Much of the horror in the works of H.P. Lovecraft comes from the fear of the unknown. Sea Salt, released today on PC, PlayStation 4, and Switch, flips that script by putting the player in control of a monstrous horde that terrifies seaside communities full of humans who, rather than being afraid, are ready to defend themselves. It’s a tough game, but controlling a marauding horde rather than a single person makes for a unique horror experience.
Sea Salt begins with a simple premise: Dagon, an ocean-dwelling deity that first appeared in Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, demands a list of specific human sacrifices from his most faithful human servant, a self-styled bishop of Dagon worship. But when it comes time for the bishop himself to take the plunge, he refuses, forcing Dagon to send multitudes of minions to raid the shoreline for sacrifices instead. The player does this by wielding Dagon’s influence through an on-screen cursor, directing monsters’ movement and giving them basic, one-button commands to attack and regroup.
Sea Salt starts by giving players one apostle – a sort of class or character archetype that begins each level with different monsters and attributes – and one creature, but your roster expands quickly as levels are cleared and challenges are completed. Although I spent most of my time with the starting apostle, I soon had a tonne of different choices in how to build my horde. Each monster has its own stats and abilities, making them useful in different situations. The swarm, for instance, will generally form the basis of Dagon’s army due to the large numbers in which you receive them. Cultists are long-range specialists that can provide cover for the rest of the horde. Crabs are resistant to fire and shotgun blasts.
Just as horror has been used to drive many a doomed Lovecraft protagonist mad, so too does it play a role in Sea Salt. In addition to stats like health and speed, each creature is also rated on how well they horrify the humans they encounter, which in turn makes the enemies more vulnerable to attack as they run away screaming. Since the humans soon begin to arm themselves with pitchforks and Molotov cocktails, horrifying them is necessary. Building your horde with only speed or damage in mind is a recipe for disaster in later levels.
Sea Salt can get a little unwieldy as your horde grows. Players are only able to give the monsters general commands like attack or regroup. Without the ability to directly control them, I’ve had cultists decide to launch fireballs at inanimate objects rather than the shotgun-wielding humans right in front of them and swarms get caught on the corners of buildings as they struggle to navigate where I direct them. Early boss battles – which include a bomb-throwing admiral, an anchor-swinging longshoreman, and a group of torch-wielding villagers intent on protecting a local monastery – were a chore, as even when I figured out the basic patterns, it felt impossible to direct my monsters in such a way that they could escape unscathed. I also experienced lengthy periods of slowdown as my horde grew to massive proportions and on-screen elements like fire were introduced, although it’s possible this problem is unique to the Switch version.
Sea Salt is unforgiving: while I can deal with a little bit of punishment, the more hectic battles often feel like a crapshoot, with victory decided more by luck than any sound strategy or tactics, especially when the game’s performance begins to stumble. That said, there’s something strangely satisfying about rampaging through the game’s levels with an army of fishmen and giant crabs. Just don’t expect to have a firm grasp on them as they do their dark lord’s bidding.