Friday, August 24, 2018

Death's Gambit Review (PS4)

Death's Gambit is the latest indie 2D platformer to take a swing at the Dark Souls formula and, I gotta say, it's my favorite one yet. With surprising enemy and environment variety, satisfying combat, a fresh storytelling style, and some interesting twists on the Souls formula, Death's Gambit is an all around fantastic 2D action plaformer that is right up there with the best of them both old and new. It does have some rough spots, and it is pretty brutal and frustrating at first, but once it gets its hooks in you Death's Gambit is very hard to put down. Continue reading our full PS4 Death's Gambit review for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Adult Swim Games
  • Developer: White Rabbit
  • ESRB Rating: "T" For Teen
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Pros: Cool storytelling; satisfying gameplay; nice presentation; connected world; twists on Souls formula
  • Cons: Glitches; brutal stamina mechanic
  • MSRP: $20

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Death's Gambit takes place in a land where a device is turning people into immortal monsters. Your character, an outsider who died in a battle to invade the kingdom, is tasked by Death itself to defeat the monsters and destroy the device. By entering into the contract with Death, your character also becomes immortal for as long as the contract lasts. Interestingly, you can willingly break the contract at any time which does grant some gameplay benefits but comes at the cost of your next death being permanent and deleting your save.

The story is fascinating because it actually addresses some of the problems that would come with being immortal. Living on while everyone you care about dies is really a curse, after all, and Death's Gambit really digs in and faces the tough questions about what it means to live forever. The way the story is told is also interesting because you gradually learn more about your character via flashbacks to the past and Death showing you bits and pieces of what happened. Other characters you meet also flesh out the world with their own pasts and thoughts on immortality and death. There are some fantastic cinematic gameplay segments tied to this exploration of immortality that really stand out as well. It does become a bit esoteric towards the end, but I greatly enjoyed it overall.

Gameplay-wise, Death's Gambit is a 2D open world Metroidvania-style action platformer. Once you beat the first boss and enter the main hub you are free to take any path and fight the bosses in any order, though some will certainly be more difficult than others depending on when you fight them. The world is interconnected with secret passages and shortcuts, just like Dark Souls 1, and seeing how the different areas connect is always fun. I also have to give props to the surprising variety in environments. The game world isn't actually all that big, but a snowy area, medieval town, sci-fi robot laboratory (yeah, really), a prison full of Eldritch horrors, and several other areas are all seamlessly connected in ways that totally make sense.

The Dark Souls influence comes in when it comes to combat and leveling up. Similar to other Souls-likes, you collect a form of currency by defeating enemies in Death's Gambit. Unlike other games, however, you don't lose that currency when you die and instead lose one of your healing items. Since you don't lose your level up currency, you feel a much more steady sense of progression in Death's Gambit. You're always leveling up at a pretty steady pace and really feel tangibly stronger over the course of the game, which I really like a lot. It does take some of the stress and sense of dread out of playing that is normally associated with a Souls-like, but I like that they actually tried to do something different. Oh, and don't worry about losing those health items when you die. You can either return to the spot and collect them, or just spend some of your currency at a save point to retrieve the lost healing items. Again, it's different and makes it easier, but I like it.

The core combat itself is a bit of an issue, however, as a brutally strict stamina system has a huge impact on the flow of the game. Just like other Souls-likes, jumping, dodge rolling, blocking, and attacking all use up your limited amount of stamina, but in Death's Gambit your stamina is ridiculously limited at the start to the point that you can barely function in combat. The game is very, very, very hard at first because of this and you'll definitely get frustrated early on because of it. The combat is also a little on the simple side compared to some other games as well. There are multiple classes and lots of weapon types to wield, but the gameplay loop itself is pretty darn simple here, as you don't have a ton of moves and abilities. That simplicity combined with the difficulty makes you feel a bit helpless early on as you just don't feel like you have the tools you need to succeed.

I have to admit that I loved the game for the first 30-minutes, then hated it for the next 2-hours, and then fell in love with it again until right through to the end after that. Why was that? Because there was just something about the game that kept me coming back. I always had the feeling that I could do a little bit better and use a different strategy and overcome whatever boss was standing in my way. If that sounds familiar, yeah, that's how every Souls-like game feels. The thing that helps Death's Gambit stand out and enhances that feeling even more, however, is the fact that you make progress and level up even when you die over and over. You get much, much stronger over the course of the game in Death's Gambit and it feels really great to grind a bit and level up and then just slam through a hard section of a level or easily kill a boss. After you level up your endurance so you have more stamina, pump up your haste stat so stamina and your abilities recharge faster, and pour tons of levels into your key combat stat (Strength or Finesse), you get ridiculously strong and it's freaking awesome.

There is another side to getting so swole, though, and that is the fact it makes some later game bosses easier than they should be. Compared to how helpless you are at the beginning of the game, feeling so powerful by the end is kind of a nice change for the genre. It's still one of those games where any little mistake still results in a quick death even when you're over-leveled, though, so you still have to keep on your toes. The game does something else interesting in that you can have a Heroic Rematch against a harder version of most of the bosses, which is freaking awesome and something I wish Dark Souls would let you do.

Unfortunately, the game is a little on the glitchy side now and then with some potentially major issues that can cause problems. I had my save get corrupted, but it was during gameplay so I was able to delete that save and the game just auto saved like normal afterward, so I didn't lose any progress. I also had the game crash totally with a PS4 blue screen of death, too. During gameplay glitches pop up like bosses getting stuck and not attacking like they should, items sometimes disappear, and I got pushed through the level geometry and got stuck in a wall (you can use an item to teleport you back to your last save point, thankfully) a time or two as well. The game also has a lot of evidence of cut content that you can see but not access all over the place as well as if it wasn't really finished and had to get rushed out the door.

Presentation in Death's Gambit is quite nice overall. Character and enemy sprites look great and the backgrounds range from very good to absolutely phenomenal. There are a couple of later areas that are a little too dark to the point you can barely see anything, but aside from that I love the visuals here. The sound is also well done with solid voice work for the supporting characters. Your character isn't voiced, however, which is a little strange. Sound effects are typical swords and shields melee sounds, though you do find some futuristic energy weapons later on with their own appropriate sounds.

All in all, once I got over the difficulty hump and got into the flow I really fell in love with Death's Gambit. The combat isn't as deep as some similar titles, and the stamina mechanic is absolutely ridiculous and takes a while to get used to, but I did eventually get used to it and really enjoyed pretty much everything else about the game. The world is awesome, the story is cool, the gameplay is satisfying, and I love the changes to the level-up mechanics. Death's Gambit took some risks to mix up the pace and feel of the game compared to other difficult 2D action platformers and I think it was mostly successful. I think the obvious question people want answered is "How does it compare to Salt and Sanctuary?" Well, I don't like Salt and Sanctuary (I haven't ever reviewed it because I just can't get into it) but I love Death's Gambit, so interpret that however you like. In the end, I think fans of 2D action platformers and Metroidvania (more heavy on the 'vania part) and anyone looking for a challenge will enjoy Death's Gambit. Buy it.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.