An action platformer with a strong emphasis on combat that takes a lot of inspiration from the Souls series, but does it have what it takes to stand out on its own?
Genre: Platformer, Action
Developer: White Rabbit
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Release date: 14 Aug, 2018
Ever since Dark Souls was unleashed into the world, there have been multiple attempts to recreate the same sense of dread and engagement that is so neatly tied to that game’s identity, which mostly derives from its structure and combat. Despite many undertakings, few have managed to successfully bring a new and refreshing take on the genre (if you are willing to call it that), as most just seem to fall short despite having great elements like art direction. Death’s Gambit is the newest addition to the list, and please understand that I do not make these comparisons in any condescending way, they are just for the sake of making it easier for people to get a grasp of what these games are all about.
Being a 2D game, Death’s Gambit also brings with it gameplay elements from platformers, and, in some cases, it even feels like it’s a Metroidvania, but in the grand scheme of things it really is not. Death’s Gambit is best described as a hardcore action platformer with a strong emphasis on combat. There are some light RPG elements, like different loot, and character stats that directly affect your damage output, but fighting and hopping around the levels are really what the core of the game really is.
The game puts you on the shoes of Sorun, a volunteer sent on one of the many expeditions to a land filled with dangers, with the task of acquiring the source of immortality. With your entire expedition being utterly decimated, you strike a deal with Death itself in order to become immortal and get revenge not only for the lives of the fellow soldiers that have died on the numerous expeditions to this forsaken land, but also for the live of his mother, whom has also allegedly passed away during one of these expeditions. Surprisingly enough, the game’s plot keeps getting more ambiguous the more you play, and I find it quite ironic that while your kingdom has been desperately trying to claim the source of immortality in order to ascend to a new plane of existence, you manage to achieve it yourself at the expense of Death’s wish for you to destroy it, so that he can get to claim more souls as people perish.
If we now go back to Dark Souls, Death’s Gambit system works pretty much the same. There are these Death altars scattered throughout the world that you can rest at, thus acting as a checkpoint for whenever you die, and they also let you replenish your healing items, and level up your stats. Death’s Gambit uses plumes as healing items, and these can be sacrificed in exchange for a damage boost, so there is quite a bit of room to play around with this mechanic. This actually ties quite nicely to the fact that you are now a servant of Death itself, as since you are immortal, the fact that you keep coming back to life is pretty much self-explained.
There is no doubt that the game’s ambitions as far as storytelling are quite a few, as the game attempts to tackle things such as the meaning of being immortal, but, ultimately, the game delivers everything in shambles. The story lacks cohesion, mostly due to the nature of the exposition of the narrative through certain cutscenes, but also thanks to the free-roaming design of the game world, which lets you wander into some places before it would make sense for you to do so in terms of story.
In a way, Death’s Gambit seems to try to jam a whole bunch of different sceneries and settings into a pretty compact package, but it’s almost as if there’s nothing done in order to properly connect everything together for the sake of context. From a mysterious futuristic base engulfed in darkness, to a snowy region filled with hostile creatures, to the ruins of an old kingdom, Death’s Gambit has it all, sci-fi mixed with fantasy.
Despite everything, as far as the gameplay itself is concerned, the game is pretty straightforward for the most part, and if you have played similar titles, you will quickly get a bearing of how the game operates. The movement system is pretty bog standard, while the combat system bases itself on the notorious use of stamina for pretty much anything, like blocking, dodging, and attacking. While basic attacks only exist in different variants corresponding to a single combo per weapon type, there are other abilities that you can acquire that can be executed at the expense of soul energy. This is simply gained by hitting enemies, with each ability consuming a certain amount of it, kind of like the fury system from Diablo III.
While I don’t really have any complaints in regards to the combat in and of itself, it is the game’s weapons portfolio that leaves quite a lot to be desired. There are multiple weapon types, like a great hammer, a greatsword, a longsword, a box, a spear, a halberd, and so on, but each weapon type is essentially composed of a single weapon, there is no weapon variation, and their damage only changes due to stat scaling. Sure, each one of them feels unique on their own, but in a game where combat is the main focus, I would’ve hoped for something a lot more enticing other than bland weapons. This is only aggravated by the fact that, depending on the class that you choose at the start of the game, you will find yourself only using a small number of these. On top of that, given that there’s such a small number of weapons, once you get one that you feel comfortable with, all you have to do is upgrade it as much as possible and all other options are ditched immediately.
