I’ll be honest, before reviewing this, the upcoming physical release (steady), I hadn’t heard of Death’s Gambit. I know about Death. I know who Gambit is. Combining the two was like peanut butter and jam (or jelly, if you like). It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it leaves a nice aftertaste – as does Death’s Gambit on the PS4.
The Dark Souls series is clearly an influence for Death’s Gambit. The fundamentals are interchangeable with said franchise. Start out with a class of your choice, die a few times, level up, die some more. Enchant your weapon and, in case you aren’t getting how this game works, die again. You’re immortal – that is as long as you do Death’s bidding.
It’s hard not to compare Death’s Gambit to Dark Souls. It’s intentional and a compliment – whether you like Dark Souls or not. It isn’t a cheap clone though. The first difference is immediate – it’s a 2D world and a very 16-bit aesthetic. It would’t look out of place on the Nintendo Switch and resembles Salt and Sanctuary, which is also on the Switch and also a Dark Souls inspired death-fest.
For a 2D world, the combat is less complicated and a bit more limited in movement. At its core, Death’s Gambit is an RPG but also has a very platform-type of element, though it isn’t so fluid and can feel a little bit clunky. You have the choice to defend or dodge attacks, and this does work, but the timing isn’t as precise.
Tank, Mage, Rogue? Classy
Before the game kicks off, you create a character. It isn’t as in-depth as others as the only options that can be changed are are class and starting items. There are seven classes, and among them are the usual roles, like tank, mage, rogue, etc… and each has their own perk. You can change your playing style during the game though and use weapons not initially associated with the default class. You can’t change the perks, however. Same as your genes.
For my first attempt, I opted for the Blood Knight, and the class has this description:
“Reckless warrior that rewards aggressive combat styles. You can regain health that was recently lost if you quickly retaliate.”
That’ll be me, then. I’ve experimented with magic and dexterity builds, but I tend to side with the melee types shouting, ‘Leeroy Jenkins!’ as I go into battle. What appealed to me about the Blood Knight class is health gains when countering attackers promptly enough, a little bit like in Bloodborne.
Sorun, Meet Death. Death, Meet Sorun
Choose your class, then select your starting item (I chose the necklace as I’m an idiot – it has zero effect). Next up is introductions: Sorun, the protagonist, and Death. The latter doesn’t need an introduction – he works in accounts. Sorun is dead and hired by Death to kill a bunch of immortals who are messing up the circle of…death? They’re basically ruining it for everyone else, and your job is to kill them properly. In return, you can’t die. Each time you die, you return to the last shrine. It’s basically a bonfire that you can use as your checkpoint/respawn point, level up, power up and assign abilities.
Any good RPG garden needs a flourishing talent tree. Death’s Gambit does have a talent tree that splits into various paths. It was pretty redundant for my Blood Knight since I found that the talents did not affect my gameplay too much. Sure, they are mostly passive, but I didn’t really notice them so much. There is another class that has a dash jump, and I would have liked that to collect a couple of out of reach items that I eventually gave up on.
Life Is Hard, Death Is Easy
If you are unfamiliar with Souls-Type games, the process is simple: battle enemies and acquire shards (souls). Shards develop your stats, buy abilities, items, weapons and armour – later upgraded with enchantments. This enchanted gear then gets a respective +1, +2 increase as it levels up. Apart from the weapons and auras you can equip, changing armour doesn’t change your character’s appearance. You can essentially overpower Sorun if required. It will take time though.
When you are comfortable enough to delve deeper, you can tackle one of the bosses. This will unlock new areas or shortcuts to older places of interest. Each boss has their own abilities and patterns to learn and effectively counter. One of the best features of the game is tackling these bosses in any order. Some are frustrating, so it’s refreshing to walk away, level up a bit, then come back when you’re more competent.
