‘Sea Salt’ Is Community Theatre Lovecraft With All The Janky Charm Intact

Welcome to Game Pass Gems. Join us on the journey through the underbelly of Xbox Game Pass. Maybe we’ll find your next favourite game. This edition will focus on the Lovecraftian horror of Sea Salt.

Traditionally, in Lovecraftian fiction, the threat to normalcy is creeping and subtle. It gently eases itself into daily life, targetting isolated communities and social pariahs to mask the cosmic threat of its terminal presence. Dagon creeps in from the wings, masked in shadows, looming and leering at the cast centre stage. They remain oblivious to his presence until it’s far, far too late. Sea Salt presents us with a different scenario. Eschewing clandestine deific subversion and cosmic horrors in the cupboards for a somewhat more tangible existential threat. Sea Salt poses the question: What if Dagon rushed us?

Playing like a distinctly unholy and admittedly tenuous combination of Toge Productions’ 2009 flash juggernaut Infectonator and Coffee Powered Machine’s riot-em-up Okhlos: Omega, Sea Salt puts the player in the shoes of eldritch commander-in-chief Dagon — or, more accurately, an ascended acolyte thereof, as they captain their legions of adorable pixel art fishmen in their quest to take vengeance on the land people for failing to honour the big man’s demand of a blood sacrifice.

Enter stage left: Dagon. There will be blood, and he will spill it. In practical terms, this consists of the player manoeuvring their ever-increasing swarm of abominations in real-time with a targeting reticle, less directly controlling the masses and more vaguely painting an area for them to advance on. Occasionally stumbling upon a summoning circle, which can be used to spawn a new unit of unholy creations, which in turn ranges from swarms of angry worms to massive fish-beast abominations, any of which can be sicced on the unfortunate forces of man to feast upon their flesh in retro style.

Presentation is apparently key in the land of the old gods as Sea Salt delivers on its Lovecraft Arcadified premise in spades. Environments ooze with atmosphere with a distinct visual shift between levels. The docks feel like docks and the fields feel like fields, the gallows feel like gallows and the world feels like it was on its last legs before we even got here. Coupled with a distinctly ominous soundtrack that exudes a suitable level of cosmic horror gravitas, and tied together with a string of charmingly directed cut scenes, Sea Salt comes together in a gloriously hokey conflation of goofy eldritch insanity. Dagon smiles in a satisfied manner as his minions fall upon the town guard, distributing them evenly across the stage in a shower of pixel gore and crunchy sound effects.

Unfortunately, while Sea Salt brings forth a pleasing face level experience, a closer inspection reveals that the shopkeep may not be quite as sane as he claims to be. Graphically, while most of the individual assets are of a high level of quality, as an unfortunate byproduct of the setting and tone the developers have aimed for, everything has a tendency to blend together into a muddy mess of vibrating sprites, rendering immediate visual recognition something of a pipe dream when it comes to friendly and enemy units alike once everything kicks off. This compounds the terrible pathfinding elephant into a decidedly small room. Your units will get stuck on everything they possibly can.

Despite the environments essentially boiling down to rows of squares with house textures on them, or even wide open fields, your writhing mass of sea-spawned hybrids will find their way onto every fence, crate and scarecrow in the path between them and whatever ill-fated defender is plinking at them from the other side. This renders some enemy types far more frustrating than they have any right to be, and while fine control isn’t really what the developers were aiming for, dodging even the most clearly telegraphed attacks is nigh on impossible, bizarrely curtailing the expansion potential of your horde. The cast cowers in fear as Dagon awkwardly stands centre stage, his fishmen caught in the curtains stage right. A lich idly sucks out the soul of a stagehand as he whistles and kicks his incorporeal heels.

That said, a playthrough of the game will entertain the villainously inclined for a few hours. Multiple branching paths, hidden unit cards and unlockable player acolytes create a nominal level of replay value. Despite this, however, the biggest cosmic threat to Sea Salt is, ironically enough, a distinct lack of depth. The aforementioned issues with pathfinding and unit recognition render the “strategy” part of a game billed as an “action strategy hybrid” as face level at best. Any strategy stops at which units you choose to summon in what order, and any hopes of creatively utilising different unit types and combinations are cut short by the vast majority of them being pigeon-holed as either melee DPS or ranged DPS, with very few notable exceptions.

Furthermore, a significant portion of the roster is completely outclassed by a small selection of mid-late game creatures. And with nothing to incentivise choosing them, as all units cost the same, no matter their abilities, they swiftly fall forgotten to the wayside. By the late game, I was using no more than three different creature types out of a selection of twelve or so available to me, as any attempt to diversify further proved to be a noticeable step backwards.

The game effectively forces out experimentation in favour of statistical optimisation by limiting its scope through its own game mechanics. Even the wave-based survival mode, unlocked upon completion of each stage, has little reason to be there beyond completing the “finish thirty waves of survival mode” challenge. Exit stage left, Dagon followed by fishmen, black cats and cultists, maybe a lich and nothing else.

I would recommend a playthrough of Sea Salt. The devs clearly cared about the game, as is evident in the presentation. Every goofy little monster and man has a page of lovingly written lore in the bestiary, and every single facet of their game child is accurate and faithful to the world they’ve created for us, down to the menu font choice.

The unfortunate shortcomings do not render the game unplayable, they only limit its staying power. The gameplay limitations do not entirely obfuscate YCJY Games’ dream, they only stop us from coming back. Curtain fall: the crowd looks on bemusedly, contemplating what they’ve just seen. Some of them cry. They clap anyway.

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