*Quick note: This was a collaborative review, brought to you by two writers who sat down with the game to bring you their thoughts on it. Special thanks (of course) to Sebastian (https://twitter.com/sebarsch) and to Michaela (https://twitter.com/redxmaude) as well.
Death’s Gambit is a new indie game developed by White Rabbit and published by Adult Swim Games that was released back on August 14th for PS4 and PC. As a Dark Souls fan and Indie-enthusiast, this game hits right in the heart – tapping into both those feelings of nostalgia and the desire for something new. With this game, we finally got a lovechild between Dark Souls, Salt & Sanctuary, and Metroidvania games.
Due largely in part to its gameplay and level design, Death’s Gambit is a delight for Souls veterans. Ultimately, it is the result of gamers and developers playing and experiencing Dark Souls games (including Demon’s Souls) for almost a decade and putting all of those loving memories, mechanics, and anecdotes into a game.
Now, for those of you who are avid Souls fans and have played 2016’s Salt & Sanctuary from Ska Studios, you may be thinking, “Well, we’ve already had a 2D side-scrolling love letter to Dark Souls.” But as you read through this review – and especially if you can get hands-on with the game yourself – I’m sure you’ll see that there’s quite a bit that’s new here to be found, so let’s dive in.
A story as old as time itself
You are an undead soldier called Sorun who is resurrected by Death to do his bidding in the fight against immortals. In the world of Death’s Gambit, immortality is a curse that many seek to escape. Countless wars have been fought and lives destroyed, children abandoned and parents murdered. Our (anti) hero is given the power to live on and be resurrected every time he is bested by enemies thanks to a contract with Death that prevents him from dying.
On your journey, you meet many immortal beings that you have to beat to progress. You also find a number of characters who can be sent to your Sanctuary and help you learn new abilities or enchant weapons.
However, this game isn’t as straightforward as it may seem on the surface. It’s certainly quirky and playful – even amidst the dark themes. Death’s Gambit deliberately puts you in a non-chronological storyline that teases with you with flashbacks every few deaths or so – making dying in frustrating boss battles feel surprisingly rewarding.
The game also isn’t afraid to make fun of its big brother at times either. For example, the first time you enter the Sanctuary, you ask Death how to end this immortal curse, and he jokes that first you need to ring two bells of ascension (a jab at Dark Souls’ two Bells of Awakening) before he corrects himself by saying you can just bash the curse’s heart. However, you still have to find three sigils before you can enter the game’s final area, so it’s not like the personified Death or the developers behind Death’s Gambit are above trolling you a bit.
Death and Reward
Most games in this Souls-esc genre can feel like they punish you for dying at times, making the game harder and more frustrating when you have to go through a significant portion of the map again, and you have a lot of souls on the line.
But not Death’s Gambit. The game’s healing items are phoenix feathers that are limited to a certain number of uses, determined by your progress in the game. You start with three feathers and end the game with a maximum of ten. Just like an Estus Flask, the amount is replenished each time you rest at a shrine, which also lets you level up and change your ability slots.
But one of the things that’s interesting here is that when you die – you don’t drop your “souls.” Instead, you drop a feather – meaning that you lose one of your very limited healing items, but you can still level up with whatever experience you’ve managed to scrounge together. Additionally, if you die before making it back to the spot where you died before, your feather won’t disappear. Instead, you will drop a second feather – losing yet another healing item, but still leaving you with the opportunity to go back and reclaim them both.
Furthermore, you can sacrifice souls at a shrine to reclaim your dropped feathers – and trust me, even in tough boss fights you’ll still be gaining souls just so long as you make some progress in your subsequent attempts. You can also use your feather to boost your attack power by 10% each by choosing to leave one behind – sacrificing one of your chances to heal in favor of gaining strength.
Also as we briefly mentioned before, many of its cutscenes are triggered after you die. This is the reason why I’ve never felt more at ease with dying in a game. Every couple of times I would get another puzzle piece of the story – whether it be a weird scene where I would walk through a beach that suddenly transforms into a sea of blood or just a bizarre dream sequence where Death is standing in your kitchen wearing an apron. Death’s Gambit uses its death mechanic not only as a learning mechanism but also as a narrator, and I love it.
