Death’s Gambit is a game that released a few years ago but didn’t get a whole lot of attention, because while it wasn’t a bad game, it felt like a very average one due to being underwhelming in a lot of ways.
Well, apparently the devs took that critique quite seriously, as now the game has been rebuilt from the ground up and re-released with a massive upgrade in the form of the Afterlife expansion. If you already have Death’s Gambit, it’s FREE! So let’s look on at how a game that I felt was ‘okay but nothing great’ has now become a must play.
GENRE: Soulslike Metroidvania
Also available for PS4 and Switch digitally!
Death’s Gambit is a combination of two of my favorite genres, so of course back when it first came out I was interested. yes, I was underwhelmed at the fact for a Soulslike Metroidvania it was a bit on the short side. It didn’t do things nearly as well as a somewhat similar Metroidvania known as Hollow Knight, but it had a good foundation. The problem was as good as the foundation was on Death’s Gambit, it felt like they took a one acre foundation and only built on a quarter of it. But apparently the devteam decided that was enough reason to go back and overhaul the game, expanding its map significantly, adding new content, new Metroidvania styled upgrades in the form of things like a double jump and airdash, and overhauling the entire game.
But I think we’re getting a bit ahead here, so let’s start off with the beginning of the game, and then go into what makes it a blending of two genres. You play as Sorun, a recently deceased soldier sent on a futile expedition to claim the Immortal Source, a relic that grants the power to grant eternal life and rebirth after death to the one who holds it. I say “Futile expedition” because no one has ever made it to the citadel where the Source even lies. Typically those who try to reach it die as soon as they set foot in the kingdom housing said citadel, and Sorun is no exception. After a brief bit of character creation (Choosing a class and a starting item, Dark Souls style) you discover Sorun died shortly after setting foot in said kingdom, but…He was given a second chance at life by none other than Death himself. Death has granted Sorun the same immortality and rebirth from demise the Source offers, in exchange for destroying the source so that Death can properly do his job again.
But like any proper game, accomplishing Sorun’s goal will be anything but easy. For one, actually reaching the Citadel will require fighting through a lot of things that want you dead…Or at least to give up since you can’t permanently die. Like any good Metroidvania, this means exploring a vast interconnected world, discovering upgrades to reach new areas with each one you find. What is a bit different about Death’s Gambit is how fast you tend to get these upgrades: If you know where to go, you can have the ability to traverse almost the entire map within the first hour by finding all your essential abilities for exploring the map. “Now hang on a sec, if you can find all your exploration upgrades that fast, that makes it sound like there’s not a lot to see.” Well, that’s true if you stick to the main path the entire time. The beauty of Death’s Gambit is that while you get a lot of your exploration abilities like a Double Jump very early on, there’s a lot to do *after* you find those abilities. There’s three “keys” you need to find to open the way to the Citadel, and there’s several completely optional areas as well that have all kinds of useful loot to help you along your way. So while you might be able to go just about anywhere shortly into the game, you still have a choice in how to proceed due to the non-linear aspect that opens up once you have your upgrades, plus entire areas that are completely optional but offer their own rewards. At first I thought it was a design flaw that you get all your navigational stuff so fast, but then I realized that’s just so you can get to the good part of a Metroidvania sooner: The moment you *can* explore most of the map and re-explore old areas to find new things. And with several areas being optional and hiding their own secrets, there’s plenty to see even after you’ve found your last exploration based ability, so there’s plenty of incentive to look around, and I absolutely love that aspect of this game.
Make no mistake though, this is a Metroidvania that wants you dead, but does give you the tools to survive the harsh world it puts you in. Much like Dark Souls, you’ll find death (The concept of, not the Reaper himself) lurks around every corner and is ready to end you at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, you are given quite a few tools to keep yourself alive, and that’s where the game starts to set itself apart from other Souls-likes in a lot of ways. First, let’s go over what *is* like Dark Souls, then we’ll go over what’s different. So, like Dark Souls, you have a stamina meter that is consumed by attacking, blocking attacks with a shield, or dodge rolling. You have several key stats that influence your character that you level up point by point by spending the game’s currency, which you earn by killing enemies. You’ll also find equipment that can help define your build by providing bonus stats and other useful effects, although it isn’t the sole thing that defines your build like in Dark Souls. You also have Death Statues which act as your checkpoints: Resting at them restores the use of your healing item (Plumes) and allows you to level up, but it also respawns most enemies you kill. And that’s where the similarities end.
