Sands of Salzaar is a sandbox RPG available on Steam in early access. It’s developed by Han-Squirrel Studio, who has yet to release anything else on Steam. It borrows heavily from other games but offers a unique combination of mechanics and visual style that’s hard to find anywhere else.
Sands of Salzaar takes sandbox gameplay very seriously and its general premise reminds a lot of people of Mount & Blade: Warband. You start every play-through with a character and a small party. Then you’re immediately set loose in a vast open-world that vehemently does not care about your feelings. The way you navigate the world map with your party is also a lot like Mount & Blade.
This game’s travel and quest systems feel like Mount & Blade, but the combat feels like Defense of the Ancients or League of Legends. It’s a strange mix of mechanics with addictive progression. The player travels from village to village completing generic quests, slaughtering the overpopulated bandits, and recruiting followers. In combat, the player character and their named companions are hero units that influence the battle with powerful special abilities.
Normal units, who have to be trained, promoted, and replaced when they die, make up the majority of the armies. Just like in Mount & Blade, you recruit peasants and low-level cannon fodder and gradually upgrade them into violent-natured heaps of HP that help you take over the world. When they’re killed in battle, the squad has to be ‘restored’ with white rose potions. They’re hard to get, but there’s a talent tree that gives you several for free each week. The only ways to deal with a depleted squad without the potion are to promote them or to convert them into XP for another squad. Promoting them heals them more effectively than potions for some reason. The game itself doesn’t explain much of this.
Troop replenishment is an extremely vital mechanic in a game of this type. It has to be quick and intuitive if someone’s playthrough is going to stay fun after the first several hours. Having to click through lots of menus to do something routine is tedious. Replacing your generic mooks when they get killed is routine. Going forward, one of the best possible ways to improve Sands of Salzaar is to streamline this whole process. A similar problem plagues the repair system. It’s needlessly tedious in a game that would benefit from a much faster, high-speed-low-drag feel.
Sands of Salzaar won’t blow anyone’s mind with its graphics, but they look good and the player gets all the necessary information. The assets, character models, and terrain features are clearly distinct from one another and there’s a decent amount of variety. The visual presentation reminds me a lot of another Chinese early access game called Gunfire Reborn, with its bright colors, cell-shading, and stylized UI.
The soundtrack is also extremely repetitive. It’s different from almost anything else, but it feels like there are only three songs.
Han-Squirrel Studio built Sands of Salzaar with the Unity engine. They did a very good job with it. The frame rate is smooth, the loading screens are nearly instant, and it hasn’t crashed on me yet. Everything seems to work here on a technical level.
The UI is stable and does its job, but it needs improvement. Sands of Salzaar only recently gained full English translation, so there’s a general lack of explanations for game mechanics. These can usually be found in the Steam forums, but they should be in the game. The tooltips that are present are mostly good enough, although it may take a little more experience to learn all the more obtuse mechanics.
The developers have been very good about providing updates to the game over time. The level of polish is steadily increasing and the game is getting more and more fleshed-out. Overall, it’s a solid entry into the strategy RPG genre, and will only become more interesting as new content is added.
As it stands, Sands of Salzaar is worth the purchase. The best way to play it is through successive runs where you try out different characters. All of those characters play distinctly from one another on the strategic layer and in battles. While there’s not much flexibility for each individual playable character, there’s a strong variety of individuals to choose from. This game doesn’t cost very much to play and it makes sense to play through it over and over again.
Sands of Salzaar will only cost you $15 on Steam if you’re okay with a game that’s rough around the edges. If you’re the kind of player looking for a more refined genre experience in the RPG space, it may be more worth it as time goes on. The game is solid for what it is, but it’s a bit basic as it stands.