Combat and Traversal
Combat in Death’s Gambit is highly reminiscent of Salt & Sanctuary in the sense that it’s Souls-y combat translated into a 2D world where you’ll only have lateral dodges and fairly simplified move sets depending on your weapon of choice. However, that being said, in my opinion Death’s Gambit manages to create faster paced and perhaps even more challenging combat.
As you’d expect, you have several classes to choose from at the beginning of the game, each specializing in different weapons that scale with various attributes. Knight-like builds will give you a more balanced experience (as you may expect) while other builds might be more challenging like the Assassin. Of course, there’s a magic build too – but there’s also some interesting classes you wouldn’t expect like one that emulates Bloodborne with its the ability to leech off your foes and one that lets you wield a giant, powerful scythe (perhaps the most appropriate for the theme of working for Death).
However, especially in the early and mid-game, Death’s Gambit seems to heavily favor strength builds as the most straightforward way to progress through the game. Many of the weapons and armor you’ll find scale with and require strength to use rather than dexterity (aka finesse), magic, etc.
You will also probably find yourself pouring a lot of levels into vitality and endurance in this game. If you’re the type of player who prefers to dodge attacks rather than block them, you’ll learn very quickly that about 3 dodges will consume all of your stamina – a much heftier price on your endurance than in most other Souls-inspired games. Depending on your play style, this can potentially make it difficult to really sharpen up your build and focus on increasing your damage.
Regardless, combat can be fun and addicting – and the difficulty hits the nail on the head with creating that mentality of “just one more try!” that’ll have you finding it hard to resist the grind. The boss designs are varied enough to have you honing your skills and changing your approach with each attempt – the game even leaves an indicator over bosses’ health bars to show you exactly how far you’ve made it on your best attempt.
One other important thing to note is that you have a skill bar that fills up as you deal damage and successfully evade your foes – although it can decrease with each hit you take or even if you’re just standing still. This skill bar lets you perform various special attacks that you’ll accrue throughout your playthrough – these will be very important as they’ll be some of your biggest damage dealers and go-to strategic attacks.
Traversal will also be a puzzle for you to figure out a bit at a time – there’s no mini map to guide you, and perhaps even fewer hints to go on than in other games that leave clues in item descriptions or NPC dialogue. This can be both frustrating and highly rewarding as you progress through the twisting tunnels, castles, and ruins of Death’s Gambit. You’ll find a lot of familiar tenets in the landscapes though – from doors that only open on the other side from where you are to spikes and traps that spring up out of the floor to scrape away that one last bit of health you were hanging on to.
The Impact of Art and Sound on Gameplay
Death’s Gambit combines a beautifully rendered 2D pixel art look with a dark color palette that can have surprising pops of color – almost reminiscent of another fantastic indie game from 2018, Omensight, which likewise had a blue-green protagonist and flashy, stylized melee attacks. While the pixel art here may not stand out quite like style of Octopath Traveler, it’s certainly gorgeous and hits on that nostalgic-retro vibe that has inspired several developers lately.
The game also gives you an epic musical score and mixes it with ruthless and fast-paced combat. Overall, the sound is done pretty well in this game – sound effects are clear and crisp, and they are balanced well with the soundtrack.
But what really surprised me was both the application and strength of the voice acting. It’s not that uncommon for indie games to entirely forgo voice acting – due to the complexity and costs involved – but Death’s Gambit has a strong cast for many of its colorful NPCs. However, your protagonist’s dialogue lines are not voice. For many people this lets them project onto the character, but in this case it left me hungry to hear more of that high-fantasy inspired voice acting.
All in all, if I had to compare it to something, I’d say they took the overall idea of Salt & Sanctuary/Dark Souls, mixed it with the look and feel of a Dead Cells–Bloodborne crossover and created a living and breathing world a la Metroid that adds some new twists on the existing formula, making it unique yet familiar at the same time. Lots of references coming at you there but this game has clearly drawn inspiration from so many great titles that I think many of you will be able to follow along with the comparison!
