Take one From Software RPG with 'Souls' in the title. Mix with a hearty dash of Castlevania and pour onto a 2D teppanyaki grill. Let it simmer and what do you get? Nails-hard action RPG Salt And Sanctuary.
Price: $17.99 / £14.99
Release date: Out now
“You must be criminally insane to enjoy this.”
A colleague is watching me play Salt And Sanctuary, a newly released 2D action RPG on PS4. I'm stuck, and have been for some time, on a boss called The Kraekan Wyrm. As my friend looks over my shoulder, all she can see is my on-screen avatar - a lithe, leather-clad knight with a flame-retardant shield and a pointy stick - being flattened repeatedly by a giant mess of twisted dragon flesh. Each time I enter the boss area, it leaps forward, I dodge the first attack and then – bosh – it whips at me with a tail sweep that turns me into medieval paste.
Now, several hours after the fact, I can see where she was coming from. After all, the only thing she could see was about 15 identical boss attempts ending the same brutally violent way, and the glare in my eyes germinating from mild curry to freshly-spewed-lava levels of searing fury. She couldn't see the tiny notches of knowledge accumulating under the surface. How with each death I was learning an essential slice of experience (not points, but actual tangible experience) in the presence of my enemy. Each death was a nugget of know-how logged into my hippocampus.
Long after the office lights had been dimmed, and the last colleague had clocked off for the night, it happened. The Wyrm leapt, I rolled, then with pin-point accuracy I proceeded to bait the tail swipe a gnat's hair away from insta-death. The Wyrm can attack with fire, it can jump onto your head and it can sweep into the air for a screen-filling blast of red hot ruin. But that tail swipe - which I deduce it uses nine times out of ten when I stand in the perfect position - is the only attack with a distinct pause after the strike. In this window I can get one stab in. If can hit it, I can kill it.
When it dies, deep into the gloom of the early hours of the morning, I feel glorious. We are talking Willem Dafoe in Platoon levels of knee-sliding, fist-pumping, ceiling-gazing delight.
Such a euphoric sense of achievement - of becoming a of gothier, hack ‘n’ slash Batman - will be familiar for Dark Souls vets. The two person, husband and wife dev team at Ska Studios clearly called upon the honourable From Software series for inspiration. While it dabbles with dashes, flips and other moveset tricks enabled by the 2D perspective, Salt And Sanctuary is all about a grim, encompassing fantasy land filled with huge bosses, brutal enemies and harsh traps.
There are appreciable differences between the two, beyond the angle it all unfolds from. The skill tree here is much more approachable, weaving a spider's web between differing builds. Anyone puzzled by Dark Souls' lack of intuitive, in-game character explanations will experience unfamiliar but welcome 'oooohs' of recognition. 'So I can spend points in this stat to wield that weapon.' they might postulate (while a Souls aficionado rolls their eyes in the background).
There's also a neat Brand mechanic, which sees areas of the world blocked off from traversal until you unlock strange new abilities, such as walking on the ceiling or wall jumping. Various NPCs will stick searing metal in your palm to give you these Brands, and suddenly you're picking your brain Metroid-fashion to discern where you previously spotted a ledge just out of reach, or a ceiling worth exploring.
I can't believe I'm going to type out this next sentence, but here goes… There are even some elements of S&S that work better than they do in Souls. Much is made of the clarity of Souls' combat, about how it's tough but fair. But how many times have you been able to blame defeat on a wonky camera disappearing into a wall or up a giant's bum crease? With the 2D perspective, S&S doesn't suffer from drunken camera angles.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Everything that is unerringly brilliant about S&S was unerringly brilliant in Souls first. Even the main mechanics are recognisably Souls-ian. You have salt instead of souls, candelabras instead of fog gates and sanctuaries instead of bonfires. Souls fans will feel instantly at home, if quietly underwhelmed, by the miniaturised scope and scale of it all.
To dismiss this as a clone, though, is missing the point. Salt And Sanctuary evokes the same feeling of victorious elation as Souls. Once you've tasted that particular nectar, there's little to diminish it. There are few games out there, especially on current gen consoles, that understand the purest form of satisfaction comes from recognising your own mastery over a tough challenge. Salt And Sanctuary, like Souls, recognises that the upper echelons of fulfilment are reached when your starting point is one of apparent powerlessness. If that sounds up your street - or if you’re criminally insane - then consider stepping into the bold, exacting world of Salt And Sanctuary.
Want to see exactly how gruelling Salt & Sanctuary is? Join Anthony for the GamesRadar stream at 1:30PM PT/4:30PM ET/8:30PM GMT twitch.tv/GamesRadar