For one, in Death’s Gambit, your class selection is actually a *very* big deal, because it isn’t just a simple character template. Every class in Death’s Gambit gets its own Talent Tree, with various passive and active skills on it being unlocked via Talent Points you’ll gain from boss fights, as well as be able to find the world just lying around, or even in shops. You have both a universal set of talents, as well as a class specific tree that differs between each class, and on top of that, each class also gets some kind of bonus or perk unique to them. The Blood Knight can recover health if they deal damage with an Ability (we’ll get into those) shortly after taking damage, while an Acolyte has the ability to repair damaged Death Statues to add additional checkpoints to the world that no other class can make use of. And to make build choices even more interesting, you also get to pick a Subclass and use its Talent Tree on top of your main class, although you won’t get the special/unique passive of your subclass, which means you can’t have both the Ability healing of a Blood Knight and the Statue repair of an Acolyte. Having classes actually be a meaningful choice however is something I actually welcome because it makes character building all the more interesting, since there’s plenty of possibilities between all these classes and how you mix and match them.
Combat is also fairly different from Dark Souls in a lot of ways. While the stamina based system is one we’ve all come to know and love, there’s much more depth to Death’s Gambit because of all the extra things it has on top, Abilities being the big one. Abilities are fancy skills you can use that can be simple buffs, or special attacks used with specific weapon types, such as a powerful leaping strike with a longsword, or a powerful piercing arrow that strikes everything in front of you from a bow. But you can’t just spam these Abilities at will, as they both have cooldowns and also need a special Soul Energy resource to be used. How do you get Soul Energy? Primarily by dealing damage, but every class also has their own unique twist on Soul Energy, such as being able to gain it by blocking, gain it by taking damage, or getting a cost discount on their abilities. This ties back into how important class choice is and how many build options exist because of it. Soul Energy also drains slowly over time, so you can’t just stock it and hold onto it indefinitely, you have to use it within a certain period of getting it. As a result, this is a game where a certain level of aggression is needed, as just waiting and waiting may result in you having no Soul Energy to use your Abilities with. On top of this, many Abilities are weapon specific, meaning your weapon choice can be a major factor in a build as it determines what Abilities you have access to, with each weapon having its own playstyle that is further defined by its unique abilities. Axes offer a very aggressive setup, with Abilities that let you strike multiple foes from afar with a thrown axe, and also increase the Soul Energy you gain per hit landed. Longswords, on the other hand, offer a powerful lunge that also boosts the damage your sword deals for a set period, as well as being able to bleed your foes for damage over time. Another twist on the formula is that while you can equip two weapons at once, you can also opt to only equip one weapon and gain access to a secondary attack on it in exchange. So if you find you prefer using one weapon, you gain an extra option with it as a result, although mixing up two weapons also means you can use multiple weapon ability types at the same time. It’s all this which makes me love the combat of Death’s Gambit, because it makes Dark Souls look surprisingly simple by comparison due to all the tools you have at your disposal.
Defense also has its own twists compared to Dark Souls. While you have your typical shield for blocking, and dodge roll for evading, as well as a parry for those who have a good sense of timing, there’s a few extra tools you can use to keep Sorun going in a rough fight. For one, the airdash you gain early on also provides some invincibility similar to a dodge roll, on top of giving you a way to quickly reposition while off the ground. Your shield is also unique in defense due to parrying being one of two methods of timed defense: the other being the Perfect Block. A Perfect Block simply means guarding just before you get hit, which has more forgiving timing than the parry which leaves you open if done too early. And each of these timed defenses has its own reward too: A Perfect Block will allow you to unleash a wide range counter-attack that can hit both your enemy and those surrounding it, while a Parry only lets you heavily damage the enemy you parried with its followup, but said followup attack also heals you. This adds a significant amount of weight and choice to blocking: Do you go for the safer Perfect Block since you still stop the hit if you do it early, or do you risk a parry knowing doing it too early will result in you taking damage, but will let you heal if you pull it off? It’s just another way Death’s Gambit builds off its Souls influence, and I absolutely love it.
Not content with just changing up how the combat works, death and healing are also radically different in Death’s Gambit compared to other Soulslikes. Phoenix Plumes are your healing item that restores uses when you rest at a Statue, but there’s a twist: You find special Plumes you equip throughout the world that alter the behavior of your Plume, making even your healing method a major part of your build, with effects like temporarily removing dodge stamina costs when you heal, making your heal temporarily improve your damage resistance, buffing a stat, and soforth. You can also opt to augment your Plumes while resting, where for each Plume you augment, that Plume cannot heal you, but instead gives you a permanent boost to all damage you deal. Augmenting itself isn’t permanent though, so you can freely reserve Plumes when you feel comfy, and un-reserve them when you feel you need more healing. Death is also different in that you do not lose any of your precious currency used to level up and buy items when you die. Instead, you drop one of your Plumes at the site of your death and have to reclaim it to be able to use it again, although you can pay a cost equal to one level up to reclaim a plume without having to grab it yourself if you find it’s impossible to get back to. Dying again does not forfeit the plume you already lost either, it just means you drop another plume, so now you have more than one you need to go relclaim or spend your currency on to get it back. What I really like about this twist on the formula is that you aren’t nearly as heavily punished for taking risks, as you only suffer a temporary loss in your healing resources, instead of permanently losing valuable resources you need to level up.
