Comes to us from indie developer Han-Squirrel Studio, open-world strategy ARPG Salzaar Sands created buzz when it received an English localization update last year. Today, a little over a year later, Salzaar Sands was launched in early access. By choosing from one of eight classes (or building your own), can you build an army capable of leading the Salzaar Sands?
20 years after the fall of the Old Kingdom, the Salzaar Desert is full of strife and strife. Monsters brought into the world by the rise of the Black Sun destroy the world around them, but rival tribes continue to fight each other for control of the desert. It may sound epic, but the main story is far from inspiring. As you progress through the story of SoS, the story of a battle between humans and Ifrit is told in the uneven cadence of an amateur dungeon master. While some of the passages are interesting and well-written, those parts are hidden in the dialogue, such as “You’re no ordinary human”, followed by responses as elegant as “I guess”.
Class quests and other side quests received the same treatment, and dialogue in SoS quickly becomes secondary to your main goal – gaining the experience and resources to build a large army of followers. Depending on the character class you have chosen, you can start your adventure life solo, while other classes can start with a second hero or other regular troops. Additional squads can be purchased in each town you encounter. These troops are general militia types, but different and more exotic creatures and troop types can be recruited through other means.
All 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 magic arts.
Your original character and other heroes you acquire have more customization options than your general troops. In addition to the 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, whether it’s from afar with spells and missile weapons, or jumping straight into the fray with swinging swords or hammers.
Gathering the perfect mix of heroes and support troops and then advancing them through the ranks into a mighty military force takes time and resources. Many, many resources. Luckily, the open-world map is full of resources ripe for picking. The world is strewn with typical ARPG loot, including piles of rocks, wood, and gold to collect. Each region also has its own unique packs of creatures and human opponents to farm for experience and loot.
There are also various points of interest to discover in each region. These encounters serve as repeatable pseudo-dungeons (on a timer). 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 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 occurs on floors that contain a combat encounter, which initiates a real combat sequence. Ultimately, this lack of interaction makes these encounters nothing more than a loot chest requiring extra mouse clicks to complete.
It’s not the most thrilling dungeon crawl ever.
This is all great at the start of your adventure, but as your army grows you’ll need to find more efficient ways to gather large amounts of resources. This is where the dynamic world and factional politics start to come into play. You see, along with bandits and other targets roaming the world, each city also has groups of citizens, caravans, and military patrols that will travel around the world. one point to another. You can play the role of protector and help these groups if they are attacked by other NPC groups to gain favor with a faction. Or, if you’re willing to risk the wrath of a faction or two, perhaps become the aggressor and attack those resource-rich targets? Whatever role you choose to play, you’re sure to offend someone as your need for resources keeps growing.
You’ll quickly go from low yielding easy targets to top loot as you ransack a bandit camp. From there, you begin to besiege towns. Then, when NPCs launch their own attacks, another layer of strategy comes into play as you begin your fight to survive. In theory, this constant escalation in power and need for resources is what drives a player to keep building an empire in Salzaar Sands long after the story missions have been completed. And it would be if the Sands of Time didn’t reveal just how shallow the gameplay truly is.
The fastest component of Salzaar Sands collapsing is the fight. At first glance, SoS looks like any typical ARPG, Diablo 3, for example. You run 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, however, fight in SoS takes place on an instanced map. This is a positive move that should complement the central aspect of building 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 two squads to command, things quickly spiral out of control. Once combat begins, both armies rush towards each other until all melee units create a large 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 across the battlefield as the AI controlling your troops starts attacking different target areas. At the same time, other troops are left behind as their trajectory gets them stuck on environmental obstacles or on top of each other for that matter. All of this eliminates strategy from the equation, giving victory to the side with the superior forces more often than not.
The diplomacy and faction side of SoS stems from the same lack of strategy. Although each region of the map has a different environmental aspect, they do not have fundamental strategic differences. The Alpine Guerrillas of the Zagros Snow Mountains offer no other challenges or rewards than the Desert Brotherhood of the Sandy Lands of the Docana Desert. Each town offers the same generic amenities and 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 will be made without understanding what each decision brings to the table. Even if you guess correctly and choose a class that matches your playstyle, your character will never be all it can be thanks to the Legacy Point system. Legacy Points are earned by completing achievements, and they carry over into subsequent playthroughs, encouraging you to dash through story mode to start fresh with a stronger character in sandbox mode.
Character selection. The most (or only) important decision you will make.
On the surface, Salzaar Sands has a lot to offer. The idea of a living, breathing sandbox world to explore is intriguing. Every 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 drastically change the course of events in a single part. In its current state, however, none of these building blocks is deep enough to make Salzaar Sands nothing more than a numerical calculation simulator.
Salzaar Sands, for all intents and purposes, looks more like a work in progress than a final release. If this was 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 review of the product, I have to say that although Salzaar Sands promises an intriguing mix of RPG and strategy elements, it doesn’t provide the depth and complexity needed for long-term replayability.