It’s far from radical to suggest that most, if not all, successful videogames are popular in part because of the strong emotional responses they elicit from the players. The Gears of War trilogy brought me close to tears at parts, while the Borderlands series made me smirk throughout at least the first dozen playthroughs, and Halo: Combat Evolved left me with a profound sense of awe and wonder. It’s not poetry, it’s just something that strikes your limbic system in such a way so you’re suddenly more invested. In my time as a gamer I’ve often felt excited, fearful, sad, or energized, but rarely has a game ever accomplished what Lavaboots Studios’ Salt did upon my first few hours of sailing the high seas. For the first time ever in a game I actually felt inexplicably peaceful.
When you boil it down into basics it isn’t hard to see why you’d feel this way. Salt takes place smack dab in the middle of the ocean, amid a string of sandy, palm-speckled islands. As you start up the game you find yourself waking up with nothing in your inventory but a few instructions and a little note explaining how you may have washed up on shore. Immediately it becomes clear that the abstract goal of the game is survival, and you’re struck a very Minecraft-esque feel (minus all those 90-degree angles) as you begin to gather wood, rocks, and bits of cloth.
Like any open world survival game, patience comes in handy right from the start. Though the game may feel like Minecraft, and though it shares much of the same mechanics, actual materials are far less abundant in this tropical paradise, so prepare to sprint/walk the entirety of an island for little more than a few stones and a couple flowers. The crafting options in the beginning are best described as sparse, and though they offer you all the supplies necessary to build a ship on the first island, there isn’t much else to find until you venture forward to lands unknown.
It’s in that initial forward-venturing where I first found my Zen (or chi, Feng shui, or whatever…shut up). Upon crafting a simple raft with nothing special but a sail and a rudder, I was immediately struck by how awesomely realistic the boating controls were. Forget the graphics and the ambient music, simply appreciate the fact that you actually have to use the rudder (in a nautically correct fashion) to maneuver your little raft. That means, for all you landlocked creatures, you not only have to steer, but you must also take turns controlling the ship while simultaneously navigating and fighting whatever random current you’re in, which is a full time investment if you haven’t already guessed.
Now I know that doesn’t sound the least bit tranquil (and it won’t until you try it), but being totally focused on steering a tiny craft through a massive ocean with no land in sight left me with a complete sense of immersion. There was even a point during one of my inter-island travels when I thought to myself how perfect it would be if I could drop a line in the water and start fishing while I drifted (which I hear is a future feature, for all you ichthyologists). I was so caught up in the virtual act of sailing that real-world desires started to blend into the game. If that isn’t immersion than I don’t know what is, and I quit.
But like everything else, too much calm can be a bad thing, and that’s where the pirates come in. Every so often one of the islands you come across will have a smattering of blood thirsty, grunting thieves looking to either murder you or give you scurvy (I’m obviously still not clear on the whole notion of pirates). Again, the fighting mechanics almost perfectly mirror the aforementioned Minecraft, so strategy really boils down to either shooting baddies with arrows (though you’ll find it wildly inefficient) or simply standing there and trading blows with them. Unfortunately this becomes rather monotonous, and you’ll soon avoid fights altogether, if not for anything but saving yourself from a painfully repetitive series of mouse clicks.
The blatant lack of options in the settings is another somewhat disappointing aspect of the game as well. Without the ability to assign actions to buttons, anyone with preset peripheral gear will have a hard enough time starting at square one to learn all the basics. This is of course a minor annoyance, but it’s also something that should have been accounted for on the draft table. There’s no excuse in today’s gaming world to not allow for such rudimentary customization, especially if it means ease of access to a greater crowd of people.
When all is said and done, Salt feels like a lower resolution version of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, minus the parkour and travel/mission restrictions. The sounds of waves, birds, and campfires, all accented by a subtle overture, really ties the environment together (much like how this rug ties the room together) and strengthens the sense of passivity you’ll experience as you walk the length of a beach, looking for washed up logs or mineral-rich boulders. Without any main or side quests, the world easily becomes your oyster (it is the ocean, after all), and you may do exactly as you please, when you please.
This meditative masterpiece is currently available for purchase as early-access, and we all know how I feel about that, but unlike many of the other games available under such conditions, this island hopping adventure almost feels ready for the shelves. Though the pirate fights (the best pair of words I’ve ever written) become a little too predictable and the control customization is found to be wanting, Salt delivers on almost every other aspect of the game. The powerful scenery, immersive traveling, and open-world feel places the player right in the middle of their own virtual paradise, and it’s a hard feeling to let go of. With the dedicated work of its developers, this game will become an absolute must-have, but don’t take my word for it (actually…do exactly that), grab the flip flops and sunscreen and check it out for yourself, you’ve got islands to explore and deep breaths to take!