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Death’s Gambit Review: Death is Your New Best Friend

Death’s Gambit proves to be a challenging and frustrating adventure.

Much like Salt and Sanctuary, Death’s Gambit does not hesitate to show where it draws inspiration from. A Dark Souls homage through and through, you’ll be beaten, tested, confused, and equally enchanted. But for all the wonderful boss fights and intense battles, there are moments where the game feels like it has lost its sense of direction.

As much as I love anything Souls-inspired, Death’s Gambit only delivers a partial package of that feeling. Through all the ups and downs, however, the game does manage to excite and entertain when at its peak. There is a powerful story underneath the blood and bruises this world dishes out to you. The journey, in the end, is worth taking.

The pain of immortality

You are Sorun. A fallen warrior who has been brought back to life by Death, and given a contract that ensures you will not die (permanently, that is) if you carry out the deed of destroying the source of the immortal’s powers that lie in the world ahead. Death becomes your companion, a mentor in a way. Occasionally, when you fall to an enemy in battle, Death will transport you into a memory or vision. He doesn’t offer much guidance there, but you’re able reveal more of the story and uncover what Sorun truly wants. Death’s Gambit weaves an altogether interesting tale, and the unfolding of it is markedly one of the better points of the game for sure.

In Death’s Gambit, the  bosses remember you. Should you die to them in combat – which I imagine you will, several times over – they will remark about your persistence and how frustrating it is that you won’t die. NPCs you interact with will also make comments about the mystical nature of Sorun. It’s a very nice touch that makes the game’s world that much more immersive. There is even a little secret you can find that tracks your deaths in a very… tragic sort of way. Because death is such a frequent event, it’s nice to see it be rewarded in some ways. When the blades are flying and your health is dwindling, you start to feel like you just don’t want this next death to be meaningless. Every now and then, Death’s Gambit makes death a little more meaningful.

Traversing the world: combat and platforms

There isn’t much density to the game’s combat. Pick from a varied selection of starter classes for your preferred playstyle, but know that any class can obtain and use other class’ weapons so long as they have proper attributes. I opted for the Acolyte of Death at first, but went back and ran through with the Blood Knight; I wanted the extra Bloodborne feeling with the health regen system.

Combat is challenging, but also stale at times. Enemies hit hard and bosses hit much harder. It isn’t until you’re deep into the world, however, that you start to encounter enemies that truly shake up how you must approach combat. Early on, most enemies will stagger with a few hits, making combat a breeze. The parry system works on almost all enemies and even bosses, so mastering that proves useful. The thing with Death’s Gambit is that there seems to be no in-between in terms of enemy placement. You’re either absolutely swamped, or have it easy. When you are tested, you are almost unfairly so. But, I suppose, that makes victory sweeter sometimes.

As you progress, you can purchase and/or unlock new active and passive skills, some of which are weapon specific. Death’s Gambit’s skill system is great because it encourages aggression, which I like. You must attack enemies to fill a meter that grants the use of special abilities. Death’s Gambit, much like the games that inspired it, does not reward complacency. Only the most fearless and ferocious will prevail, unless you choose to be a spellcaster. Then you can just chill.

Between each enemy encounter, you’ll have quite a bit of platforming to do, which is one of the weakest areas of the game. Your character has very limited mobility and your jumps cover little distance. You can extend your lateral movement in the air with an air dash ability, or simply use your weapons air attack, which can grant you considerable improvements on distance. But overall, it isn’t particularly enjoyable.

Immortal vs. Immortal

The bosses of the world, called Immortals, all provide fairly engaging and  interesting fights. None truly stand out as amazing, but they are ripe with challenge. Each boss has a death counter which mocks you every time you reenter the fight, and the game will mark the boss’ health bar at the spot it was when you died last time. Get the health bar below that mark, and you’ll receive your shards (souls) for your troubles. I really like that idea. Boss phases are also clearly marked on the health bars which, honestly, I don’t like. I like being surprised when the rage mode comes in. I like the rush you get when, all of a sudden, a boss becomes even stronger, when you least expect it. This does, however, allow for careful planning and patience with your healing feathers.

Towards the end of the journey, Death’s Gambit’s bosses become overwhelmingly more difficult. There’s a big difficulty spike, in both the general overworld and the bosses themselves, about halfway into the game. If I had one tip to give, it would be this: don’t forget you have a shield. Time and again I’ve fallen to bosses only to realise I could have mitigated all damage from their most troublesome attacks with my shield. Sure, it might break my guard, but it doesn’t break my spirit, or my bones.

Death’s Gambit also allows to fight bosses again, in a “Heroic Rematch”, which is a fun idea. Much like using a Bonfire Ascetic in Dark Souls II, it allows you to challenge the boss at a more difficult level. It’s great for those looking for more challenge.

Mostly worth dying for

Death’s Gambit, while imperfect in many ways, is still a fine experience to be had for anyone looking for a difficult, hardcore 2D RPG. I don’t feel that it captures the same magic as Salt and Sanctuary, but it is beautifully detailed and full of great characters and lots of charm. Somewhere between the macabre nature of Bloodborne and the gloomy, desolate feeling of Dark Souls III’s final DLC, the mood and atmosphere of the game is fantastic. The story will not leave you wanting, though the combat and overall adventure may.

But for those who trudge forth, there is a new game plus mode to be enjoyed. Or, for those bravest souls, who wish to tarnish their friendship with Death, you can destroy the contract and become mortal yet again: die once, and it’s game over. So, whether you’re a masochist or a hardcore masochist, Death’s Gambit might have something for you. At the very least, you can see an amazing take on the character of Death wearing an apron.

Death’s Gambit is available for PlayStation 4 and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.
Matt has been an avid gamer since he first ventured to Zebes in Super Metroid. If he's not there, he's probably racking his mind over a puzzler, running through a JRPG, or grinding Dark Souls again. You can find him at your local bookstore, disc golf course, or friendly Smash Bros. tournament otherwise. With a background in Linguistics and Creative Writing, he loves writing about anything from gaming to semiotics.