It’s pretty easy to see why Sands of Salzaar sold over 50,000 copies on Steam in just a few days despite only being available in Chinese. It takes the strategy simulation of Mount and Blade and drops it into an ancient Chinese setting full of mythological monsters, rare artifacts, and cackling wizards. Instead of having to master a brutal combat system about perfectly timed parries and sword swings while wearing little more than squirrel pelts for armor, I’m a badass mage commanding an army of feral wolves and summoned demons. It’s pretty cool, but Sands of Salzaar is also every bit as janky and frustrating as the games it so liberally borrows from.
Released in Early Access back in January, which somehow feels like a decade ago, Sands of Salzaar just recently got a major update that includes a full English translation. After a quick tutorial, I was dropped head-first into an enormous open world sandbox that lives on its own: Tribes regularly go to war with one another, merchant caravans slip past bandit ambushes, and there are several dozen characters I can befriend or antagonize.
Just like Mount and Blade, it’s a lot to take in at first. But after a few hours of kicking and flailing around I started to get my bearings and actually make progress. And, just like TaleWorlds’ seminal sim RPG, it’s satisfying being able to carve out my own niche as a merchant, warlord, a lonely swordsman, or something else altogether.
Sands of Salzaar isn’t a total clone, though. The fantasy elements are woven into the game in a way that reminds me of Heroes of Might and Magic 3 in all the right ways. Instead of being mostly empty, the world is bursting with resources to find and collect, mini-dungeons to explore, and strangers to meet. It's a much livelier place than the green stretches of Calradia, especially if you venture into the flaming wastes home to a race of supernatural beings known as Ifrit who are plotting to wipe out all humans.
There’s a much bigger emphasis on telling a written story, too. I’m constantly running into bespoke quests that are much more interesting than the bandit-hunting I’m usually relegated to for the first ten hours of any Mount and Blade game. The English translation isn’t great, and the presentation on a whole is extremely janky, but there’s a lot of charm and personality to the world.
During one quest, for example, I had to infiltrate a nearby mine that had been overtaken by a cult of Ifrit worshippers to rescue a consigliere. Turns out, that guy was the one leading the cult all long. Surprise, surprise. In those moments, the dialogue oscillates between hamfisted to borderline incomprehensible, but there’s also this odd earnestness about it all that I find charming. I like that Sands of Salzaar is at least trying to make its world full of interesting sidequests.
I’m also willing to overlook the shoddy English translation because it’s just fun to run around, take on quests, and use those rewards to increase my army. That same addicting loop present in all great strategy sims alive and well, and even if certain aspects, like having to repair armor and weapons, are annoying, I’m enjoying my slow crawl from nobody to renowned hero.
I just wish the combat was more exciting. Instead of fighting in either first or third-person, battles in Sands of Salzaar are more akin to an action RPG like Diablo 3. It doesn’t come close to evoking the same tension of a massive battle like in Mount and Blade, but it is fun being able to wade into a group of enemies and obliterate them with spells. Each of the character classes has access to a unique skill tree and abilities that are triggered MMO-style. It’s fun for a while, but I wish there was a lot more diversity in both what I could do and how other combatants fight.
Right now, both armies just charge at each other headlong and hope for the best. There are options for formations or to command squads individually, but it just feels useless when the chaos is erupting in real-time. I’m far better off blasting my own abilities and letting my troops distract the enemy than trying to cleverly position them—especially when battlefields are typically just wide open, featureless spaces.
Sieges are straight up awful, though. Instead of just fighting to the last man, sieges require you to capture strategic locations on the map one at a time while rebuffing waves of attacking enemies. If one of your squads dies, they’ll respawn a short time later as long as you’ve earned enough resources from captured objectives. But the whole thing is kind of a mess. Enemy units will often spawn right on top of me as I’m halfway done capturing a point, and once you figure out the attack pattern of reinforcements, it’s easy to just sweep across the map without much thought.
During one fight that I was woefully underleveled for, though, I couldn’t even find a way to trigger a failure condition. I had no reinforcements, but the enemy refused to move in and take my final camp, and if I tried to kill myself I’d just respawn a few seconds later. My only option was to quit out and load an old save. Frustrations like that don’t completely ruin the fun, but I’m sure as hell not doing another siege unless I have absolutely no choice.
Moments like these are especially disappointing because Sands of Salzaar is so close to being something special. But these are exactly the kind of kinks you’d expect to find in a game that’s in Early Access, so I’m optimistic for how Sands of Salzaar will continue to evolve over time. But if you’re a fan of Mount and Blade, you’ll probably still have a good time. After all, you wouldn’t be much of a Mount and Blade fan if a little jank turned you off.