#REVIEW: Salt and Sanctuary (PS4)

Part of me feels like reviewing this game is pointless, because it came out way the hell back in 2016, but I never pay attention to the year books came out before I write about them, so to hell with it: I first downloaded Salt and Sanctuary for my PS4 a couple of months ago, played it for a couple of hours, and for whatever reason it felt unreasonably hard and didn’t click. I jumped back into it for no good reason a week and a half or so ago, and it immediately proceeded to eat about 20 hours of my life between then and beating it on Sunday. So I’ve been playing quite a bit of it later, and watching videos about it when I wasn’t playing it. I don’t know why it didn’t hit at first, but maybe running a mage build made all the difference.

Anyway: S&S is a 2D Soulslike combined with a Metroidvania, which is an utterly impenetrable sentence if you don’t speak fluent Gamer Nerd, so let me unpack it for you: difficult combat, tons of different ways to build your character that will lead to you fighting with anything from magic and giant hammers to whips and guns and scissor-swords, difficult boss encounters, penalties at death, collecting materials (in this case, salt) from defeating enemies that you can use to level up and are lost if you die unless you defeat the beast that killed you, and an absolutely enormous map (that’s only maybe 2/3 of it, if that; I don’t think there’s a complete map on the internet anywhere yet, which is unreal) with tons of shortcuts and secrets and replayability and lots of backtracking. Combine all that with a seriously cool, unique art style and we have something I’m going to be very into:

It’s an interesting combination of cartoony with gory; killing enemies results in a surprisingly satisfying explosion of blood and body bits, and the overall aesthetic is just Lovecraftian enough that it never got old, although in general I found it a bit too dark a lot of the time– you will be lighting a lot of torches in this game, and there’s a particular enemy that lives in completely dark areas and keeps a light on its forehead like some sort of bipedal angler fish, and the way my build worked out I often had to choose between being able to see and being able to attack it, because you can’t hold a torch and a two-handed weapon at once, and all of my weapons were two-handed. Which got complicated.

Another thing the game does well is the addition of what it calls Creeds, which are basically your character’s religion; there are about seven of them, three or four of which are available at the start of the game. When you find a safe area in the game (a “sanctuary”, where you can level up and there aren’t any enemies) sometimes they are already dedicated to a creed and sometimes you can choose what creed to dedicate them to; you collect items throughout the game that can let you add things like blacksmiths and vendors and fast-travel points to sanctuaries, but you can only add them to sanctuaries that belong to your creed. Sanctuaries can be converted between creeds, too (and you can change yours,) but that can lead to violence if done too many times to the same creed. Connecting vendors to a collectible item leads to a bit of strategic thinking about where to place them, but if you find all of the guides you can put a guide at nearly every sanctuary, so it’s not as big of a deal: more important is that the vendors and such also add bonuses to areas, so you get a salt bonus if you add a Stone Leader at a sanctuary, for example.

I just finished my first run, and it’s distinctly possible that I’m about to dive right in with a second, although I’ve got my eyes on a couple of other games too. But any game I play through twice before heading off to something else is pretty special. If you’ve found that your tastes in games line up with mine in the past, check this out.

In which I’m playing SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE

sekiro-shadows-die-twice-wallpaperFor the last who-knows-how-long– a year?  Close to it?  I have used my PlayStation for nothing other than games made by From Software.  I’ve been basically playing the three Dark Souls games and Bloodborne (together, Soulsborne, a phrase I’ll be using a lot) on a loop, and I’ve beaten all four of them multiple times with several different builds during that time.  I went a really long time where I didn’t ever really replay video games all that much, so to stay with these four games for, again, close to a year (with, granted, some interruptions from other games) was really unprecedented.  I mean, it’s saved me money, but still.

FromSoft released a new game on Friday, the ridiculously-named Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.  I am … I dunno, a dozen hours in?  Fifteen?  And I have yet to see a shadow die, either once or twice, although a random character just decided to name the player character Sekiro.  I don’t get the subtitle.

This isn’t a review, unless “this game is insanely difficult (seriously, the Soulsborne series is renowned for its difficulty and Sekiro puts them to shame) and a lot of fun and I had to stop playing it to type this” counts as a review.  No, instead it’s a post about how I’ve been sort of watching the way I deal with this game from a distance and I’m kind of fascinated by it.

