Let’s face it: the ‘Souls-like’ has essentially become a genre of its own which myriads of games are out to replicate. Why not too? I’m a big fan of FROM Software’s masterpiece series, so the more titles out there that play just like it the merrier for me.
After enjoying releases like Dead Cells and Salt and Sanctuary’s Switch release as of late, I’ve also got to try out Death’s Gambit from White Rabbit and Adult Swim. The game certainly isn’t shy with its Dark Souls inspiration and wears it like a badge of honour throughout, but at least it brings a decent adventure along with it – even if it doesn’t quite hit the high standards set by similar games in the genre. It does bring a giant fire-breathing dragon though, so yeah, who’s complaining?
Death’s Gambit puts you in the role of a customisable hero (you can decide which class you want to go and what trinket you start with) named Sorun who is leading an army into a land known as Aldwynn. Things go wrong though and he instead ends up meeting an untimely demise – not the best way to introduce yourself to the world, right? Well, luckily for Sorun, Death is willing to give him a second chance at life but on one condition: he destroys an artefact that grants immortality to whoever carries it. Seems a fair deal to me, though finding this artefact also means facing off against a host of deadly enemies…
It’s a really neat premise and the story is told well in-game, with plenty of different NPCs to meet that offer a brief and often convoluted view on the world and the events which are going on. Since you’re working for Death, you can expect to encounter him a lot during the story too – every time you die you’ll come across him for example. In a neat twist, the NPCs around the world also react to you dying and coming back, which certainly changes the pre-existing formula where you die and revive with no one batting an eyelid. It just makes the narrative feel all the more involving and real, and I certainly enjoyed seeing it through to its conclusion.
Gameplay-wise, Death’s Gambit plays just like a 2D Dark Souls. You’ll explore a wide range of gothic environments, all whilst unlocking shortcuts, pulling off some satisfying platforming manoeuvres, and taking down a variety of hard-hitting enemies in quick and deadly encounters. Combat itself is simple but slick, with plenty of different weapons to use as well as magical abilities to give you the upper hand over your foe. Whether taking on one of the many standard enemies you come across or one of the massive boss fights, combat always feels fun no matter what weapon or ability you equip yourself with. Everything is tied to a stamina meter though, so you have to balance out offensive and defensive manoeuvres all whilst ensuring that you don’t run out of energy.
This could be a little awkward though and I found that a few areas of the game (including boss fights) left me in a situation where I essentially didn’t have enough stamina to keep up with the action. There’d be certain attacks from enemies that’d demand you to balance everything out perfectly, almost to the point where one wrong move would leave you facing death. Alternatively, one boss fight in particular stood out when I found it impossible to avoid the string of attacks they sent my way with the limited stamina I had. It’s something you can improve upon the more you progress through the game, but there’s definitely a clear lack of balance in the level design as far as stamina is concerned during some parts of Death’s Gambit – it definitely left some deaths feeling like they might not necessarily have been due to some fault of your own. A lot of it could be down to the fact that you’re playing on a 2D plane and have a little less room to manoeuvre, though games like Salt and Sanctuary managed to nail it whilst still capturing the Dark Souls vibe so it doesn’t get a free pass.
When you do die in Death’s Gambit, you’ll be pleased to know you don’t lose all of your shards (the game’s equivalent of souls). However, in an interesting twist you’ll lose your healing items instead meaning you’ll have to return to your corpse if you want to be able to heal again. I quite liked how this worked in-game, especially after suffering the frustration of losing countless souls in the Dark Souls games and not being able to level up, and it’ll certainly ease the burden of death on gamers who are new to the franchise. You can also just purchase your healing items backs with your shards if you prefer too, so you don’t even have to commit to finding your remains if you don’t feel like it.
Much like any Souls-inspired game, one of the main highlights of Death’s Gambit comes with its boss battles. Your first encounter is against the gross yet humble-sized Owlking, but believe me, there’re some spectacular encounters throughout your journey with the game that’ll certainly blow you away. However, whilst all of the bosses look impressive, they were a bit of a mixed bag from a design standpoint. There were a few encounters which just felt a little bland to battle despite looking great, often thanks to the simplistic and formulaic moves you have to counter – alternatively, sometimes they just felt a little unfair, with attacks sent your way that were too difficult to avoid with the aforementioned stamina issues. Fortunately, there’re more entertaining boss encounters than poor ones so at least you’ll be left mostly satisfied with your showdowns with the world’s epic beasts.
One thing that’s worth mentioning is that you won’t be adventuring alone in Death’s Gambit, but also have a trusty steed by your side. You’ll need your horse to make your way through some of the game’s platforming sections, but it also comes in handy to get around the game’s locations quite quickly with it essentially acting a little bit like a fast-travel system. I actually loved having the horse in the game and whilst it’s not too heavily used during gameplay, its addition shows that Death’s Gambit doesn’t just rely on Dark Souls’ ideas but also has a few of its own too.
Visually, Death’s Gambit looks mighty impressive, with both its environments and character design coming together perfectly to make for a well-designed gothic setting. The sheer scale of the bosses and their grotesque looks impressive throughout, though the standard enemies themselves as well as the NPCs you encounter look great too. One thing that deserves commendation is just how well they’re all animated, with the game never failing to look slick when you’re in the heat of combat. It all comes together to make for an incredibly atmospheric world that’s a delight to be a part of.
I’d be remiss not to mention that I did come across a few technical issues during gameplay, with some stutters in the frame rate as well as problems with sound cutting out during my playthrough. These are minor issues in the grand scheme of things, though the frame rate bugging out during the occasional battle with a foe could be a pain when trying to time my actions perfectly. Still, in fairness these issues don’t cause too many problems, even if their presence is certainly noticeable.
With its enjoyable combat mechanics, its neat and original story, and its incredibly atmospheric setting, Death’s Gambit has all the pieces in place to make for a thoroughly enjoyable Souls-like experience. Unfortunately, some cumbersome instances of movement across the 2D plane along with a sketchy stamina system hold it back from greatness. They might not seem like too big of issues to read about, but in a game that demands absolute precision and finesse they certainly stand out.
Still, whilst Death’s Gambit might not be the best 2D Souls-like that’s available right now, there’s no denying that its dark and deadly adventure is a fun one that fans of the genre will certainly want to take a look at. It has its fair share of issues, but they don’t stop Death’s Gambit from being an enjoyable romp against hordes of vicious foes.
Developer: White Rabbit
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Format(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC