Sands of Salzaar Review
The muffled thud of countless footsteps in the sand announces the prestigious caravan’s presence long before we see it. The queen of a rival tribe travels with it, safely ensconced in the midst of a dozen warriors. She has something I want, and the bandits who serve me out of fear itch at the prospect of a fight. She’s more important as an ally, though, soI hold them back with a word as her retinue passes by.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and in other lives, it isn’t. This scene in Sands of Salazaar from Han-Squirrel plays out quite differently if you’re an aggressive barbarian or a mysterious spirit witch, for example, if you seek peace or wish only to grind everyone under your heels.
Sands of Salazaar from Han-Squirrel Studio is a unique RPG that’s heavy on customization and character. The scale is immense, almost overwhelming at times, but it lets you build a unique story around your hero like few other games do. Similar to any deep RPG, you’ll choose a primary hero from roughly a dozen available classes and have the option to set out with a pre-made character (which you should) or a self-made avatar before picking skills and other starting boons using Legacy Points.
The Legacy You Leave… Ahead
This Legacy system is initially confusing, but it’s one of Sands’ most interesting features. You get a measly 60 Legacy Points at first, barely enough to pick some skills and an item. However, you’ll earn more Legacy Points depending on how you play, and these carry over when you start a new game. Two heroes in, you may have a chance to start with a slate full of deadly skills, for example, or enter the desert with three companions instead of the usual lone friend.
It’s a clever system with a significant influence on how you experience the game. I rarely bother with New Game+, but eagerly returned to the Legacy screen more than once to tinker with how the next adventure should unfold.
You’re chucked into the desert with no waypoints and little idea of what’s going on, but a clearer picture comes into view as you speak to your fellow travellers and other NPCs. There’s a broader story pitting the tribes of the desert against an encroaching darkness and its ravenous armies, but of more interest to me were the smaller, character-driven stories. My first character, for example, was a necromancer recently brought back from hell to contend with the death of his wife.
Making Friends and Influencing People
At this point, RPGs with extensive character backstories and narratives are hardly new, but Sands of Salazaar uses them more thoughtfully than many. The Beastmaster, for example, has no companions, but travels with animals and has a harder time making friends, while the sorceress is shunned by arcana users for the type of magic she uses. Every character has an important set of perks and penalties that, while you might not see the effects immediately, shape how you approach most of the game’s challenges.
You’re free to pursue both branching quest lines across the gigantic map, try and pick up more companions, bend the local bandits to your will — and that’s just a fraction of what you can do. You’ll have to establish friendly relations with regional traders if you want access to their markets and decide if you want to make nice with a town’s ruler or crush them underfoot. The former is usually preferable, since it gives you a chance at recruiting new friends, which is where Sands of Salazaar sets itself apart from other RPGs in the same style.
It’s closer to Suikoden, though with fewer heroes and a greater emphasis on their relationships. The dialogue and events don’t go quite as deep as I’d like, but talking is only part of the relationships you forge. Aside from their help in combat, you can cuddle up to companions you’ve grown particularly close with, get rumors, and develop a strategic advantage in a given area.
Help in combat is essential, since Sands of Salazaar is happy to throw your tiny party of two heroes into fights against a dozen enemies or more. You and your companions have an extensive array of skills to unlock, though battles tend to lag until you’re commanding larger forces. It’s standard action-RPG combat that often turns into a case of smack foe, run away, smack foe, run away, since the enemy AI and variety are not always the greatest. Most fights end quickly, though, and those early qualms are easy to overlook when you’ve got literal dragons and massive armies under your control.
Sand In Your Shoes
A few other issues are less easy to overlook, including the localization. It’s mostly fine, but occasionally awkward, difficult to decipher, and even misleading. I’d also have liked to see greater map variety in terms of environments and features. Events and areas to explore are nice, but settlements and the spaces in between often look too similar.
The biggest issue is just the lack of overall assistance. Sands of Salazaar opens the door, pushes you through, and says “have fun!” before running away and leaving you to figure everything out on your own. Gradually realizing how things work is part of the adventure, though when some of those things include basics such as how to use skills, it’s not quite so fun.
These are all issues Han-Squirrel can resolve over time, though. Until then, Sands of Salazaar’s layers and intriguing character stories more than make up for the annoyances, especially for the asking price.