The last couple years marked a large saturation of the “Metroidvania” class of games; 2D platformers that allow extreme freedom for the player to mark his or her own path. Through exploration, the player learns how to approach each situation uniquely, which areas to avoid, and how to take down fearsome bosses. Some of the recent titles have been lauded, including Salt and Sanctuary and Hollow Knight, just to name a couple. So, does the new Death’s Gambit match up to the high bar that has been set? Kind of, but not quite. While the title excels in certain areas, fundamental issues stop the game from reaching a high bar.
Death’s Gambit embraces the current indie movement of games, going with a low-res style of construction. The main playable character wears a black and yellow armor set and has weapons which change in appearance, but not much else. The enemy models are decent. Some of the monsters have a cool appearance to them, such as the wolves and giant dwarf-like enemies in Obsidian Vale, and the fast ninjas are unique, but the majority of the world is awash in the basic soldier and archer model.
Bosses such as the Bulwark have a very classic knight appearance, while Thalamus takes things in a very different and exciting direction. Death’s Gambit shines the brightest when the area opens up to a larger scene or boss, smoothing out the frame rate and letting you appreciate the scale. Several of the moments reminded me of great set-pieces similar to Sundered.
As of this writing, Death’s Gambit has two major concerns with the graphics. Please note, as this review is still very early in the game’s lifespan, the problems could just be unique to me. First, the game is only playable in windowed mode. In my first sitting, I played Death’s Gambit with the traditional full screen, and could not understand why everything was on fast-forward. I found out through reading Steam forums that the game plays in 2x speed while in full screen. That realization clicked for me when I watched other game content on YouTube and the game looked smooth.
Once I dropped the settings to windowed mode, the game became playable again. This is a relatively major annoyance. Second, the game suffers from noticeable tearing. While running through the hub area, large creases are seen down the bottom of the screen. Other areas share the same issue. Again, I wish I could say this is just a small issue, but it is not.
Gameplay and Story
(After sorting out the windowed mode issue, I was able to fully experience how Death’s Gambit is meant to be played.)
When you begin your game, you are treated to the very traditional character creation screen. Unfortunately, no cosmetic changes can be made to the main character; he is fully implemented in a static manner during the regular game. The player can choose from Soldier, Assassin, Blood Knight, Wizard, Noble, Sentinel, and the Acolyte of Death. Each class compliments how you normally prefer to play a game. I decided to play as a Blood Knight as they are given a unique power that restores health when damaging the enemy, using a mechanic from Bloodborne. I have focused strictly on building Vitality, Strength, and Endurance. Using heavy swords and shields has allowed me to stay close to enemies and do serious damage, and in my early guess, this is the best way to play Death’s Gambit.
As for the combat, the experience is relatively hit or miss. Some of the enemies have telegraphed moves which make for a fair fight, others have attacks that come out of nowhere, making things impossible to dodge. Normally, you will see a skull appear on the ground to reveal attacks coming from the mage enemies; however, some have a weird squiggly line that appears for a millisecond, making things impossible to see. Some bosses can provide really thrilling experiences including the Bulwark, others are just a matter of swinging away and praying you can outlast the damage.
Overall, if I had to put a word to describe the overall combat experience, I would call it uneven. The aforementioned Hollow Knight and Salt and Sanctuary are buttery-smooth, Death’s Gambit is herky-jerky. The game really shines when the arena opens up and the graphics catch up a little, and in my playing so far, I wish that happened more. There is still time, however, as I have not fully experienced everything.
Abilities and Talents in Death’s Gambit played an extremely minor role in my run through of the game, and that disappointed me greatly. I found the best way to progress involved timing my regular attacks well and rolling/jumping constantly. For my strength build, the abilities require a long wind-up, which does not work against the fast-moving enemies in the game.
Once you do enough damage to opponents, your meter builds up and allows you to use your ability. I do not have any problem with the mechanic; it requires you to use abilities wisely. The big problem for me was just a general lack of interest. Talent points are earned every time you beat a boss, and you have several “trees” to allocate these points. None of the talents do much of anything. The percentage bonuses earned from your choices made little difference in the game.
The world is pretty small, but you have the freedom to go where you’d like. I worked my way towards the right side of the map, backtracked up and down, and found the challenge to be pretty fair. Leveling up is very friendly; you do not lose your “souls” upon death. The downside to the system was in the allocation of the points. As a strength build, I only worried about 2-3 categories at most. In the Souls series, you had so many different ways to approach your character, but the builds are limited in Death’s Gambit. Many Steam users pointed out that your endurance drops off way too fast, and I somewhat agree. In the early going, deciding to roll or attack will be the difference in success. As I leveled up endurance, I found the experience easier and more favorable.
The story will likely require a few playthroughs to understand what is going on. You play as Sorun, who for some odd reason is the only character without voice acting. In the style of the SoulsBorne series, there are conversations about immortality, memories, death, the whole ball of wax. Some of the writing is pretty clever, the voice acting works fairly well, and the flashbacks are well done. In games like Death’s Gambit, the action takes center stage for me. I am sure the lore and story will all click later after people throw in their two cents.
The save system shares some similarities to the bonfire system but allows the player to be riskier. In the Souls‘ world, the player would feel the sheer terror and nervousness of trying to traverse the punishing world to find their next respite at a bonfire; I never really felt that concern in DG. Save shrines are dotted generously throughout the world, and the map is small enough that you will not have to run 5-10 minutes to get back to your last location. The system works relatively well for players who do not enjoy punishing difficulty. Finally, I really enjoyed the soundtrack. Everything hit the right mood for each location, and I did not once find myself begging for the music to stop.
In 2018, the gamer has a myriad of platformers to choose from. Death’s Gambit entered into the fray with relatively high expectations and did a decent job hitting some of those. While I spent a lot of this review picking out things that made my experience less enjoyable, I liked what Death’s Gambit brought to the table. Underneath the graphical issues and less-than-smooth flow, a solid experience can be had. Over time, I expect the game to be updated and given a nice finish to improve the noticeable bugs. In the early going, the good comes with the bad.
If this is your first time stepping into the world of Souls-like platformers and the Metroidvania style in general, I would recommend some other games first. Salt and Sanctuary, Dead Cells, Hollow Knight, and even the underrated Sundered provide a better experience. Coming from those games, I felt the noticeable difference compared to Death’s Gambit. However, if you are like me and have experienced those games already and wanted a new challenge, Death’s Gambit is a solid choice if you can overcome some issues. The large set pieces are fantastic, the soundtrack works well, the combat is generally enjoyable beyond some issues, and the story moves things along nicely.