[Editor’s Note: Why are we putting out a review for a game that released almost a year ago? Because it’s getting a retail release soon, that’s why. Now stop your whining and read the words.]
As a fan on sidescrolling Metroidvania titles, I don’t have a good excuse as to why I missed out on Death’s Gambit when developer White Rabbit dropped it last year. In my defense, there was a glut of Dark Souls-inspired 2D platforming indies all released around the same time, and I can only play so many games. So it was a nice surprise that White Rabbit reached out to us with a copy of their first title, Death’s Gambit, to drum up a little buzz for the impending physical release. Like my two personal favorites of this new breed – Salt and Sanctuary, and Dead Cells – Death’s Gambit doesn’t try to hide its Dark Souls inspiration. In fact, it leans into it even harder than the two previously mentioned titles. But the question is, does it add anything new to the genre? Is it fun to play and is it worth your money? Keep reading to find out, why don’t you?
The story of Death’s Gambit goes like this: our “hero” is a soldier named Sorun from the land of Vados. He and his army travel to Aldwynn in search of his mother, not to mention a rumor that the gift of immortality is hidden somewhere in this foreign land. The problem is both Sorun and his army fail and die on the battlefield. Enter Death himself, who offers to bring back Sorun for the small price of everything he has to offer and more. Sorun apparently hasn’t seen this movie, so he makes the deal with Death and thus begins the game.
Like most games of this ilk, dying is a core part of the game, but never has that been truer than it is here. I mean your character’s death is the whole reason we’re here in the first place! The game is challenging, of course, but instead of losing your shards (souls), you drop a healing feather allowing you to go back and get it, or simply buy it back with shards at any of the checkpoints. That may not sound much different, but trust me, it is more forgiving.
The gameplay is an even mix of Souls-like stamina-based combat with Castlevania-esque platforming and adventure. You’ll be dodging, jumping, and blocking attacks as much as the stamina bar will allow. As Sorun, you can equip two weapons at a time plus a shield for blocking and parrying. Depending on which class you choose at the beginning, you’ll have a decent amount of weapons of destruction to unlock. These include all the greatest hits known to the genre such as longswords, greatswords, daggers, axes, great hammers, tomes (spells), and bows, etc. As you advance deeper into the world and defeat bosses, you’ll unlock talent points which you can use to purchase “talents”, such as the ability to regenerate ever-important stamina while blocking.
In additions to these talents, you’ll also have special abilities depending on the weapon you have equipped. These abilities use up Soul Energy, of course, and are absolutely crucial to success as the bosses get increasingly difficult. Much like the jumping and platforming, the combat feels a little loose. It’s consistently loose, so it can be overcome and adjusted to, but it doesn’t offer the grace and fluidity of a Dead Cells or the obvious heft of Salt and Sanctuary.
The world is sprawling and smartly interconnected. Finding the shortcuts between levels is always rewarding and helps bring everything full circle. The world isn’t as large and doesn’t feel as real (or lived in) as some of the others in this genre, but it doesn’t really take anything away from the fun or the longevity of the game. Well, it probably does take away from the longevity, but that’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t need five more levels of the same thing. Unless the excessive difficulty spike at the end was simply a cheeky way to extend the game… With that said, there are ten levels of pixelated goodness to explore and for fans of pixel graphics, they are a true joy to hack and slash through. The bad guys are varied and look pretty cool, but for games like this, it’s all about the bosses. The bosses in Death’s Gambit are big, scary and hard to beat. One boss, in particular, is insanely massive, but in the end, you’re really just fighting his foot. Still managed to be cool, though.
It’s not all roses when it comes to the bosses, sadly. The stingy stamina bar, somewhat loose hit mechanics, and inherent button-mashing of the combat combined to make some of the boss victories feel cheap, while some felt too damn frustrating and random to be fun. It’s a shame, too, because the core game is pretty damn fun. The pixel graphics and the great score make it an audio-visual treat, and the upgrades, collectibles and RPG leveling make you want to keep playing. Some of the dialogue is a little pretentious and over-written but some of the humor made me laugh and ultimately kept me interested. There isn’t enough platforming action to save it, and what is there doesn’t feel great. Like the combat, the platforming controls are just good enough to work, but not good enough to raise it to the level of some of the other titles in this now packed genre. I think lovers of Dark Souls and /or pixel graphics may love what’s happening here, but for me, I was hoping for more.
Death's Gambit PS4 Review
Death’s Gambit doesn’t just wear it’s Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve, it goes for the full body suit. And I’m fine with it. As a fan of Souls-like Metroidvania’s, I look at it as an homage and not a ripoff or a cash-grab. The inherent gloomy story, great pixel graphics, and above average score make the game worth playing for fans of the genre, but loose controls bring the combat and platforming down to a level just below others in this increasingly crowded genre.
- Pixel graphics look great.
- Impressive score.
- Interesting story.
- Plenty of collectibles and level ups.
- Controls are a notch below others in the genre.
- Uneven hit mechanics during boss battles.
- Late difficulty spike took away from the gameplay.
Reviewed using PS4 slim.
When Jeremy isn’t writing books or playing video games, he’s living his life one random movie references at a time.