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Developed by Han-Squirrel Studio, Sands of Salzaar can be described as an open-world sandbox RPG similar in many ways to the Mount & Blade series. However, with its visual novel-style character cutouts and the general anime aesthetic, it's easy to mistake it for just another JRPG.
But the thing is, this isn't a JRPG. If I were an evil man aiming to bring more confusion into the world, I would classify this game as a CRPG, as in a Chinese RPG. And this fact is what originally made me interested in this project when it was just entering early access.
You see, prior to Sands of Salzaar, I've never played a Chinese game. Mostly because they tend to be in Chinese. As a result, I welcomed the opportunity to do so, now that there was a game that both had an English translation and some mechanics that appealed to me.
And seeing how the early access phase is now over and the game is officially released, you can find my thoughts on it below.
Journey to the West
Going into the game, I didn't know what to expect. All I knew about gaming in China was that they liked Heroes of Might and Magic and WarCraft III over there, which was encouraging. But also, that they really liked mobile games, and that was a bit worrying.
So, let me begin by assuring you that Sands of Salzaar is nothing like a mobile game. In fact, if my goal was to write the shortest review for this title, I'd proclaim it the reverse Anachronox and call it a day.
You see, Anachronox combined some very much Western characters and aesthetic with a JRPG core. Sands of Salzaar then flips this around and offers us this fusion of a game that looks like a JRPG but has its roots firmly in Western gameplay sensibilities.
In fact, many of the game's elements feel directly inspired by various Western properties. You have the Path of Exile-style talent tree. Might and Magic's skill trainers scattered around the world. And then, of course, there's the whole Mount & Blade-style open-world gameplay, and the general quest structure you'd expect from a computer RPG.
On top of that, the game in general can at times feel like a love letter to Western media where every once in a while, you get some cheeky line like, "We need to go back. Back to the future." And while those could just be a quirk of the translation, having played through the game, I really do feel that that stuff was there right from the start.
So, how does it all actually work?
Well, the basic premise is that you're a "traveler" in a vaguely-Arabic world ravaged by constant conflict and cataclysms. And right as the game starts, the Ifrit, humanity's ancient foe long thought to be banished, are starting to reappear. Naturally, you take it upon yourself to figure out how and why that's happening.
From there, the story will take many twists and turns typical for a JRPG where stakes get progressively higher until all of existence is in danger, time travel and alternate realities are seen as something quaint, and pretty much everyone you meet is a god or demon of some description.
To be honest, I'm not quite sure how to properly critique a story like this. Sure, I liked the game's setting, and some of the side quests I thought were pretty neat. But once omnipotent children start popping out of interdimensional voids and grabbing people's hearts Kali Ma style, and after you express your displeasure with such behavior they turn into giant spiders, I'm out. But seeing how JRPGs as a genre are still going strong to this day, there must be people who enjoy that sort of stuff.