First of all: I can’t play video games without YouTube any longer.  I’ve been simultaneously playing the game (well, okay, in series, not simultaneously) and watching a YouTuber by the name of FightinCowboy play through it for the first time himself.  Cowboy’s helped me through all the Souls games too, so there was no way I wasn’t watching his series on this game.

Now, you may find yourself quietly (or perhaps loudly) mocking me for the idea of spending a lot of time watching someone play a video game on YouTube.  And until I started doing it, I might have felt the same way.  Now, my opinion works this way: have you ever watched anyone play sports on TV?  Could you, instead, have been playing sports yourself?

Oh, the people you’re watching are entertaining and are much better at the sports than you are, and that’s what makes it okay to watch them play instead of playing yourself?

Huh.  Weird how that works.

(Also: you cannot get better at basketball from watching other people play it.  You can get better at video games by watching pros.  You need to develop muscle memory on your own, of course, but strategies and item locations and things like that can absolutely be easily and efficiently discovered online.  There’s also something cathartic about watching someone else get their ass handed to them by a boss that you’re having trouble with, especially in this game.)

So anyway, that’s different.  I’m trying to mostly play before I watch, but the game is wide open enough that he’s going about things in a different order from me, meaning that I’m seeing some stuff in the videos before I get to it myself and I’m also yelling JESUS GO HERE THE ITEM YOU NEED IS OVER IN THIS PART OF THE GAME WHY HAVEN’T YOU GONE BACK HERE YET MY GOD COWBOY or similar things quite a lot.  He can’t hear me; I’m yelling them anyway.

Another interesting thing is that this game is absolutely in dialogue with the Soulsborne games in a way that I find kind of fascinating.  The Dark Souls series is all about playing defensively and looking for openings to attack.  Overt aggression will often get you quickly killed.  Bloodborne shook up the formula a bit, getting rid of shields and blocking and introducing a mechanic where some of the health lost from taking a it could be regained by counterattacking, which led to much more aggressive gameplay overall.

You will die a lot in Sekiro until you stop playing like you’re playing a Soulsborne game.  If you back off an enemy, chances are they’re going to regain everything you just took away from them when you attacked them.  There’s no stamina mechanic– you can block and attack constantly, to your heart’s content, and while the game punishes button mashing harshly they definitely want a scenario where a fight is a couple of dozen quick button pushes in perfect timing and perfect order, which might manifest itself on-screen as several sword strikes, a few blocks, jumping over a sweep, stomping someone’s spear into the ground and then ramming your sword through their neck to end the fight.

Also, stamina played a role in movement in the Soulsborne, because energy to run and energy to fight came from the same pool.  You might find yourself rushing over to an enemy only to discover that once you got there all your stamina was gone and you didn’t have any left to attack or, worse, defend yourself, so measured approaches to everything were prioritized.  This tends to get into that muscle memory I was talking about, quite a bit– and I trashed a boss who had been destroying me repeatedly once I finally realized the game wouldn’t punish me for chasing him.  You can run forever if you want.  Turns out that matters!

So yeah: this isn’t a review, but assuming I don’t chuck my controller through the screen halfway through the game it’s probably a safe assumption that one’s coming eventually.  If nothing else, there’s probably more navel-gazing to be had in the near future, right?


Okay I’m ready to go back to work now

45 below zero yesterday, forty below zero this morning, and I’ve been to school one day this week and twice in the last nine days. I went outside for a couple of minutes yesterday just to feel what -45 degrees felt like, and it is not something that I would recommend– not because of the cold, oddly, but because of the weird shit that happens to your skin after spending even just a couple of minutes outside in that shit and then coming back into a 68 degree house. That’s a temperature shift of somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred and ten degrees in seconds, and it turns out that it’s a bad idea.

It’s possible that there won’t be school tomorrow either. I don’t know that it’s terribly likely for a number of reasons– objectively, it’s still gonna be fucking cold tomorrow, with a windchill below zero, but the actual air temperature will be positive and I think after the last several days they’re going to look at that and go meh, good enough and have the day. Attendance will be shit because a lot of parents are going to shrug and let their kids stay home anyway but it won’t add another day in June.

(Goes and looks at the forecast)

Jesus H. Christ this shit is NOT NORMAL:

-25 on Wednesday (yesterday,) 53 on Monday, then a low of 6 again on Thursday. This is Goddamned ridiculous.

