After waking in a pile of corpses, our hero of the moment finds himself inexplicably mobile and most definitely undead. A draconic man expresses something close to disappointment upon seeing you and in short order Death itself stands before you, contracting you to it's service. Ahead lie hordes of shambling knights, magic wielding demons and a grotesque selection of abyssal horrors for your necrotic avatar to carve through in their quest for clarity. As you mount your horse and take off in search of explanations for this enigmatic origin, you'd be forgiven for having flashbacks to another series where an undead protagonist sets out in similarly unexplained circumstances, but this is not a tale of the dark soul of man. This is Death's Gambit.
You'd be forgiven for seeing the name of this game and having a little itch in the back of your brain as you wonder why it might be familiar. I most certainly had a moment when the chance to review arrived, before dispelling the confusion by reading that Death's Gambit first released in August of last year. In honour of a physical re-release on PS4 and some fresh gameplay adjustments, developers White Rabbit and publishers Adult Swim Games are inviting another look at their Souls-like game and I'm very glad they did after I missed it on release.
The temptation to lean into endless references to Dark Souls is strong when it comes to describing a majority of what Death's Gambit does, all the more so because the developers themselves are rightfully unashamed at having been so clearly influenced. So much so that Death, your benefactor (or is that master?) tasks you with tolling two bells of Ascension before finding a soul vessel not long after you meet for a second time, quickly taking it back and joking about having said it while giving a far less obtuse task instead. There's a tongue in cheek humour that ever so occasionally creeps through and really hit the spot for me between bouts of existential musing and being brutalized by lumbering suits of armour.
The often desperate, gloomy tone and underlying sense of connectivity between locations, characters and the roughly sketched history of the world you inhabit share the foundations and world building techniques that Dark Souls has since popularized, but the over arching point of the story and characters who relay it to you are most certainly distinct and well performed by their respective voice actors. Questions of who you are, what happened to bring you to this moment and what your path leads to are steadily built upon, with dribs and drabs of tantalizing information slowly being gathered and forming a satisfying whole.
As a proud Souls-like game, Death's Gambit offers exactly what you'd expect as a fan. For those less familiar with the series that so heavily inspired this game, what that amounts to is a very balanced, brutal and satisfying combat system and an unapologetic, occasionally cruel and often tricky approach to level design. You begin by picking a class of character to denote your initial play style - be it a simple great sword wielding warrior, magically empowered mage or finesse focused archer - the base archetypes for high fantasy are covered. You've a stamina gauge that dictates how many attacks, dodges, jumps and blocks your character can make before becoming briefly exhausted and incapable. Button mashing will be punished and striving toward finesse is rewarded with swift progress.
While all of that might sound perhaps overly familiar to some, Death's Gambit mixes combat up with special moves. Alongside your health and stamina meters is a special move gauge that charges when you land blows. It's not far into the game that you'll have the chance to buy and equip a broad selection of techniques, some limited to particular weapons and others acting as buffs that increase your speed or damage output for a brief time. The potential to create a character that suits your particular play style is clear after you've fooled around with the various weapons and combat styles they offer, and the chance to respec your character invites some experimentation to boot.
Areas connect through winding passages and hidden routes, rigged with traps and puzzle elements to figure your way around. Remembering routes and locating keys or artifacts required to pass locked gates is a regular challenge, while illusory walls hide treasures and tomes that give you small advantages over the various boss enemies that lay in wait. There's a broad diversity to the locations too, as you'll venture through scenic countryside to the depths of a buried, ancient brick tunnel and battle on through tundra, castles, a church and even into a conspicuously advanced trove of lost technology.
The enemies you face range from shambling corpses and hulking knights to begin with, but the diversity rapidly goes up alongside the challenge as you pass through the distinct areas that make up Siradon. Wolf men stalk an icy wasteland while incorporeal necromancers linger in the depths, with each distinct horror forcing a considered approach and some even raising eyebrows with abilities like flipping the entire screen on it's head. Some enemies such as warriors wearing suits of golden dragon themed armour are rare and are used almost as sub-bosses, guarding routes forward and standing out from the hordes of cannon fodder for their unique abilities.
Complimenting and often emphasizing the theme of the areas they guard, the boss fights in Death's Gambit are absolute high points, with each having some satisfyingly unique aspect to their abilities, arena or design. As with the average enemies, things start simple with the physically focused Owl King taking swings at you, but escalate sharply from there with a gargantuan statue coming to life and attempting to stomp you and a Super Mario 3-esque battle on a tilting platform against a Baal-like entity named Tundra Lord Kaern. It would truly spoil the surprise to say much about it, but one boss in particular begins with a thoroughly unexpected moment and challenges you to think both quickly and with consideration about both the game play and themes at work in the moment. These battles are tough and fast paced, but absolutely fair and balanced in their challenge - a cool head and calm reactions will see you through.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Death's Gambit wears it's influence without shame and I think that the team at White Rabbit absolutely deserve to proudly look at their work and know they hit the mark. The work they've done to polish the game since it's initial release and the slick, satisfying combat that comes as a result is totally worth a look from anyone who enjoys the likes of Dark Souls and Metroidvania style platformers as well as the more story focused players out there looking for a game that marries it's gameplay and thematic intent with style.