Sands of Salzaar is an open world, indie, strategy RPG developed by Han-Squirrel Studio. The great war has torn apart the kingdom, heralding beasts that feast on human flesh. The lands have been divided and corrupted. Bring order by starting a faction of your own and unifying the lands! The gameplay can be summarized as an isometric Mount & Blade, and it pulls it off very well for the most part. There are some minor issues, but it’s still in Early Access on Steam with an expected release date of Jan 5th.
Starting out, you’ll have to choose between one of 12 unique classes with a hilarious model creator. They range from beastmasters and spell casters to sultans and knights. Each class has its own unique talent tree along with their own quests and motivations. At the time of writing this, only a few of the classes have full quest lines, but the rest will come with the full release.
Apart from the unique class quest, there is the main story quest, schmoozing ally faction, raiding, claiming outposts, and recruitment. You really have a lot of freedom to go where you want and play how you want. This is even enforced with a campaign talent tree for the faction leader. Here you can gain talents to specialize in between combat healing, enhanced diplomacy, faster march speed, etc. This also brings our first annoyance with Sands. Once a squad “dies,” they will need to be healed up with a special potion in order to be deployed again. Makes sense, right? The game doesn’t really tell you which potions to use or where to get them. Turns out, they’re kind of rare. The best way to get them is through the aforementioned campaign talent tree; somewhat locking you into at least some choices. This isn’t a total loss, since talents are fairly easy to come across.
Recruitment is fantastic with the number of unique units. Level up a squad of peasants into great warriors and even recruited beasts have enhancement milestones. What starts out as a couple of wolf pups, quickly becomes massive dire wolves. As you progress through the game, the units you’re able to recruit become bigger and meaner with some fantasy representation. They’re not just on paper either. Will follow you around in and out of combat.
Entering into combat loads into a separate battle map, and there are three flavors of combat: army vs army (this is what you’ll mostly be doing), solo dungeon, and claiming outposts. Army vs army will pit your force vs another on a large map. There is some minor strategy involved but this feels mostly like an action RPG chasing enemies down. In fact, this is my second annoyance. The initial army crash is great, but the stragglers can be tedious to chase down. Some of the AI here could be improved, but overall the combat is unique and engaging. If anything, it’s satisfying to see your army grow as you progress.
The second kind of combat event is solo dungeons. I say solo, but it will be you and any heroes you have in your army. Instead of loading right into combat, you’ll have a series of floors to traverse with random events on each floor with a boss at the end. I LOVE this idea, but random events are not varied enough. It usually boils down to the player taking some penalty to gain some advantage, but you’re flat told what happens. It would be better if they were choices based on scripted events. Maybe you find a bloody dagger in the room and it gives you the choice to pick it up. Oh no, the dagger is cursed! +5% damage, but suffer 1 damage every 5 seconds for the encounter. Boom. Then again, perhaps this is their intention for the full launch. Finding enemies in these dungeons takes you into the same combat screens, but you’ll only have your character (plus any heroes).
Finally, claiming outposts! This was my favorite part. Instead of crashing straight into the opposite army, the map has control points that must be claimed in order to win. Control points will also give you resources that can be used to respawn units when they fall. At first, these fights aren’t too bad, but they can become long-drawn-out battles of attrition in the later stages of the game. You will need to manage which units defend what or where they attack to be successful.
The art and music deserve some mention. The art is particularly well done and accomplishes the desert/Arabian feel very well. Sands doesn’t take itself too seriously with some of the whacky character models, which is very welcomed. The music is enjoyable but a bit repetitive. Some lengthier tracks or variations would be nice. The contrast from the campaign to combat music feels a bit off. I don’t hate either, but I’m not sure they fit in well in the same game.
Sands of Salzaar does have some issues, but it’s also still being developed. Overall, there’s a lot to offer in terms of strategy and role-playing. While the combat is a bit repetitive at times, it is very unique for what it’s pulling off. Not only that, but there’s a lot of game here for the low asking price of $15 (this may change once the full release happens). This is definitely one to keep on the radar if you like building armies to take over deserts.
This review was written based on a digital review copy of Sands of Salzaar for PC provided by X.D. Network Inc. and Han-Squirrel Studio.