplay-wise, Salem could be described as a hybrid between Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and Manhunt (more on that later). Arriving in Boston with nothing but the old-timey clothes on your back (or nothing at all, as the above video indicates), you’re given the freedom to gather, build, or destroy whatever you so choose. Proficiencies (Salem’s version of professions or skill trees) determine what your dinky pilgrim is capable of, though everyone must start things off by learning Childish Things in the Perennial Philosophy tree. Makes sense. Crafting is a huge part of the game, much like Minecraft: in order to improve your Proficiencies, feed yourself, or construct a roof to sleep under, you’ll need to get on point with your crafting game.
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to face the wilderness alone, you’re whisked to an arbitrary location on the gigantic, randomly-generated map. Everyone on the server occupies the same gamespace (with around 1,000 players per server at the moment), so you’re bound to run into someone eventually – but for now, you’ll have some peace and quiet to gather materials in the hopes of building a home.
To mark your territory, you’ll need to construct a claim pole denoting that this land is your land. Once that’s done, you can get to work building mansions, mills, gardens, and whatever other construction you feel like carrying out on your newfound property. Items also work in an interesting, divergent way compared to other MMOs; for instance, slay a deer, and you’ll be able to loot over ten items from the same corpse, including the hide, chunks of venison, and last but not least, the deer’s brain. You know they say: you’ve got to use every single part of the virtual animal.
But where things get the most interesting is in Salem’s crime system. Criminal skills are developed like any other: as you perform dastardly deeds, your illegal actions will become more and more devastating. It’s like Yoda always says: anger leads to vandalism, vandalism leads to theft, theft leads to cold-blooded murder. Yep – if you’re evil enough to keep at it, you’re able to earn the power of taking away someone’s only life in an MMO. That kind of potential for hardcore crime is usually relegated to special servers in the scarce MMOs that incorporate it; in Salem, it’s the norm.
But don’t think that crime sprees can last forever. When you commit a felonious act, you’ll leave clues behind – clues that other players can collect before their two-week expiration. Once someone’s collected enough clues from the scenes of your crimes, they’ll gain the power to locate and track down your location. Even better: once they’ve found you, if you’ve committed enough heinous acts to warrant bad karma, they can summon your character to them even if you aren’t logged in. And, subsequently, slaughter you like a defenseless chimp. That means there’s a price to pay for wanton destruction of your fellow players’ territory: just like the movie Taken, they will find you, and they will kill you. This can lead to multi-character chains of vengeance, with players vehemently stalking and killing the person who took their previous, permanently-ended life.
This kind of high-stakes use of your time, where everything you’ve worked for and built can be taken away forever at another player’s whim, is unlike any other MMO on the current market. It may be a tad too hardcore for some, but for those that really dig their teeth into it, it looks like Salem will have loads of stuff for them to occupy their time. With a design that’s built to be “infinitely expandable” and a huge potential for player-created narratives, Salem has much more to offer than what a quick glance would reveal.