Death’s Gambit is a new Souls-like Metroidvania, a 2D side-scroller with plenty of style and horror weaved throughout the story. On paper, this sounds like the perfect combination, but the game feels like it’s missing something plus it’s hampered by performance issues, in an otherwise enjoyable game.
Death’s Gambit has an intriguing gothic story that tells the tale of Sorun, a Knight who was unfortunately killed on a mission to Siradon and taken away by the Grim Reaper. Death then brings Sorun back to life to bring a balance of life and death to the world by destroying the source of the immortal beings’ power. The story starts off strong, but it never really gets going in the way you would want it to.
This is essentially made up of two types of games, Souls, and Metroidvania. The former has a rich history of environmental storytelling, with artifacts you can find around the place, which manage to fill in the gaps of the story. Death’s Gambit does a good job with the storytelling thanks to it’s flashbacks and dreams. Although the story-telling is welcome, sometimes the context could be misplaced and I wasn’t 100% sure when the story beat was taking place. It may have been a matter of getting used to the characters and the narrative, but sometimes I felt like I lost my place and was a little confused about what was going on.
The visual style of Death’s Gambit is one of the strongest points of the game. I am a sucker for the pixel art 16-bit style, but the sheer amount of detail here is impressive. This is a great-looking game and reminded me of another great pixel art hack & slash adventure from earlier in 2021 called Narita Boy. This is 16-bit in style, but there’s a depth and quality to the pixel art rarely found and it’s perfect for this type of game.
The environments, much like the story-telling, are gothic and bleak but also not the major strong point of the game. Whereas a game like Metroid Dread will direct through the landscape effortlessly, here in Death’s Gambit the levels feel fairly linear, with optional side paths with enemies to find and kill. You can quite easily miss hidden paths that will lead to an item or an upgrade, and if you do miss out on something like this then progressing in the game is going to be much slower and harder, on top of an already tough game. It’s probably not fair to compare to something like Metroid, which is the master of the genre (and one half of the name Metroidvania), however, this is an example in the genre where you sometimes hit a brick wall and don’t know what to do.
Death’s Gambit is a beautiful-looking game, with good combat and an interesting story, however, sometimes it can feel lacking in terms of where to go and what to do. Ideally, the game should nudge you in the right direction and provide the tools and hints on what to do. Sometimes in Death’s Gambit, you come across massive increases in difficulty, which feel a little out of place. Death’s Gambit does direct you, but often you are directed into the path of the higher difficulty, rather than slowly ramping up, allowing the player to hone their craft before hitting the big difficulty spike.
Although the game looks like a Metroidvania, it probably shares more DNA with a Souls game. The platforming, 2D visuals remind me of the best of Castlevania, however, the combat and the undirected nature of the game feels more like a Souls game. For example, Sorun’s attacking and blocking are limited by an endurance meter, which means you can’t necessarily rush into battle, otherwise, you will get creamed quite quickly.
Combat in Death’s Gambit feels satisfying, with different weapons mixing up the combat style. Fighting in the game does require some precision and some weapons are better than others for this, but there’s a decent array of weapons. If you don’t like one in particular, then switch things up and see how you get on with something else.
As you progress through the game you’ll level up Sorun and his abilities, mainly adding new strength capabilities allowing you to be more effective in combat. One thing that felt a little lacking was the ability to bolster defenses. On one hand, this teaches you to be cautious in battle, although as you progress up through the levels it can feel like your power is being hampered. Yes, you can strike harder, but you still feel like you are using a paper shield when an enemy attack. After defeating enemies you’ll earn shards, and these, in turn, are used to level up Sorun, or used with various shopkeepers, which reminded me of Hollow Knight.
Sorun carries around Phoenix Plumes, which are used to heal yourself. Sorun can only use this ability a couple of times, and then the meter can be refilled when you find a statue of Death. As well as healing, Phoenix Plumes serve as a method for getting stronger too. For example, if you reach a statue of Death and you haven’t used your Phoenix Plumes then these can be traded to make yourself stronger, which is a nice twist on the regular formula. This is one of the times where Death’s Gambit does an excellent job on a tried and testing gameplay mechanic.
Death’s Gambit is an interesting souls-like Metroidvania with plenty of ambition but unfortunately lacks a little in the execution. The visuals are stunning, and the gameplay is fun and engaging for the opening hours. Unfortunately, this fades away as you get deeper into the game. I can see what the developers were trying to do here, but unfortunately, it’s not quite pulled off, and the game is let down a little with unsatisfactory performance on Nintendo Switch. The Metroidvania genre is filled with gems, so the competition is strong, and unfortunately, Death’s Gambit doesn’t quite measure up to its competitors.
Developer: White Rabbit
Publisher: Serenity Forge
Platforms: Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 14th August 2018