Coming to us from indie developer Han-Squirrel Studio, open-world strategy ARPG Sands of Salzaar created some buzz when it received an English localization update last year. Now, a little over a year later, Sands of Salzaar has launched out of Early Access. Choosing from one of eight classes (or build your own), can you build an army capable of ruling the Sands of Salzaar?
20 years after the fall of the Old Empire, the Salzaar desert is full of strife and conflict. Monsters brought into the world by the rise of the Black Sun destroy the world around them, yet rival tribes continue to fight amongst themselves for control of the desert. It may sound epic, but the main story is less than inspiring. As you progress through the story in SoS, the tale of a battle between humans and Ifrit is told in the uneven cadence of an amateur dungeon master. Although some bits are interesting and well written, those parts are hidden within dialogue, such as, “You are no regular human,” followed by such elegant replies as, “I guess.”
Class quests and other side quests have been given the same treatment, and the dialogue in SoS quickly becomes secondary to your primary goal - acquiring the experience and resources to build a large army of followers. Depending on your chosen character class, you can start your adventuring life solo, while other classes can begin with a second hero or other regular troops. Additional squads can be purchased at each town you come across. These troops are general militia types, but different, more exotic creatures and troop types can be recruited through other means.
All of the squads you recruit will gain experience and level up through combat. Additional skills can be learned at specific intervals depending on the troop type. Some troops even have branching promotion choices, allowing you to specialize them in different disciplines like melee or ranged combat or even focus them on the magical arts.
Your original character and other heroes you acquire have more customization options than your general troops. Along with armor and weapons that can be equipped, each hero has one or more skill trees to work through. All of your choices determine your hero’s approach to combat, be it from afar with spells or missile weapons, or jumping right into the fray with swords or hammers swinging.
Collecting the perfect set of heroes and supporting troops, and then advancing them through the ranks into a powerful military force takes time and resources. Lots and lots of resources. Fortunately, the open-world map is full of resources ripe for picking. The world is sprinkled with the typical ARPG loot, including piles of rocks, lumber, and gold to collect. Each region also has its own unique packs of creatures and human adversaries to farm for experience and loot.
There are also various points of interest to discover in each region. These encounters serve as repeatable (on a timer) pseudo-dungeons. Although each of these encounters can have multiple levels, there is no actual exploration to be done. Each floor is presented as a page of text, each one representing a random event. Some floors are empty, while others have a small loot cache or combat encounter. The only real interaction in these dungeons happens on the floors that contain a combat encounter, which does launch an actual battle sequence. Ultimately, this lack of interaction makes these encounters nothing more than a loot chest requiring extra mouse clicks to complete.
Not the most exciting dungeon crawl ever made.
All of this is fine at the start of your adventure, but as your army grows, you will need to find more efficient ways to gather large amounts of resources. This is where the dynamic world and faction politics start to kick in. You see, along with the bandits and other targets roaming the world, each town also has citizen groups, caravans, and military patrols that will be traveling from point to point. You can play protector and aid these groups if they happen to be attacked by other NPC parties to gain favor with a faction. Or, if you’re willing to risk the wrath of a faction or two, maybe you’ll become the aggressor and attack these resource-rich targets? Regardless of which role you choose to play, you are sure to offend someone as your need for resources continues to grow.
You’ll quickly progress from the low yield of the easy targets to the better plunder from sacking a bandit camp. From there, you begin laying siege to towns. Then, as NPCs begin their own attacks, another layer of strategy kicks in as you start your fight to survive. In theory, this steady escalation of power and need for resources is what drives a player to continue building an empire in Sands of Salzaar long after the story missions are complete. And that would be the case if the sands of time didn’t reveal just how shallow the gameplay really is.
The quickest component of Sands of Salzaar to fall apart is the combat. At first glance, SoS looks like any typical ARPG, Diablo 3, for example. You’re running around in the standard isometric view that defines the genre, with a map full of collectible resources and roaming enemies. Unlike the zerg-fest combat of Diablo 3, though, combat in SoS takes place on an instanced map. This is a positive move that should complement the core aspect of building out a group of heroes and troops that would be strategically controlled to overwhelm your enemy. Unfortunately, combat is anything but strategic, and once you have more than a couple of squads to command, things quickly get out of control. Once combat starts, both armies rush towards each other until all of the melee units create one big blob, making it impossible to effectively attack a specific target of interest.
There is even more chaos on larger maps where your enemy starts at multiple points. With each squad moving at different speeds, your army spreads out across the battlefield as the AI controlling your troops starts to attack different target areas. At the same time, other troops are left behind as their pathing gets them stuck on environmental obstacles or each other for that matter. All of this takes strategy out of the equation, handing victory to the side with the superior forces more often than not.
The diplomacy and faction side of SoS falls to a similar lack of strategy. Although each map region has a different environmental look, they don’t have any fundamental strategic differences. The Alpine Guerillas of the snowy Zagros Mountains don’t offer any other challenges or rewards than the Desert Brotherhood of the sandy wasteland of the Docana Desert. Every town offers the same amenities and generic quests, so faction allies and enemies are ultimately decided by which group you aid or attack first.
The most impactful decisions are all made during character creation, and all of them will be made without an understanding of what each decision brings to the table. Even if you happen to guess correctly and choose a class that fits your playstyle, your character will never be all it can be due to the Legacy Point system. Legacy points are earned through completing achievements, and they carry over to subsequent playthroughs, which all but encourages you to rush through the story mode to restart fresh with a stronger character in sandbox mode.
Character selection. The most (or only) important decision you’ll make.
On the surface, Sands of Salzaar has a lot to offer. The idea of a living, breathing sandbox world to explore is intriguing. Each decision, from the character class you choose to how you build your army to the diplomatic choices you make as you grow your empire, should all have the potential to dramatically change the course of events in a single playthrough. In its current state, though, none of those core elements are deep enough to make Sands of Salzaar anything more than a number-crunching simulator.
Sands of Salzaar, for all intents and purposes, feels more like a work in progress as opposed to a final release. If this were an early access preview, I would say that each of the core components has potential and just needs to be fleshed out. As a final product review, I must say that even though Sands of Salzaar promises an intriguing blend of RPG and strategy elements, it fails to provide the depth and complexity needed for long-term replayability.