Patience Is a Virtue
As you can expect, the difficulty depends on how good you are with low stats or how much patience you have in leveling up. I fit into the second group and comfortably built my levels up through some good old grinding. For me, it was a necessity. The first boss is the Owl King. I beat it the first time, but the next boss attempt, Soul of the Phoenix, was much harder. First, I leveled up a little more. Second, I made use of the items available – in this case the crystal bomb. There are a variety of abilities you can learn to help along the way that implement the cooldown feature. By the way, you can immediately replay a boss after beating it. This is done in Heroic Mode, but I stuck with Coward Mode and left that for the better gamers.
Too many customisable skills, armour and weapons can over-complicate a game as there is too much to choose from. Death’s Gambit isn’t like that and is relatively simple. For the first couple of hours, I was using an axe that was the default, but I later found myself using a greatsword already enchanted to +4. I literally stuck with this for the remainder of the game, upgrading it whenever I could. I will say that the daggers are very cool, but I was unable to wield them effectively. I went for the strength build instead of a dexterity build, and daggers scale in this stat – named finesse.
Dead Man Talking
Dying in Dark Souls means you lose your souls unless you collect them again without dying. In Death’s Gambit you retain what you earn and can stack up until you’re ready to spend them. However, you have these things called Phoenix Plumes. It’s an item you can use to recover health, but if you die, you drop that plume on the spot. You can later collect it or return to a shrine and spend some shards to retrieve them. The best use I found for the plumes were investing them into attack power, giving you 10% damage per plume. If you die, you don’t have to retrieve the plumes, but you risk not being able to restore health.
For the first couple of hours of play, I felt it to be a little bit of a chore. Sorun is the only character that doesn’t speak. Strange, as you can’t change his gender or name, so it doesn’t make sense not to have a voice actor. Other characters would speak, and Sorun’s response would be text. Rude. I liked the voice acting though. The voice actor for Death is really good. However, the best was a boss that not only sounded amazing but looked great. I don’t want to spoil it, but the battle was a bit like Undertale where you have to dodge attacks. That’s all I’m saying, but it was one of the best bosses I’ve seen in a game in a long time.
Size Doesn’t Always Matter
Some of the bosses were huge, but despite their size, they were surprisingly easy to beat. That was quite refreshing – I don’t have any complaints about beating a boss on the second attempt, especially when they fill the screen. It makes ME feel big.
With some of the bosses, Death even tells you how many times you died. At one stage I fought the Bulwark of Aldwynn and died again for the sixth time. After returning from the afterlife, Death rubbed it in and told me how many times I died. There was a bit of shame in it. I made a point of leveling up before I tackled it again. I beat it the 9th time – which was probably the hardest boss for me. At least until Origa.
Give Me Some Exposition
Through his multiple deaths, we begin to learn more about Sorun’s past and motivation for fighting the immortals. This is a nice touch and is told via flashbacks. It adds a little to the lore but doesn’t make him more likeable – just gives him more of a sense of purpose.
In fact, the narrative is more coherent than Dark Souls and relatively clear in comparison, though the story isn’t always clear and is left open to interpretation. However, I love ambiguity – questions left unanswered where nothing is black and white. Not everyone does. For example, I have never played a game quite like Death’s Gambit before.
Skip to the End
Anyway, the story improves, and leveling up is always fun. Nintendo eShop games are currently my thing at the moment, and I enjoy many of the ports of retro games. They were cutting edge when I were a lad. With that in mind, I didn’t really like the visuals at first. Sound production is great but a little abstract from the action. After a while though, it was fine and just a minor criticism based on my own particular taste.
If the graphics were any different, would that impact the game? In reality, no. As for the sound – that always could. What would I change about the game? Maybe a little customisation on the visual appearance of the character, as well as having a voice actor for him and also being able to rename the character. I wanted to call mine Pablo. That wouldn’t really change my opinion on the game though. This is enjoyable, but you’ll need to invest a bit of time to level up. This can be a bit of a grind for some. Forgive the pun. That said, it is no way near as long as Dark Souls. Death’s Gambit could effectively be finished in a weekend or an afternoon if your significant other/guardians/prison warden is/are out.
Developer: White Rabbit
Publisher: Adult Swim
Platforms: PS4, PC,
Release Date: 25th June 2019