Anyway, one way or another I’ve been stuck in the house for a bit too long at this point and everything is starting to bore and/or aggravate me and despite the fact that it’s still currently -8 outside I may need to leave the house this afternoon just for the sake of my sanity. I’m maybe an hour or two away from beating Dark Souls again and part of me thinks I should just roll straight into DS2 for the third time after I finish that. The rest of me is starting to think this is borderline unhealthy and hey you have all this free time maybe finish writing a book?

That’s the stir-crazy talking, obviously. Clearly it’s all nonsense. What are y’all doing to stay sane while outdoors is trying to kill us?

Snow day Saturday

Not a whole lot to talk about today, unless y’all want to get into the absolute wonder that yesterday’s politics news was– Roger Stone getting arrested, then the air traffic controllers shutting down the Eastern Seaboard and LaGuardia Airport and the shutdown being done only a few hours later was a thing of wonder and a testament to 1) Nancy Pelosi holding the Democrats together and 2) the power of unions. ‘Twas awesome.

Today has mostly been a day for burrowing into blankets and avoiding the cold; we spent a pleasant 45 minutes or so checking out a relatively new local independent bookstore but other than that didn’t really go outside, and the three of us have basically been trading off the TV for Pokémon and Dark Souls since then. I’ve been doing this thing on Saturdays for several weeks now where I get up, have a large cup of coffee, and read in my recliner for a couple of hours. I’m rereading Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, or at least the first two books, in preparation for finishing the trilogy with Book 3, which I expect to be amazing.

Speaking of amazing books, you may want to check out The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. There’s very likely to be a full review but I want to wait a couple of days for … reasons. In the meantime, it’s the first shortlist-for-the-top-10 new book I’ve read in 2019.

What are you doing to keep the cold away this weekend?

In which I brag about meaningless things

This motherfucker right here …

I’ve mentioned I’m playing through Dark Souls 3 again. This was my third playthrough. The first one, I hit a wall and had to stop playing because I couldn’t come even close to beating any of the game that was left. The second was as a strength-focused build and, while I beat the game, there was still one boss I couldn’t come close to killing no matter how hard I tried. He was optional, though, so I could just skip fighting him and still beat the game.

I was playing as a sorcerer for this run, for the first time. Playing as a sorcerer in Dark Souls 3 is kinda strange. You’re frankly just not that tough for most of the game until all the sudden at the very end you turn into a monster. My wife went to bed early last night, and I’d gotten to the point where I had three bosses left to beat the game– Lorian & Lothric, who I’d beaten once with the strength build, the final boss (ditto) and the fucking bullshit-ass Nameless King up there and his bullshit-ass dragon that he rides in on that you have to kill first. I had never beaten the Nameless King. Never even really come close. I told my wife I was gonna take a couple of stabs at the last couple of bosses and then come to bed, hoping that I’d get through one of them in half an hour or so and then make a sensible decision.

I beat Lorian & Lothric on my second try, and frankly I only lost to them the first time because I got overconfident and sloppy, and Dark Souls is a series where the most basic enemy in the game will demolish you if you stop paying attention for a minute. It took over an hour of trying on my last build to get through them and I still felt like I’d gotten kinda lucky at the end there.

“Screw it,” I thought, “I’ve been playing for less than ten minutes and I’m still not ready for bed.” (In my defense, it was barely nine– I wasn’t kidding when I said Bek had gone to bed early.) “I’m gonna give the King a try.” Now, this was dangerous– I know what I’m like, and it was entirely possible that I was sentencing myself to a night where I was still up at Goddamned midnight frustrated and tired and still losing to this annoying-ass boss and his annoying-ass dragon over and over again. Because, again, I’ve never beaten this bastard.

And then I demolished his ass– over half my health reserves left– on the first try. And everyone else in the house was in bed, so the proper response to an achievement of this magnitude– tearing my pants off and running around the house yelling swear words while waving said pants over my head– seemed inappropriate. So I just sat there in mild disbelief for a moment, thought “Ah, fuck it,” and went and beat the game. Which also took two tries, but mostly because the last boss does something halfway through the fight that I’d forgotten about and I got way too close and he wasted me.

So, yeah. If you’re a Dark Souls fan? Try a sorcerer build. It won’t come together for a while, but when it finally does? Holy shit.