Sands of Salzaar saw a massively positive reception when it launched on PC in December 2021. Developed by Han-Squirell Studio and published by XD International, its android port lets players explore a vast world on their mobile devices. However, while the strategy RPG has much to offer, Sands of Salzaar does not seem to have transitioned unscathed.
XD‘s Sands of Salzaar takes place in a fantasy land inspired by the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Twenty years before the game takes place, the five Sultans betrayed their King and slaughtered the royal family. The Sultans soon turned on each other, splitting the land into warring fiefdoms as bandits and monsters plagued the wilderness. Now, a new threat emerges, with lava creatures called Ifrit returning after 1000 years to reclaim the surface world. Players must gather a party of heroes and soldiers and partner with the kingdom’s lost Princess to save the land. Along the way, they will learn the secrets of an ancient goddess and uncover the sinister forces behind the Ifrit invasion.
Swords and Sorcery
After a short intro cutscene, Sands of Salzaar players choose between one of eight Roles. These determine your spells and abilities, starting equipment, and initial followers. The Spiritmancer, for example, begins with one named Hero in his party. Meanwhile, the Sentinel enters the game with a Squad of Crossbowmen while the Sultan rules an entire town. The Spirit Witch, on the other hand, begins with no followers. However, her magic can control the minds of some enemies, turning them to her cause. Some Roles also have unique quest chains based on their backstories. My only critique of character selection is the gender-locked classes. I find it particularly strange given Sands of Salzaar’s otherwise fairly robust character editor.
I chose to play as the Spirit Witch, a ranged magic user, which may have been a mistake. Combat takes place in a top-down view with your character centered on the screen. Players move their character with their left thumb and attack, dodge, cast spells, and use items with the right. This is all fine in theory, and it works very well when it works.
Unfortunately, I could never quite figure out how the lock-on for ranged attacks works. Sometimes my character would shoot at whoever the nearest enemy happened to be, and sometimes it would be whoever they were facing. Often, however, the spell would shoot off at a right angle and hit nothing. In Sands of Salzaar’s PC release, you simply left-click on an enemy to attack them. Unfortunately, tapping an enemy in the mobile port doesn’t seem to do anything. I could make do most of the time, but I definitely lost a few fights due to misaimed spells.
Mounts and Blades
Fortunately, not every or even most battles in Sands of Salzaar are one-on-one duels. Instead, most engagements consist of a significant battle between two armies led by one or more Heroes. Soldiers come in Squads of various sizes, usually around 4 to 6 soldiers of the same type. Variants include Swordsmen, Spearman, Archers, Cavalry, Healers and Mages, with unique variants for each faction.
Squads level up over time, and players can upgrade them to more advanced forms by spending resources. They also have multiple upgrade branches similar to units in the Mount & Blade Games. Deccan Maidens, for example, begin as light melee infantry but can also branch off into ranged knife throwers. The organized Tribes also offer higher quality and more varied troops than simple bandits and mercenaries.
This is not the only area where Sands of Salzaar reminds me of Mount & Blade. The deserts, swamps and mountains are littered with cities, towns, villages and camps over which the factions battle for control. Players can gain or lose reputation with each faction, even the initially hostile bandit clans. Those with a sufficiently large army can even become Sultans of a new Tribe by capturing a settlement from one of the others. While challenging, it unlocks the ability for players to engage more with the strategy layer by building structures, training troops and sending NPC armies to patrol their borders.
While it’s probably not for everyone, Sands of Salzaar is the kind of strategy RPG that we need more of. The controls are finicky, but the intriguing story and impressive freedom were enough to draw me in and keep me hooked. One could certainly say Sands of Salzaar is still better on PC. However, it’s a great game, no matter what platform you choose to play it on.
Is It Hardcore?
Sands of Salzaar may not have the perfect Android port, but it remains a fantastic isometric action-strategy RPG.