The word ‘Soulslike’, much like the word ‘Roguelike’, has become incredibly ubiquitous in recent years. With the dark horse success of From Software’s rewarding and punishing franchise, players and developers all over the globe have discovered their inner masochist. Maybe it was the perceived ‘hand-holding’ nature of modern gaming, what with their robust tutorials and streamlined control schemes. Maybe it was just the feeling of having actual consequences for dying in a game. For whatever reason, gamers enjoy dying. A lot.
But the funny thing about most Soulslikes: despite the fact that death tends to be the operative concept in just about every one of these games, it rarely actually acknowledges the concept of Death itself. Oh sure, there will be lots of talk about the cycle of rebirth. But Death itself rarely fits into the picture.
Which kinda sucks, because if Death’s Gambit is to be believed, Death is kind of a snarker.
What Is It?
Death’s Gambit is a 2D Action-RPG Platformer in the vein of From Software’s Dark Souls franchise. Developed by White Rabbit and published by Adult Swim Games (yes, THAT Adult Swim), it a new entry in the now growing subgenre of ‘Soulslikes’ games (and get ready, because you’re about to read that term a lot), especially those of a 2D pixel aesthetic.
As with those other games, you play a character who is a part of several different classes (I chose the role of a soldier, but other classes include casters, assassins, etc.), who is then given the task of traversing a harrowing and decaying landscape, filled with precarious platforms, vicious monsters, undead opponents, deadly traps, and the occasional Immortal. Each enemy has their own individual challenges and ways of overcoming them, sometimes simply requiring quick reflexes or an even more complicated strategy.
And, as is par for the course, you will die. A lot.
What’s It About?
As is the case with the Souls franchise (and this is a game that wears its influence on its sleeve), this is a world and a universe that reveals itself through exploration and immersion. At the beginning, all you are told is that you are Sorun, a commander of a battalion in a destructive conflict, one that has rendered yourself and your men dead. You wake up literally next to a pile of corpses, looking like Death warmed over. A draconic soldier (again literally–he’s a lizard person) with an enormous battle axe is the first to greet you, chiding you for ‘playing dead,’ and telling you that you should probably return to your home and share the news of your unit’s demise.
But as you can probably guess, you weren’t just ‘playing dead.’ You have in fact been resurrected by unknown forces, and the memory of much of the past battle has vanished. But it doesn’t take long for you to meet the (possible) source of your apparent resurrection: The big guy with the scythe himself, Death.
Yes, it’s the Grim Reaper with a horned skull head, dark majestic robes, and a fourth dimensional perspective on the Universe. He’s exactly what you would expect a primal force like Death would be: snarky, cynical, completely unimpressed by just about everything, and he really enjoys screwing around with Mortals and their lives.
That’s where you come in. Death decides to offer you a deal: He’ll give you the power over life and death itself, and in turn you must collect souls for Him. He’s especially seeking out the other Immortals of this World, whom only you can now kill. These Immortals include everything from the horrifying abomination called the Owl King, to a living suit of armor called the Bulwark.
Why Should I Care?
Considering that this game came out around the same time as another pixelated Soulslike Dead Cells, it was inevitable that the former would be compared to the latter. However, this comparison is patently unfair in a few key ways.
For one thing, the aesthetic is like night and day. Although both games are pixelated, what makes Death’s Gambit stand out is its diverse and elaborate setting. On foot or on horseback, you will finds ruins, dead technology, giant creatures, and the destructive effects of time and war everywhere you go. Every area has its own unique story to tell and its own series of things that are trying to kill you. Exploration is rewarded in this game via the discovery of stronger and more advanced items, and Tomes or books that contain information about the various bosses and mini-bosses you will encounter (as well as a damage boost).
There’s also the way the game mixes up the basic mechanics of a Soulslike. Most games of the subgenre will punish you for dying by taking away all of your souls (or whatever collectible used for upgrading) and returning you to where you last saved your progress, and leaving your collected souls where you fell. Death’s Gambit, however, switches this up: You don’t lose your souls when you die. Instead, you lose a Plume, a feather item that helps you regain your health points during battle. You can, of course, reclaim said Plume in the spot where you died. However, you can also sacrifice a certain number of souls (usually somewhere in the 200 range at the beginning) in order to regain all of the lost Plumes in one go. There is a careful balance needed, as these souls are also what you will use to upgrade your character.
You have five Plumes at the beginning, and you can sacrifice a plume to augment your attack power. You can always reset all of this at a save point at any time, throwing another bit of strategy into the mix. You’ll need it, to0. Just like any Soulslike worth its salt, the bosses are VERY difficult and can wreck you in a very short amount of time. You aren’t completely powerless, of course. Unlike most Soulslikes, your character can actually parry some of the attacks of your opponents, and in some cases you can even counter with a strong counterattack. But don’t think your opponents are stupid, because they also can dodge your attacks, and they will take any opportunity given to run you through.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
In most Soulslikes, death is just a glorified reset button that leaves you at a complete disadvantage. What sets Death’s Gambit apart from those other games is that in this case, death means story time. Every so often, a death will result in a vision. Sometimes, it’s a vision of your past, giving you some important story information about your character’s history, and can be as recent as the battle that massacred your unit, or your childhood being raised by your soldier older sister. Sometimes, it may be visions of the afterlife, filled with creepy dead trees, black skies and tittering demon faces mocking your existence.
But if there are any marks against this game, it’s the ones that are inherent to all games in this subgenre: depending on the player, the difficulty may just be too much. This is further complicated by the game’s two dimensional style. Whereas in Dark Souls, one is able to move in three dimensions and therefore have a greater plain of possible escapes, when reduced to the 2D plain, it makes dodging and escaping twice as difficult. The ability to block and parry does counterbalance this issue somewhat, but the enemy often has enough sense to work around it. I also encountered some control issues, with some button presses being not as intuitive as I would like (and in a Soulslike, that can mean the difference between life and death). And of course, there is my one major pet peeve with games in this subgenre: no pause feature.
But none of this really hurt my enjoyment with the game. Again, like other games in its area, Death’s Gambit is not for everyone. But if you are looking for another title to fulfill your lust for pain, then I can’t recommend this game enough.