As mystical as its title suggests, Sands of Salzaar thrusts you into an enchanted land of monsters and men where you can either stick to your own lane or flow with the endless sands and let the vast landscape direct your path. The open-world single-player RPG is an open-ended adventure where you can be whoever you want to be, whether that's a tyrannical fearmonger or a noble saviour coming to save a ravaged land.
While all that sounds fascinating on paper, does the mobile version live up to the hype on Steam, or are the fabled sands best kept away from your touchscreen?Table of contents:
The 2D artwork, thankfully, sets the game apart enough along with the character designs that will make you want to collect each hero you meet along the way - and there are a LOT of them. The main character itself is already drawn beautifully as it is. You'll have a variety of choices depending on your playstyle, and while you can customise the look of your character with everything from face shape to headgear and outfits, I didn't feel the need to switch up the way I looked - the character design is just that good.
Sadly, that just means the main story isn't compelling enough. The narrative definitely falls by the wayside here, in my opinion, because while the game definitely scratches that itch of wanting to explore every single corner of the huge map, it doesn't have a captivating enough story that's akin to other single-player open-world RPGs like The Witcher or anything like that.
Basically, you'll start off with a blank slate. You can befriend factions to gain favour with them, or antagonise them and be a wanted enemy of the state. You can also take down wandering bandits if you feel like it, and you really will need to just for the sake of all the loot. There are tons of things to discover while simply roaming around the world itself, from shiny junk on the ground to mines and camps that may or may not be guarded by hostile forces. There are monsters to fight or recruit as well, just like you can with the humans you encounter along the way.
This is where it all gets interesting. In every town proper, you can recruit mercenaries for the right price, buy mounts, trade beasts that can join you in battle, or woo heroes to fight by your side. As there are no microtransactions here, you'll need to gain everything through hard work. For instance, the heroes you meet in taverns won't simply join your cause just because you say so - you'll need to accept quests for them until you can successfully win them over. And, like regular human beings, they won't stay in one place forever, either - these heroes move around the map with their caravan, and each time you make a move, they move too, making recruiting a new hero more of a thrilling chase.
This is where things get a little dicey. Battles that include the troops and beasts that you've hired are more of a numbers game than anything strategic, as fights do get chaotic (with backgrounds that are largely unchanged). Some battles can even be done automatically, which dulls the shine of combat even more.
The only type of battle that's interesting is the one where you're all by your lonesome, or with only your party of heroes with you. Here, you can fully strategise your moves based on the deep skill tree and progression system of the game, which you can only excel in when you keep your head down and do the actual legwork. The grind is very much real here, as you'll need various resources picked up from battles and on random street corners to level up. The effort is totally worth it though once you see your characters mowing down enemies like harbingers of doom.
Once I started getting into it, however, the enchanted sands of Salzaar swallowed me whole. I found myself obsessing over the heroes I wanted to chase all around the map and figuring out how to get certain factions over to my side. It's a huge plus that the game doesn't require an internet connection, which isn't something you often get to see in games as huge as this.
The mobile version also lets you tap on any location on the map - even the ones you haven't explored yet - and auto-navigate there with a fast-forward button. You'll zip away across sand and snow with your army trailing behind you (which you can fully see, so if you happen to recruit an army of serpents, boars, bears and dragons, they'll make your caravan look totally badass).
When it comes to the text though, it all goes downhill from there. The words are too tiny, and there are plenty of times when you won't even know what's going on with all of the words smushed together on the screen. The mobile version also suffers from a plethora of bugs at the moment as well, with everything from characters getting stuck between trees to poorly localised descriptions and skill names. This sadly gives the game an unpolished vibe, which is a shame given how deep it actually is in terms of gameplay - and if it weren't for the bugs, I would've given this game a perfect score.
Overall, Sands of Salzaar got me hooked in ways I haven't felt with recent games in a while, and that alone gives it props in my book. There are pesky nuances littered throughout the game though, but if you can get past that, the depth of the title makes it well worth the $3.99 price tag.