Dark Souls has a lot to answer for. Since From Software’s cult RPG classic launched back in 2011, it’s spawned a legion of imitators. There have been straight Soulslikes (Lords of the Fallen, The Surge), 2D Soulslikes (Salt and Sanctuary, Hollow Knight) and even roguelike Soulslikes (Dead Cells). It’s not unreasonable to say that Dark Souls has had an incredibly significant cultural impact, so since its phenomenal success everyone has wanted to give the formula a try.
One of the games that lined up to have a crack at the Souls crown was last year’s Death’s Gambit. This game comes to us from developer White Rabbit, a small indie studio based in California. White Rabbit was apparently working on Death’s Gambit for quite some time before the game’s launch last year. The studio recently teamed up with publisher Skybound Games to bring a snazzy physical edition to the PS4, so now seems as good a time as any to take a look at this flawed gem.
Death’s Gambit places you in the shoes of Sorun, a warrior who is killed at the game’s outset. Sorun is brought back to life by Death and tasked with killing his world’s Immortals in return for a shot at immortality. When the game begins, it’s not clear why Sorun would take Death up on this offer or what stake he might have in living forever. As the plot unfolds, these questions do get answered, but whether you’re satisfied or not will depend on your tolerance for oblique ambiguity in storytelling.
Yes, Death’s Gambit is another one of those games. Dark Souls told its story through background world-building and ambient narrative craft. Each enemy and boss told a piece of the world’s history; even weapons and armour could be relied upon to impart a little information about their previous owners. Death’s Gambit strives for this kind of quiet lore-crafting but doesn’t quite get there. The game struggles to tie up its loose ends and often ends up feeling more confused than ambiguous.
It is, of course, not without its charms in the narrative department, although many of those charms are plundered wholesale from its larger cousin. A fair few of the characters and locations here feel like carbon copies of Dark Souls characters, only without the smart, witty writing and capable voice acting to bring them to life. At its worst, Death’s Gambit feels like an aimless wander around arbitrarily connected locations rather than a cohesive story told well.
It’s lucky, then, that Death’s Gambit is very rarely at its worst. Given the size of the development team and the scope of the project, this game is an impressive achievement. It’s effectively a 2D Soulslike Metroidvania at heart. The core gameplay loop is, of course, reminiscent of Dark Souls. When you arrive at each area, you’ll find a bonfire (sorry, “shrine”) to which you’ll return if you die. As you explore the level, you’ll unlock shortcuts which loop back to the shrine, making further exploration a little easier.
Each area culminates in a boss battle with one of several well-designed major nasties. Bosses in Death’s Gambit do feel a little like bullet sponges, and a few of them are tests more of your endurance than your skill. That said, they’re all extremely varied; no two bosses feel the same, and they’ll all require different approaches if you want to emerge victorious. There’s also a clever little system whereby Sorun can collect “tomes” throughout his world which make bosses weaker the more he collects by giving him info about them.
Death’s Gambit starts to come into its own when it deviates from the accepted Soulslike formula. There’s a rather jarring shift of tone when one medieval area abruptly becomes a sci-fi fortress, all glittery lights and beeping computers, but it’s intriguing and represents an unexpected left turn for the game. One boss uses a futuristic sniper rifle, forcing you to reassess the skill set you’ve been building throughout the game. In these moments, Death’s Gambit threatens to become a creature all its own.
There are some seriously excellent enemy designs in this game. Whether it’s the unsettling owls whose eyes move independently of one another or the giant moss-eaten colossus and his spry warrior sidekick, you’ll grow to love and hate these varied encounters in equal measure. The level design isn’t quite up to the task; far too often, Death’s Gambit falls back on the old “swinging axes above head” gambit (no pun intended). As arenas to facilitate the combat, the levels do just fine, though.
That combat really is the star of the show here. It’s a slow-paced Salt and Sanctuary-style affair involving lots of dodge-rolling and blocking. At the game’s outset, you’ll choose from a number of different character classes, each of which feels nicely varied and brings its own skills to the table. A few of the enemies feel a tad unbalanced – there’s one crystal-using enemy in particular that could have used some more work on the planning table – but for the most part, the combat has that same rewarding loop that Dark Souls had.
In many ways, that’s the final fate of Death’s Gambit: it’s a perfectly fine Dark Souls clone in 2D. Every time the game threatens to become something truly original or interesting, it loses its nerve and reverts to tracing the template’s outline. Death’s Gambit is extremely playable, and it’s usually fun. It’s not original and it’s not better than most of the games in its stable, but if you’re a fan of this kind of game you could definitely do a heck of a lot worse.