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Death’s Gambit- Review

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Considering this whole game is one giant Souls reference, it was alarming to find an actual Dark Souls easter egg here.

It’s done. Slave Knight Gael falls, and the credits roll. You evoke the memory of a million news articles quoting Hidetaka Miyazaki. There is no more Dark Souls.

Thankfully, in the years since the first Dark Souls repopularized the learn-by-dying school of game design, many developers have been inspired to do the same, with entries such as the excellent Hyper Light Drifter, Hollow Knight and Salt and Sanctuary carrying on the trend of well-designed games that focus on skill and exploration.

Death’s Gambit is another such of these games, developed by White Rabbit Studios and published by Adult Swim Games. This is a game that wears its love for Dark Souls on its sleeve, though it tries to emulate its gothic-fantasy mentor rather than outright copy it, to varying degrees of success.

Admittedly, the horse exists only as a pseudo-fast travel, making it the worst of two worlds. Too long to meaningfully fast travel and doesn’t really do anything for the gameplay otherwise.

Presentation:

Death’s Gambit uses a pixel-art style not uncommon for indie games of its ilk. The sprites are gorgeous, fluidly animated and visually distinct so you always know which enemy does what. These go from your Souls-staple armored jobbers to some cosmic-horror-types to basically Necrons from Warhammer 40k. On top of the main sprites, the speaking characters have gorgeously rendered close-ups for when they speak.

The voice acting for Death’s Gambit seems to be bound by some sort of bizarre binary, in which the characters that are good are really good, while the more mediocre ones just sound kind of normal. Death has a particularly good voice actor, which is great because most of the game will be spent listening to him goad the protagonist, Soren, into not giving up, or chiding him for dying. There’s a scene about 2/3 into the game where this is really appreciated, as Death goes on a touching monologue to Soren about why death is a necessary part of life and how their mission is so important.

The HUD for the game is the most Dark Souls-esque thing about it, almost to an alarming degree of similarity. It uses the same red/green health and stamina bars, with a purple “Soul Energy” for your special attacks and big boss health bars at the bottom of the screen. Removing the Souls-comparison lens, it’s a gorgeous UI. The gothic aesthetic definitely works with the morbid nature of the game. However, as a Souls fan jaded by how quickly anything will compare itself to Dark Souls, it does leave a sour taste in the mouth.

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Because who doesn’t love time-attack wave bosses?

Gameplay

Controls and Actions

For the most part, Death’s Gambit plays excellently. The whole pattern-recognition combat genre lends itself well in any medium if executed correctly, and seeing as it has its roots in 2d games like Megaman and Metroid, Death’s Gambit really has no excuses for dropping the ball there. You have your standard rolling, blocking, and attacking with up to two different weapons, as well as three slots for special abilities.

My main gripe with Death’s Gambit is, by accident or design, its stamina bar. I played the Sentinel class, which is your most knighty knight class to ever knight. Despite this, at the start of the game, I was so starved for stamina I could barely block more than one attack at any given time before I ran out of stamina. Rolling, too, became too risky to use, as the penalties for screwing up a roll meant losing stamina and health aplenty. So it was that a large chunk of my time was spent simply grinding both my stamina and stamina recovery up to bearable amounts before facing the bosses.

Progression

The game also gives you talent trees- skill points to level up your character and give you perks like regenerating stamina while blocking, additional super moves and passives that boost your damage under certain criteria. While they are great in concept, I find their inclusion to be counter to the rest of the game and genre as a whole.

My problem with this is that unlike souls which you use for regular leveling, the talent points are un-farmable. You get a finite amount of them in the game, and no way of reversing talents if you decide one tree isn’t quite working out for you. Worse still, there are areas in the game that have secrets attainable by air-dashing- a skill only available as the final point in one of the talent trees. This can be quite frustrating as some of these secrets can be pretty game-changing.

Boss Fights

Like any Souls-like, the meat of this game is its bossfights. Some of them have really cool mechanics tied to them, while others feel like they were built just to stick to the Souls-brand of “Prepare to Die”. In retrospect the disparity between some bosses is almost frustrating as most of the best fights occur early on in the game, making the lower-quality boss fights feel more like padding than anything else. Part of me wishes they had better used the ledge mechanic in some of these bosses, especially considering the fact there are two Shadow Of The Colossus-esque bosses in the game and no means of attacking anything past their ankle.

