Death’s Gambit, simply put, is a great scratch to that Souls-borne itch. From its clever world building to its elegant soundtrack that carries you like leaves on a breeze through a dark fantasy world. This game delivers a solid challenge while also telling an intriguing story, and strikes a good balance between the Souls-lite and Metroidvania genres.
In a world of ever-growing Souls-like games, and the resurgence of Metroidvanias, it has become continuously more and more difficult to give fans of the genre(s) something they haven’t seen or done before. Death’s Gambit does with the Dark Souls formula what Shadow of War did with the Assassin’s Creed one. You take the framework of an established genre and mold that into something that, while familiar, can still stand on its own as a great game. From the very start of the game, that Souls-like inspiration is worn proudly its sleeves. The character creation allows you to choose the type of class the main character, Soren, is going to be. You can’t edit how he looks, but the beginning stats and perks of how he gains soul energy are up to you. Each class starts him with a specific weapon and changes how Soul energy (mana basically) is gained.
Death’s Gambit is honestly an easier Souls game. Yes, some of the bosses hit hard and can be a challenge, but it isn’t nearly as hard as Bloodborne or Nioh. While this might sound like a bad thing, which I’m sure it will be for the hardcore fans of the genre, it makes this game way more accessible for newcomers who might not be as experienced with a Souls game. Basically, if there is a boss giving you trouble, grind a few levels, upgrade your weapons and armor and instantly you’ll see a difference in difficulty.
For example, for whatever reason, I was having issues with The Last Gaian. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t beat him. I went off and explored more, unlocked a new area and some NPC’s, which let me upgrade my armor and weapons, and just like that I was able to smoke him. So much so that it left me wondering why the fight had given me issues to begin with. After which time I went on to slay two more bosses first try without breaking much of a sweat.
Yes, as a Souls game this might make Death’s Gambit considered to be a little “easy”, but honestly, if that means allowing more players to get into the genre then so what? Personally, it makes this game more accessible and that’s never a bad thing. Yes, part of the enjoyment out of a Souls game is the challenge, there is still a challenge here, there’s just an easier way of overcoming it.
Where Death’s Gambit takes things into its own hands is through the story. Every so many deaths you’ll get a cut-scene that gives you more insight into Soren’s past. The first few times it happens, it caught me off guard. It leaves you constantly wondering what will happen and when and adds a new intrigue to the concept of death in this game. Items still give you lore about the world you’re exploring, but the story this time around is much more upfront and way less convoluted. This was yet another pleasant surprise.
Soren is a knight that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He meets his death during a siege and becomes the tool of Death himself. Death makes him a deal, immortality in return for services, more specifically, storming the city and ridding it of the contraption that is seemingly turning everyone into hideous creatures. To add to the story, every NPC in this game is nothing less than intriguing to talk to. The voice acting is fantastic, and the NPC’s feel like fleshed out people, not just randomly placed sprites that sell you shit. Each NPC peddles a specific set of abilities and after completing a few areas your central HUB turns into a Mecca where you can truly make Soren the character you want him to be.
While the game starts you with a specific weapon, that doesn’t mean you need to stick with it for the entirety of the game. As long as you have the proper points allocated to the required perk(s), you can use whatever weapon you like. On top of that, each weapon has abilities that can be purchased and assigned to a button that lets you deal some serious damage, assuming you have the soul energy for it.
Having said that, I did find myself using the weapon I started with for a majority of the game. Yes, I juggled a few throughout my playthrough but I mainly stuck with my one-handed axe. There is an NPC you can save and they will upgrade your armor and weapons for a price. Instead of using Soul shards to level up you can use them to jack your equipment, and I highly recommend doing that as soon as possible, because it instantly makes you a force to be reckoned with.
This is where some minor issues come in. Death’s Gambit, for starters, has a steep difficulty curve. This is usually how Souls games work, but as I previously stated, after some grinding and a few bosses that difficulty seemingly disappeared. This issue is minor, solely because I don’t see everyone having a problem with it. The game is enjoyable, some might just get bummed out after the challenge is taken out of it. Another issue is the janky frame rates. If one thing is consistent in this game it’s how inconsistent the frame rate is, which is confusing considering it’s a pixelated game running on a powerhouse console. Some of the animations are a little lacking as well, which was also confusing considering how highly detailed the sprites are.
While I’m on the subject, the artwork in this game is some of the best pixel art I’ve ever seen. The characters so closely resemble their dialogue portrait counterparts it’s uncanny. The level of detail poured into this 2D world is nothing short of impressive and is easily some of the best pixel art I’ve seen. So it can be a slight let down when things like the awful horse animation clashes with the gorgeous art around it.
Continuing the animation issues is the fact that this rolls over into the combat. The combat is fluid, but again, some of the animations can be misleading. More times than not, I was hit by an attack I was certain I was out of range for. While some of this falls victim to the 2D visuals, some of the damage I received felt like I shouldn’t have received it, unless every enemy can plausibly swing their weapon all the way around their bodies without moving a muscle. This, however, is just a learning curve. It’s how the game is and just like with understanding hit-boxes in other games, you need to adjust to the odd, improbable physics of this one.
Another issue I had was the taxing drain on stamina. Yes, true to a Souls game stamina costs need to be taken into consideration. However, Death’s Gambit can feel almost unfair with how much stamina things cost. Granted there is a perk or skill that can be upgraded specifically for increasing stamina and another that increases how quickly stamina regenerates. That all being said, one those should have been combined, and two they should have been tweaked so they didn’t feel like so much of a hindrance.
Finally, there is a lack of risk/reward which some might find takes away from the “Soul-like” element of the game. When you die you leave a phoenix feather behind. Think of them as Estus Flasks, you only have a certain amount and they only replenish after resting at one of Death’s idols. This, however, is the ONLY thing left behind when you die. The soul shards you acquire stay with you, and that takes away from the risk and reward aspect that so strongly defines the genre. You can pay souls to get those feathers back, and every time you do, the cost to do it again goes up. There came a point where I just stopped trying to collect them and just went on my way.
Or waited until I had an excess of soul shards and just spent them to gain them back. I never got the same kind of anxiety I had with similar Souls-likes when you go into an area or boss fight carrying a hefty sum of souls on you. Again, I’m sure this aspect will come down to personal opinion as well.
Overall, Death’s Gambit is a worthy addition to the genre, even if it is more on the easy-side of the spectrum. With a great story, a fantastic set of characters to interact with, and fun, beautiful settings to explore there is something here for any fan of Souls games. The soundtrack is a must have vinyl as well, if you collect those kinds of things. Seriously, it’s a great score. With the low price point and highly enjoyable gameplay, I strongly recommend giving this one your time.