The game might not feature plenty of different enemies to keep you busy learning their attack patterns throughout its entirety, but surely the bosses make up for it. I have managed to beat some bosses on my first try, while it took me considerable effort and grinding in order to get past some others. Given that I am pretty sure I knew what I was doing, the difficulty across different bosses feels off, with optional bosses being considerably easier than the ones that bar your progress through the main questline. With that said, I must admit that each boss is unique in their own way, in the sense that they’re not just a massive foe with huge chunks of health. Instead, most often than not, they either present you with some new little mechanic, or they throw a series of hazards and obstacles that you also need to deal with, which manages to keep things interesting and engaging.
It’s also worth pointing out, for those hardcore players out there, that you can beat a boss more than once, on their Heroic difficulty, which is a lot more difficult. Besides that, once you beat the game, you can also keep on playing by progressing into New Game +, which lets you carry over most of your progress. Now, if you’re really into that sort of thing, you can either keep playing the game as much as you want on NG+, or you can just try out different classes, which should significantly increase the number of hours that you can get out of this game. The game can easily be beaten in about 12 hours, as long as you don’t go for the heroic versions of each boss.
Defeating bosses pretty much opens new paths in the game, and each one pretty much acts as a gatekeeper that is keeping you from progressing further in the game. While every boss grants you a talent point, which you can allocate in your talent tree in order to unlock class-specific passive bonuses, some of them can also pave the way for new NPCs to show up in this central area where pretty much everyone that you meet gathers around. These NPCs will provide you with a few very small lines of dialogue, but they’re key to unlocking new abilities and upgrading your gear.
Now, if there is one thing that really annoys me in these types of games is when they don’t give you the ability to directly compare different pieces of gear in the inventory. In order to do so, you have to manually check the stats of one item and then the other in order to figure out which one is better, which despite only taking a few seconds still feels a chore, but perhaps I’m just spoiled. While we’re still on the subject matter of equipment, it’s also quite a shame that, with the exception of weapons, no other equipment change is visible on your character. The fact that you can’t pause the game is also one major drawback, and even though that is present in many games nowadays, I still can’t despite this enough.
There are some things which I take from granted when playing video games, one of which is being able to change a game’s language to English, which in the vast majority of games, they support. However, in the case of Death’s Gambit, the game just defaults to the language that is used by Windows on your system, so I’m stuck playing in Portuguese, as the only way to change it to English permanently is by changing my Windows settings, which is something I’m certainly not going to do just for one single game. I honestly can’t remember this having ever happened before, like really, why would you make it this way?! In any case, you can still change the language setting through the in-game settings menu, but you have to do it everytime you exit the game or return to the main menu. Furthermore, for some reason, the settings menu is not accessible through the menu, only once you’re actually playing the game.
These are not the only shortcomings that the game has, as there are quite a few times in a few spots where you can cheese enemies by hitting them through a wall or a platform, and while they might not retaliate, the opposite can happen at a later date. I’ve found myself suddenly getting hit when I thought I was safe, all because the enemy’s weapon slash goes through solid objects. Besides that, while enemies pack quite the punch, some are quite easy to deal with once you figure out what each of them does, but even so, others still behave quite erratically.
While for the most part I don’t really have a problem with how the movement and combat system feel, there are a few occasions where the two combined can feel quite awkward. Sometimes you can find yourself having to stop a flurry of attacks in order to turn around and face the enemy because you’ve outrun him. This happens because, while you’re attacking the enemy, your character keeps moving forward and it’s possible that you simply go past the enemy hitbox and find yourself slicing the air itself.
Part of me really likes this game, but the other part of me just tells me that the game shouldn’t have been released in such a state and that the world and story should be more efficiently interconnected. The plot and the world themselves are quite intriguing, but progressing through the game feels like you’re going down a straight road with a few optional branching paths. The lack of any weapons that really stand out is also quite a downer, as everything just feels bland and uninspired.
This seems to be one of those cases where the game’s artistic vision clearly surpasses its technicalities. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, but yet, screenshots are not working for some reason. The soundtrack is also quite something to talk about, having a couple of very touching pieces that gave me Final Fantasy vibes, for some reason. Given that this is not really a game that I’d say to go right on ahead and buy it, but that it is also not something that you should scratch off your wishlist if you have nothing else to play, I’ll suggest you save it for later, and probably wait for a sale or to keep an eye out for any potential updates.