Back when this game launched, I did find one of its biggest highlights were the boss battles, my complaint at the time was that it felt like the bosses were the focus, with the areas between them being an afterthought due to how short they were. Thanks to Afterlife massively expanding the map and adding new areas, this no longer feels like it’s the case. There’s lots of places to explore between each boss encounter, with the bosses, both old and new, still being the highlight of the game, but not detracting from the other aspect of it, the Metroidvania. That said, the bosses are absolutely fantastic, and much like the rest of Death’s Gambit, seek to do their own thing to set them apart from the influence of Souls.
The biggest thing about bosses in Death’s Gambit is that the majority of them have their own unique mechanics to deal with, on top of many having multiple phases (denoted by marked notches in their healthbar) that may also have their own mechanics on top of it. Mechanics can range from status afflictions, to add phases, to having to take specific actions beyond simple dodging to avoid taking a massive chunk of damage, and this is all on top of every boss being the Soulslike tried and true formula of learning their attacks and patterns, and finding openings to exploit in them to deal damage.
But then Death’s Gambit throws yet another amazing curveball in how it extends the game: Heroic Rematches. Like you, bosses are immortal, meaning they will come back from death. While defeating a boss means you never actually have to fight it again, you can choose to interact with an object in each boss arena after your initial victory to revive that boss and engage in a rematch with it: But that boss has learned from its past fight with you and will have new abilities on top of increased HP and damage, and typically new phases and mechanics on top of those it already had. This means the boss you thought you mastered has to be re-learned all over again. And these rematches aren’t just for the fun of it, as each Heroic Rematch offers special loot upon victory, and may have other influences on your run depending on how many bosses you can overcome the Heroic versions of. And every single boss of the game’s significant roster of 19 (at the time of this review) has a Heroic Rematch (Aside from one bonus boss), meaning you’ll have quite the task on your hands if you decide you want to overcome each and every one of their Heroic versions.
And finally, like any good Soulslike, there is of course a Newgame+ mode where you get to play a harder version of the game while keeping your levels and equipment, but losing key items and your exploration abilities to ensure you can’t just skip to the end of the game. But much like everything else, there’s a twist, and while it’s simple in this case, it’s still a welcome one. Rather than going to each incrementing difficulty as you clear the current loop of Newgame+, you get to choose which loop you begin your next run on. So if you’re feeling especially masochistic, you can immediately go to the hardest loop of Newgame+ after you finish the game once. And with three different endings, each having their own endgame area and final boss, you’ll absolutely want to play through this game more than once, I can assure you.
Whew, with all that gameplay out of the way, I do want to talk about the game’s other great selling points, that being the art and sound that makes it up. Death’s Gambit is all pixel art, and it’s all absolutely gorgeous. Each area has its own unique look and feel, not relying entirely on a tiled setup like most Metroidvanias, which makes every place truly feel unique and special in its own way. You aren’t just going through a bunch of rooms sharing the same tileset, as each room feels hand crafted and unique, in some cases with as much detail in the background as in the foreground. While the animation quality differs from character to character, with larger enemies typically having less frames than your character, everything’s still smooth enough that every encounter ends up being a visual treat.
The music is also fantastic, with a combination of orchestral, ambient, and other pieces that also help give each area in Death’s Gambit its own identity, as well as each boss. The soundtrack of Death’s Gambit is an absolute joy to listen to, because while it doesn’t necessarily try to do anything bold or new, it does what it sets out to do, and that’s provide a great musical accompaniment to your adventure and your struggles.
Also, the voice acting is top notch stuff, with each character given their own proper sense of personality and self through their voicework: But no one does it better than Death himself, voiced by Matthew Mercer. Death is a very sarcastic individual, who can be serious when needed, but is more than happy to playfully mock you when you’ve died several times, or drop some unexpected lines when you run into him in a rather unconventional situation, of which there are quite a few. Mercer clearly had fun being the voice of Death, and it shows in all of his deliveries. I never thought the Reaper would be someone I’d want to hang out with, but I would absolutely love to be bros with Mercer’s version of Death.
What we get from all of this is a game that, while clearly inspired by Dark Souls, doesn’t just use its formula one to one, but does several of its own things on top of that formula to create something that actually has its own identity in a sea of games that try to copy Souls. At the end of the day, that’s what made me respect this game so much at launch: How much it tried to do to set itself apart from one of the games it took inspiration from by building off the base. And with all the improvements that have come with the Afterlife expansion such as the improved Talent Trees and new areas to explore, on top of an entirely new endgame and massively expanded ending, Death’s Gambit really has gone from ‘just okay’ to ‘absolute must play’ in my book. Will Death’s Gambit appeal to every Metroidvania fan? Probably not, as its Soulslike influence does make it more challenging than most, but if you are okay with a challenge in your Metroidvania, or if you’re just a Souls fan in general? This is a game I strongly recommend, especially since it may have been overlooked a few years back prior to its absolutely stellar upgrade in the form of the Afterlife expansion.