Speaking of padding, this game has a moment that should be a cardinal sin in any kind of adventure game. If you progress through the main path of the game you will eventually reach the entrance to the final area, which is essentially a big door that says “Go back and explore more areas”. While I get its function I’m not a particularly big fan of forced back-tracking. For the record I have no problem with games that tell you “you need to collect keys to open this door”.  My problem is when you don’t mention these keys until you reach the door, it feels very much like you’re just padding out your game for a better time-to-beat. Hyper Light Drifter kind of lets you in on it from the start with the giant diamond map key, I only wish Death’s Gambit had done something similar.

Like the game that inspired it, there is no shortage of sulky people just hanging around your hub world, sometimes with useful skills you can buy off of them

Content:

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As Much As You Want To Assess It On It’s Own Merit, You Can’t Really Wear Blue Spandex With A Red Cape And Not Be Called Superman.

Content-wise is where Death’s Gambit’s comparisons to Dark Souls work most against it. Unlike the Dark Souls series there is no Fashion Gambit to this game. Aside from your cloak, Soren looks entirely unchanged regardless of what armor or class you play him as. While I wouldn’t mind it normally, it’s the game’s own constant evocation of Dark Souls that makes this feel like such a big deal.

Weapons-wise, the game equally suffers. While the game has a variety of weapon types the actual individual weapons are greatly lacking with almost every weapon class having only one entry. This wouldn’t be so bad if some of the bosses didn’t have insanely cool weapons that break your heart when you find out you can’t take them for yourself. This is only further compounded by the first major boss of the game actually dropping a shield when you beat him, making the whole lack of weapons feel more like cut content than anything else.

That being said, the game does encourage you to experiment with its various weapon classes by using weapon specific skills, and having skill trainers that can teach them to you for a price scattered around the hub. By talking to all the trainers you essentially get a sneak peek at the cool skills you could get if you tried out those weapons, and a relatively decent drop rate from mobs also gives you plenty of time to get upgraded versions of weapons without having to commit too hard to them.

While the game does do a Dark Souls 2 with its branching hub world and areas, the game’s forced back tracking makes it so there’s very little in the way of actual exploration. There are still plenty of cool secrets like doors that won’t open if you face them and two whole optional boss fights, but that being said, the breadth of where I could go suddenly felt less appealing because I realized I always had to go there. The lack of a fast travel also really kills the mood for exploring as there’s no way I would go back to an area after I’ve cleared its boss, since I’d have to fight my way back to get to it.

Despite all my criticisms, this game has its moments where it clearly understands how to make something feel tonally Dark Souls.

Verdict

Despite what may sound like harsh criticisms, Death’s Gambit is a good game. It’s not a great game, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t push the envelope in any way, but it’s a solid entry in a genre of games whose key feature is good design. And when Death’s Gambit is good, it’s really good. But the game’s own drops in quality sabotage it by making it feel cheap and padded out, which unfortunately hurts the game’s standing overall because all you can think about is the levels you’re glad are over.

And then there’s the game’s worship of Dark Souls. I can’t help but ponder if the game had taken more liberties with its visual styles instead of going for medieval gothic, it might have been able to be looked at without constantly comparing it to the much higher-budget Dark Souls series. In my defense I have given this game its fair shake, but when everything from your menus to your HUD look so much like another game, it’s not the reviewer’s fault if they start comparing you to that game.

For its RM 38 price point though, you’re looking at a pretty solid game. There’s plenty of content, a New Game Plus mode and some great music. Just realize that as this game in no way really pushes the envelope, you’ve got plenty of options to pick from. In it’s defense, however, this is probably the best nicotine patch if you’re really just looking for something superficially Dark Souls.


Retail copy purchased, played on PC.

8.2

A good game. Plenty of areas that, as long as you discover before the backtrack, will leave you with a great feeling of exploration. Feels a little derivative of Dark Souls, however, and that will work against it expectations-wise.

  • Presentation 90%
  • Gameplay 80%
  • Content 75%