Death’s Gambit – When the Souls genre goes 2D

Posted on August 30, 2018

Death’s Gambit is a new side-scrolling action RPG from White Rabbit and Adult Swim Games. Borrowing heavily from the Dark Souls series, Death’s Gambit wears its inspiration proudly and boldly on its sleeve. From the crushingly difficult combat, to the dark fantasy aesthetic, right down to the character creation scree. Death’s Gambit manages to ask and answer the question “What would a 2D Dark Souls game be like?”.

Whilst the game may piggyback off of a previously well established franchise, it certainly doesn’t feel like a cheap copy. In fact the game plays and looks remarkably good, helping it to establish an identity of its own.

The game takes place in a grim and macabre fantasy world. You are an agent of Death who is cursed / blessed with the inability to die. Each time your body hits the ground, Death will return to resurrect you and put you back on your path. As a servant of Death, you find yourself doing his bidding and exploring a rich world full of characters and beasts alike. Your immortality isn’t just a gameplay gimmick but also built into the game’s narrative and addressed by the characters you come across. Deaths not only give you an opportunity to try again but they can also offer narrative exposition as your character taps in to memories during their period of re-awakening. These memories aren’t necessarily static either, allowing you to control your character and explore your own consciousness. It’s a really elegant system that feels dynamic and helps marry gameplay with narrative. Death of course is inevitable, since this is a Souls-like game, so to have death and resurrection be such a well thought out system is very clever.

Visually the game is stunning. The pixel art is beautifully crafted and actions are animated to perfection, giving the character and the world around him a great sense of flow and movement. Thematically everything just feels on point too. There’s a rich world to absorb yourself in, should you choose to do so. A fully voice acted cast goes a long way here as well, there’s a lot to love.

Death's Gambit screenshot

The game throws you into its world with a character creation screen incredibly reminiscent of Dark Souls. Choose your class, customise your look, and even choose the gift you want to take into the world with you. Shrines function as bonfires in this world and will not only act as your respawn point but are also the area you can level up your character and more. Whilst in the Souls games you lose some of your souls each time you die, Death’s Gambit changes things up a bit. Death’s Gambit will instead remove one charge of your refillable healing item upon death. That charge will remain on the map and can be collected by you at a later time. If you lose too many charges you can spend some of the game’s currency (used for levelling up and more) to refill your healing item. It’s a neat adaptation of the Souls system that manages to punish the player for death, yet not be so punishing that it induces rage. This is one way that Death’s Gambit manages to be more forgiving than its inspiration.

Combat in the game feels decently good. Your strikes may lack in a bit of visual power but everything is easily controllable and smooth. Animations once again play a big role in making not only combat but also platforming fun, elegant, and satisfying. Boss battles is where a lot of the game’s frustrations are going to lie, but in a good way. Towering enemies or incredibly quick foes can become overwhelming, although there’s always a tactic to take them down. Initially I felt the 2D perspective was quite limiting during these big battles, resulting in tactics as simple as ‘move right when enemy attacks left’. Although as you play, the game opens up new enemy attack patterns that really do help to overcome that limitation. I also loved the inclusion of tomes that when found give you a slight boost in damage against these bosses. It helped to encourage exploration which is always a big positive in my book.

I came across a few bugs in my playthrough that were unfortunate, but not hugely detrimental to my experience. My first boss bled out and died long after I myself had died, awarding me a very hollow and undeserved victory. Moments like this were unfortunate but thankfully few and far between. For the most part Death’s Gambit felt like a very complete and polished experience, and an experience I would certainly recommend for those looking to challenge themselves. The game is out now on PC and PlayStation 4.