As much as I try to avoid making comparisons to other games in my reviews, the inspiration for Death’s Gambit is adamantly clear within the opening minutes of the game. From Software’s Dark Souls franchise has an absolute grasp on the action role-playing game genre, but with that series profoundly focusing on pushing the boundaries of a 3D world, there have been a handful of titles looking to conquer a 2D landscape with a similar style of gameplay. The latest coming from Adult Swim Games and developer White Rabbit.
As a failed instrument of death in life (a soldier from the land of Vados whose name is Sorun), you are reborn an agent of Death himself, waging war against the Immortals of Siradon. Comprised of gothic architecture, the land of Siradon consists of tundras, dangerous caverns, and vast forests, all of which have their own environmental hazards to send you back to the grave. At the onset, you can customize your character, choosing one of the seven different available classes to fit your playstyle. Each class comes with their own primary weapon and starting stats, but any of them can equip and utilize a shield, which is vital in combating certain enemy types.
Much like in my attempts to play through the Souls series, I died an embarrassing amount of times in Death’s Gambit. However, White Rabbit handles dying differently; a change that I think makes the game feel unique. Instead of losing all of your shards (souls) upon dying, you will drop one of your plume feathers used for healing. You can return to the same location to recover it or spend your shards at the Death Idols where you rest (bonfires) to recover any that have been lost. While this in itself is a different take, you’ll experience new lore the game has to offer only by dying multiple times. Certain bosses and non-playable characters (NPCs) that you come across will treat you differently, most often mentioning or commenting on the fact that you simply will not stay dead. This allows you to slowly and sometimes painfully improve your stats giving you a better fighting chance. Word of advice, boost your endurance stat immediately, as this increases your stamina pool, allowing you to attack or dodge more often before getting tired.
Death’s Gambit combines platforming sections with combat, which may be slow or fast paced, depending upon your currently equipped weapon. My first class was “soldier” utilizing a slow, but mighty greatsword. It worked best when countering enemies, as the majority of unspeakable horrors faced can damage you before you even think about swinging towards them. Instead, dodging through the attack and stabbing them in the back in a single motion was the more efficient way to cut them down. The first secondary weapon you come across, a bow, is useful for chipping away at foes at range, but I mostly ignored using it. Abilities that you’ll unlock, which you can have three equipped at any given moment, are tied to your weapon. I found this slightly off-putting that the first weapon upgrade that dropped for me right before a boss was incompatible with the ability I was using. Abilities also use soul energy, which is acquired by merely attacking enemies, but will slowly deplete if you aren’t damaging anything over a set amount of time. One of the starting abilities for my class, stabbed my foes cleanly, providing a bleeding status effect at the same time. As you progress, you are presented with talent points, to activate various passive abilities across three individual branches.
Using your abilities at proper moments can be the key to your victory, but find yourself facing the wrong direction or stuck in an animation and you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to attack. Although when used correctly, they can do severe damage to bosses, which are the holy grail for the genre. Learning patterns and being able to anticipate which attack is about to be used is the name of the game, which if you are like me, it will take numerous attempts to learn. As someone that hasn’t played through and finished all of the Dark Souls titles, it may be different if you consider yourself a veteran of the series. The game tracks your death’s to each boss, with each one having a number of phases, typically changing the type of attacks and spawning standard enemies to get in your way. I was surprised when I was able to conquer the game’s first boss, the Owlking, but immediately hit a wall when the game’s exploration opened up, and I had free roam access to face different bosses. Although the result was the same against each one, my untimely demise, being able to keep some of your shards during these encounters helped tremendously. If you are looking for an additional challenge, you may face “heroic” versions of each one. These buffed up bosses taut further stat increases and new attacks that will have you guessing yourself.
On the downside, the control mechanics in Death’s Gambit feel a bit archaic, and I was at a loss not being able to accomplish basic tasks. At times I felt locked into a particular animation, and others let me dodge in the middle of it to avoid getting hit. I frequently wasn’t able to complete a dodge, turn the opposite direction and attack as smoothly as I should have been prepared. It’s almost like hitting the buttons too fast limits what you can achieve. Not to mention, there is zero need to have a button being held down to climb up or down a ladder. The analog stick, as you can't use the directional pad to move your character should be able to accomplish this task, and maybe use a should button to drop off it. I also didn’t like having to use the d-pad to recover or pick up items, as it forces you to move your thumb from the analog stick. The difficulty seems to ramp up swiftly after the first boss, but that may just be from my lack of experience in these types of games.
Death’s Gambit aimed to transition the Souls style of gameplay into an unforgiven 2D adventure, and for the most part, it has succeeded. I do feel that the controls aren’t as smooth or fluid as they need to be. Ranged foes seem to have an unfair advantage, being able to instantly lock on to your direction in a heartbeat, which isn’t fair. I also felt like I was fighting the controls every step of the way, making the experience that much harder, but I did appreciate the unique take on the genre. Dying doesn’t mean the end of the world, and being able to watch new sequences and listen to additional dialogue after dying was a treat.Note: Death's Gambit was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.