There is always an interest in creating games that are clearly inspired by other popular genres, but having them take what’s best from them to mold it in their own product. Death’s Gambit is another one of these Dark Souls meets Metroidvania game design that has seen a surge of interest recently, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, but not every game can execute it as perfectly as Dead Cells or Hollow Knight.
It is tiresome to see popular games being referenced when talking about a specific game but in Death’s Gambit case, just like Salt and Sanctuary, it has clear inspiration from the Souls series right from the beginning where you pick your character to the design revolving around boss fights, upgrades, UI and its RPG mechanics. This is a 2D sprite-based side-scrolling Souls game and whether you consider it a good or bad thing depends on your tolerance to the brutal difficulty curve that is usually featured in these games.
Death’s Gambit begins with the main character Sorun’s death and resurrection. He is a soldier from the land of Vados who is looking for immortality that leads him to the foreign land of Aldwynn. Death decides to make a deal with him in exchange for immortality that sends him on a quest to roam the world and kill any immortals as requested by the grim reaper. These immortals are the bosses that you will face during this journey which forms the basic gameplay design for Death’s Gambit.
The core gameplay loop in Death’s Gambit is your standard Metroidvania affair but the game drastically changes for the worse in the second half. There is a strong Castlevania vibe here with the level design and the developers have crammed in a lot of secrets in the game’s world that will make you search every nook and cranny to find them. This is true for the first half but once you get near the end, there will be awkward difficult spikes leading to plenty of frustration. I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if there was a consistent tone to the level design, but this isn’t the case here thus making it a flawed product.
One interesting thing that I liked in Death’s Gambit was how it presented its own twist on the dying mechanic. Yes, you will die a lot, and yes, it is frustrating to get stuck in a boss fight that seems impossible to beat, but you won’t lose key progress with each death. This is what makes Death’s Gambit a little easier than similar games. Each enemy that you kill will give you shards, which are the experience points that you can trade at checkpoints to level up, but even if you die, the shards will remain thus giving you an easy time to gain levels. The best part is that dying is essential to experiencing the story since you can get flashbacks after dying a certain amount of times. These will help you get a better idea of the main character and his backstory.
The penalty for dying is completely different and somewhat interesting. You heal health with a phoenix feather that starts with 3 uses. It will only recover a limited amount of health and you can upgrade the usage count, but once you die, you will leave behind a phoenix feather. It is a good substitute for the death mechanic and helps you keep focused on the game instead of trying to rush to get your lost experience points like in other games. Even if you don’t grab it back, it is possible to recover a phoenix feather by spending a number of shards.
The gameplay is fairly standard 2D hack-and-slash with your main character being able to equip 2 different type of weapons along with a shield. You can use this shield to carefully block and parry while the game offers some mobility with a dodge roll that has invincibility frames. Some of the gear that you can find or buy in the game has specific stats requirements (rings a bell?) while you can also equip armor sets and other secondary usable items. It is possible to use abilities along with the basic attacks. They are essential to defeating some of the tougher boss fights. You can get these abilities through different means like acquiring them from NPC or getting them through a weapon.
The combat system and RPG mechanics don’t offer anything special or unique for them to stand out, and the weapons honestly never feel good to use. They seem rather slow to execute during battle and you will need to carefully learn the timing of attacks to deal the most damage while avoiding the enemy’s assault. I was not a fan of the hit detection either because it feels clumsy. One minor qualm is how the ladder climbing is linked to a button press instead of directional buttons. The combat is the weakest part of Death’s Gambit, which is a shame since the exploration mostly feels good and rewarding for the player. This extends to the boss fights, which are the core of the game but end up hardly being memorable on their own.
Most of the boss fights deal with learning the attack pattern first since they will do a large amount of damage quickly to your character. They will have multiple phases that will automatically trigger once you get their health below a certain threshold. During the last phase of the fight, they are usually aggressive and can quickly turn the battle over in their favor, however, once you learn their weakness with attack range and timing, it won’t take long to defeat them. Later in the game, the battles start getting more strategic since the fights are tougher.
As an indie game that doesn’t seem to offer much for its visual, you might expect the game to perform great, but unfortunately, it has some performance issues with the audio glitching out on occasions and the frames skipping that can make you mess up in a challenging fight. Overall though, Death’s Gambit is a satisfying experience for those who want to dip their toes in a game inspired by the Souls series, but it is not a game for everyone due to the steep difficulty curve.
Death’s Gambit Review (PS4)
Game Reviewed on: PS4
Game description: Death's Gambit is a challenging 2D action platformer with deep RPG elements.
The visuals are pretty and the exploration is great, but the combat is unfortunately rather tepid, and hit detection can be disappointing with a slight delay to the attacks. Death's Gambit can also suffer from awkward difficulty spikes and there is a distinct lack of memorable boss fights, but it is overall an enjoyable product that is recommended for fans looking for a Souls-like experience.