Death’s Gambit Review – A Familiar Soul
My life has been one with Death. My Father, gone. My Mother, missing, lost on the field of battle. My life, forfeit before it even began. I’ve always dreamed of glory, being a soldier like my mother, she was so strong. My first opportunity to make something of myself led to my men being ripped to pieces and me being cut down by something beyond what should exist. That wasn’t the end though, I awoke to a someone giving my men a proper funeral. I died but somehow I breathe. After a tense conversation with the lizard humanoid a dark visage greets me. A tall thing, robed in crow’s feathers with a twisted skull and clawed hands. He is Death, the taker of souls, a being outside of time and nature. He is the reason I’m here, the reason this broken body still lives. He has drafted a contract that keeps me coming back to life, this ‘gift’ is to help me set my men’s souls free, in return Death wants me to destroy the source of the immortals’ power. Maybe this immortality is a more than it seems, maybe I can be something worth remembering…
Death’s Gambit is a fantastic game that builds on familiar foundations. Building on the classic Metroidvania formula with the addition of the deliberate combat of the Soulsborne genre, with stamina management, dodge-rolling, and slower types of attacks. But upon these foundations there’s a unique game that fans of the genre will love. Players start by choosing a class, each with their own special traits, with predetermined stats. While you can build your character in any style you want it is also a good idea to maintain certain stats to make the best use of your abilities. These abilities are tied to specific weapons and have a stat requirement, on top of that, these abilities can be used without stamina, rather they use a separate energy meter. These abilities can also inflict status effects, such as bleeding or poison, and are regulated by a cooldown. These can greatly turn the tide of battle as they can do good damage or inflict a status on a boss. Mastering your standard attacks in conjunction with your abilities is the key to success. Items are also present, such as herbs, bombs, and armor. The most important item in your inventory though are your Phoenix feathers. These are your healing items, which can be upgraded in a myriad of ways throughout the game. Death’s Gambit provides a nice twist on the Soulsborne healing with the concept of different feather types. One feather can heal you but also remove any minor status effect ailing you. Another can boost your energy meter, and yet another gives you a slight defense boost. Going into a fight with the right feather can mean the difference between success or failure. Between the combat though is the Metroidvania exploration. After the first boss there is up to five routes the player can take, each varying in difficulty, allowing for a level a freedom seldom seen in modern singleplayer titles. This makes the game feels like an actual adventure and each locale varies in design and enemy type. Design wise Death’s Gambit is near perfect.
The story of Death’s Gambit poses the question of death and immortality. The protagonist Sorun is killed at the beginning of the game, only to be brought back to life. This undeath is brought by Death itself, it has contracted Sorun to immortality because he wants vengeance for his fallen men. This works in Death’s favor as it wants to destroy the source of immortality that lies in the heart of Caer Siorai. This source of immortality has kept the souls of Sorun’s men from passing with Death into the underworld. With this simple goal in mind Sorun takes this second chance to do something worth remembering. This journey leads him to fight the immortals, beings kept alive with the Source, these range from standard enemy types all the way to the bosses. Thematically this is a brilliant way to explain how enemies come back after you die or rest at a checkpoint. It is also mechanically interesting because this story element of immortality allows the player to challenge bosses for a second time in a ‘Heroic’ rematch. Immortality is also framed in the story as a curse, these beings have been given life eternal, yet without fear, without limits, they squander their being, selfish and lost. Sorun rejects that it is because of immortality, he believes that those with a purpose can use immortality to be better. This is an interesting story point, does immortality make one lost, does severing our connection with death make us lose our humanity? The story has really good lore which can affect the gameplay. Finding lore books about the bosses gives you a temporary damage boost during said fight. This is an amazing way of encouraging exploration with real, tangible rewards. The story is paired with the beautiful pixel art, everything moves smoothly, the designs are detailed, it’s just a visual feast.
Gameplay can be a bit tricky at first due to certain systems in the game. The biggest issue, which developer White Rabbit is actively addressing, is the stamina system. Each class has very restricted stamina and it requires a good amount of character investment to get a decent amount of stamina. Stamina is attached to attacks, jumps, rolls, and dodges, while this seems pretty standard the main issue comes from how much stamina is used per action. Blocking hits only take a slight amount of stamina, meanwhile dodging takes massive chunks of stamina. My main issue with this is how it forces you to block, this is antithetical to the gameplay loops of Soulsborne games. Most games in this sub-genre have three defensive options which all have different trade offs. First is the easiest, lowest risk, dodging. This is low-cost and allows you to avoid damage. Second is blocking. This still safe but higher risk as a heavy attack might break your block leaving you stunned for another attack. Finally there’s parrying. This is the highest risk as fucking up your timings will make you take direct damage, but properly pulling it off leads to a counter to an enemy’s attack. Death’s Gambit has these three options but the stamina system that regulates these actions make the options skewed. With the current system blocking is the best way to avoid damage, while dodging poses huge risks for the player. This is possibly due to the fact that the game is a 2D game rather than a 3D one. A common strategy for many of the bosses is to simply walk around them during attacks. This works in most instances as physical attacks can only swipe left or right. So when a boss locks in an attack the player can simply walk behind the boss to avoid taking damage. The best example of being able to simply walk away from attacks is during the Dark Knight fight. His primary attack is an arcing slash that hits the ground on both sides of him. Smart players looking to squeeze damage in can stand right next to him, withing the attack arc. So this possibly makes for why dodging takes such a resource toll on the player as it seems to be a last way out option. Attacks have a good balance in terms of wind-up and animation lock-in. For instance, the player can begin an attack but back out of it at the start of the animation, otherwise the attack is locked in. This keeps the combat flow feeling fast while still being deliberate enough to invoke the spirit of Dark Souls. Combined with the weapon abilities the combat is fun, fast, and satisfying. next, there’s the exploration and platforming controls. The player can jump, climb ladders, and do a small glide by attacking in the air. Jumping is a little odd, it is quick and the height is determined by how long the player holds down the jump button. Other than that the platforming feels good and the exploration yield real rewards as mentioned above. Death has a unique consequence in Death’s Gambit. When the player dies they do not drop their ‘souls’, rather, the player drops one of their total healing feathers. Each death leads to another feather being dropped. These feathers can be reclaimed by the player though, meaning that you are always able to return to full power. This twist gives the game a unique flavor, separating it from other games that seek to purely copy the Soulsborne style.
Death’s Gambit is fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough for fans of the genre. With an intriguing story, deep gameplay, beautiful art, and amazing boss fights the game shine even if it has a few rough spots. Everyone interested in Metroidvania, Soulsborne, pixel art, or deep gameplay systems should play Death’s Gambit. This beautiful world is worth exploring and I can’t wait to jump back into. What are you waiting for, Death’s call awaits.