Getting the difficulty right in an RPG is much more difficult than in an action adventure, say a typical Zelda game, as the build-variety of characters in an RPG is much wider. Which is why people can have widely different experiences, which per se is not a bad thing, but makes it sometimes difficult to understand where others are coming from when it seems that they played a completely different game based on their experiences.
Salt and Sanctuary is a 2d action-RPG with a few nods towards metroidvanias, although this aspect is far less pronounced than in a full-blown metroidvania. Getting new abilities only really comes into play much later into the game, and while they are essential to proceed, they don’t feel as meaningful to the core gameplay as double jump or dashing in a real metroidvanias. Here the abilities feel more like keys to advance beyond barriers than upgrades that lets you do what you’ve already done, only better.
The game is much more focused on your character build and your weapon specializations. And unlike most metrodivanias, either those of the more action-adventure variety or even others with more RPG characteristics, few of them allow you to out-level enemies like Salt and Sanctuary does. The game is often called a soulslike metroidvania, which translates to losing your exp (Salt in this case) at the place where you died (and you can get it back if you go there), and some harder common enemies.
I say harder because apart from a few situations, I never had much of a problem throughout the game. In theory, the bosses should be hard, but again, based on your build experiences can vary. I usually tend to prefer heavy strength-based builds in most RPGs with single characters, and this worked quite well here. Difficulty-wise, I had probably only three boss fights that gave me a bit of trouble (the first, the final boss and one in between), and the one I had to redo the most was actually the first one.
Once I got past that hurdle, I seemed to kill most bosses on the first or second try (okay, some did take maybe a few more times, but not an excessive amount of attempts like the first). Interestingly, after I won and read up on the game, I found out that some of the bosses I killed on my first try without any problems really were absolutely roadblocks for others, while vice versa some of the harder bosses for me didn’t pose any challenge for others. It really shows the difference between RPGs and action-adventures, whereupon in the later most people will face bosses with almost the same abilities and skills and hence will have very similar experiences, independent of how good they are at the game itself.
Compared to some action-adventures, you have options to approach difficult situations and its really not that hard (especially the bosses). You still will die a lot though, because the game occasionally takes cheap shots at you (some of the deadly traps are quite hard to see given the already muddy visuals) and common enemies can often stunlock you with no way to escape.
Although, one aspect of the game I utterly hated is fall damage. During my playtime I thought of Salt and Sanctuary as that game that wanted me to jump to my death. It tantalizingly dangled an abyss before me, and each and every time I thought about jumping to see what was down there, it killed me. There are maybe one or two situations in the whole game where it’s a good idea to jump without seeing where you will land, but in almost every other instance, it will kill you.
I’m not sure its really a problem of the game, its just that almost every other exploration-based platformer has conditioned me to explore every nook and cranny, and while I remember some 2d games with fall damage, they are quite rare and usually don’t go well together with this type of game. Since the game is designed around this, sadly, you couldn’t even change it, as, without the fall damage, you would be able to get to areas you aren’t supposed to go yet, but on the other hand it makes the game feel a bit bipolar, as it wants you to explore but at the same time punishes you when you do.
Also, there are some more advanced platforming elements later (like vanishing platforms) and while the controls, for the most part, are okay, they feel more designed for beat’em up games/2d fighting games, than pure platforming, which becomes an issue later. The platforming sections are not too long and demanding, but the controls are a bad fit for them and make them decidedly unfun to play.
So, overall, would I recommend the game? Not sure. Once I really got into it, I wanted to see it through and there’s a lot of variety in areas and monsters. I know that most soulslike games are built around deliberate actions, but to me, this always translates to games where my characters move more sluggish than what I’m used to. I can adapt, but it just doesn’t feel as enjoyable as more faster-paced games. The whole save spot system with the altars and idols was not overly intuitive gameplay-wise, even if it made sense setting-wise, and the consequences for doing something wrong or what wrong meant wasn’t too well explained.
The visuals certainly were unique, but I’m not sure I ever became overly fond of the style and the muddy colors really got on my nerve later on. The game also could have used an automap system, and while I know that some people religiously object to maps in soulslike games, it would have been a nice feature. You can get around without a map, most of the places are distinct enough, but it’s easy to forget some of the places you have to backtrack to later when you get the right items or ability.
Anyway, it’s probably a good soulslike in 2d, but if think you get a good metroidvania, think again.