Honestly, I seldom feel so at home when starting a game with its story and gameplay giving me a genuine smile every time I enter a new area. Death’s Gambit’s world is beautifully rendered and is adding to 2018’s list of highly artistic indie games.
Subtle Nods Towards its Influences
And speaking of the influences that other games and series have had on Death’s Gambit, here’s a number of examples of direct references and similarities I found throughout my playthrough:
- Death is joking about “two towers of ascension” – referring to Dark Souls’ “two bells of awakening.”
- The golden spear knights are explicitly modelled after Ornstein of Dark Souls with their armor design and fighting abilities, e.g. use of thunder magic.
- The part at the beginning where the Pheonix drops fire along your path is just like the drake in the Undead Burg of Dark Souls.
- The area Garde Tum is highly reminiscent of Metroid games, featuring a futuristic design and some holo-maps lighting up that look like the usual maps in Metroidvania games.
- The immortal Origa seems to be inspired by Sniper Wolf of Metal Gear Solid, although her futuristic looks are more reminiscent of the guardians in Destiny. However, when she defeats you, she puts you in a cell and leaves you to escape by yourself, just like Sniper Wolf does in the first encounter in Metal Gear Solid.
- The immortal Cusith looks like a beast from Shadow of the Colossus, not only by his giant appearance but also because of the two swords already plunged into his back and head – reminiscent of stabbing the glowing spots on Colossi.
New Game +
By the time you complete Death’s Gambit, depending on your playstyle and skill somewhere between 6 and 10 hours in your first run, the game doesn’t just stop. It lets you select a New Game + ranging in difficulty from 1 – 10. While you can choose 1-3 right from the start, you can unlock more as you continue.
New Game + is significantly easier to navigate because you know what you are doing and you have your levels and most of your items from the first playthrough. The significant changes I’ve seen so far are mostly in enemy placement and strength, the bosses in particular get a considerable boost. You will be confronted with additional and harder enemies throughout the world, which have more strength and health. I was shocked that enemies could easily kill me with two strokes if I wasn’t cautious about my approach, even with a level far above 150 and close to 1,000 health points.
But overall, NG+ is a well-designed experience and keeps you on your toes, even after having the game figured out – it certainly adds a factor of replayability to the game.
One thing I do feel the need to mention – there are a couple bugs in the game. For example, some enemies in an area called Darkness Falls were able to knock me through a solid floor back up onto a previous level of the room. These bugs are few and far between, but they’re definitely present.
More notable is the lag that can occur during certain parts of fights. Particularly when you or an enemy lands a big hit – say something that causes a shield break for instance or one of your special abilities – the frame rate can suffer significantly and cause a lag that almost makes the game look like it stutter-steps for a moment.
Now, for players who played the game day one you may be wondering what I’m talking about – because at launch, these lag issues weren’t really so noticeable. The lag seems to have increased after a recent patch to the game several days after launch – so I’m hopeful that with another patch the development team will be able to remove the issue from the game.
In a game like Death’s Gambit that has such precise and challenging combat, every frame matters – especially in boss fights where a lot of the biggest blows will be traded between opponents.
Overall, Death’s Gambit over-delivered on my expectations and successfully created a unique game world that is different enough to not be called a “soulless” clone. It is my favorite indie game this year and de-throned Hollow Knight for the Switch on my personal number one hit list this year. Highly recommended for anyone that likes Dark Souls and Metroidvania games.
This game is gorgeous throughout – from the art to the sound design to the combat animations. The pacing is very well done and the boss fights get my heart pounding in my chest and rather than wanting to rage quit, it has me up playing for “just that one more time.” A very solid game for fans of the genre, but one that needs a few tweaks to remove things like the lag issues.
- Immersive and atmospheric game world
- Intriguing story telling mechanic via death
- Captivating art style
- Fast, fun, and challenging combat
- An interesting new spin on the Souls formula
- Some glitches and issues with lag
- Getting away from strength/endurance builds can be hard