How Metroidvania is it? Low Fit. No Ability Gating. There is one completely optional movement upgrade available which does make getting some secrets easier, but it’s not required for anything significant. Furthermore there isn’t a ton of exploration – the game is structured like a great big open world level-select. With that said, there is a lot of choice on how you proceed.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~10 hours
Review Info: Death's Gambit was played on Steam.
Buy Death's Gambit if you like…
- Souls-like Combat
- Unique Narrative Structures
- Excellent Piano Heavy Soundtracks
- Unique Boss Fights
- Open-Ended Mysteries
▼ Review continues below ▼
This review was written as of Patch 1.1. It has not been updated for any subsequent patches.
I had originally hesitated to play Death’s Gambit because White Rabbit Games had stated that they are making major changes. After finally trying the game once 1.1 was released, I can say that I look forward to their “Later” plans, because yes there are still a lot of flaws. It might be best to think of Death’s Gambit as being in Early Access at this point, and a lot of the critiques I’m going to talk about in this review may be fixed in the future. But, if we pretend that the game will never be altered from its current state, I think Death’s Gambit is still a pretty good game that I’d recommend.
I don’t like basing my entire reviews off of comparisons, but I think that there’s an elephant in the room that I’d like to address first. Death’s Gambit is a souls-like, which means a lot of people are going to be asking “how does it compare to Salt and Sanctuary?” I think that it really boils down to preference. Salt and Sanctuary is currently the closest thing to the “Dark Souls” experience in the 2D platformer realm, and it has enough Metroidvania elements to be considered part of the genre. Death’s Gambit on the other hand is much less open, and some might argue it’s not a Metroidvania at all. If you like large worlds to explore, then you may be disappointed with Death’s Gambit. If your favorite thing about Souls-like games is the player expression with character builds, and the general way you approach combat, Salt and Sanctuary is definitely your better pick. Where Death’s Gambit has advantages is in its story presentation, and if you like more focused (linear) level design, you may like it more. I can’t easily say “if you like Salt and Sanctuary and Dark Souls you’ll like Death’s Gambit” because it does enough different that one of those differences could be a deal breaker for you. Conversely, while if you did not like Dark Souls you’ll probably not like Salt and Sanctuary, but you might still like Death’s Gambit. I personally like all three. What sold me on Death’s Gambit is that it has a lot of creative bosses, and for the most part its level design never dips below a nice level of quality.
Regular enemy encounters are meticulously put together as they should be, and there never feels like there was a section that was inserted just to artificially extend the length of the game. From the moment you’re given control of your character you’re guided through escalating enemy encounters in a very “From Software” fashion.
The world linked together with this long pathway. There is a hub area where all the NPCs hang out, but you’ll be returning to the central path often in search of bosses to fight. You get a horse to make moving back and forth through this path faster. The way they introduce this horse is a little confusing at first since the game seems to tutorialize that it’s going to be your companion for most of the game, but it’s really just there to make backtracking less tedious. You can access almost anywhere right from the beginning. Each branch is layered similarly to Demon’s Souls in the sense that you can go three to four directions that get deeper as you defeat bosses and travel beyond their lairs.
Some players might find the initial openness overwhelming, but the game is far less punishing than your typical From Software Souls-like, making it much more welcoming toward experimentation. You don’t take fall damage in Death’s Gambit like you do in many Souls-like games, so you can freely test every cliff as you please – even bottomless pits don’t have major consequences if you die other than returning to the last checkpoint. In fact, dying never has any permanent effects. Instead of losing your souls (called “Shards” in this game), you lose one of your Phoenix Feathers instead, which are healing items that replenish at check points – sort of like Dark Souls’ Estus flasks. You can go back to where you died to retrieve the Phoenix Feather, or you can pay to have it returned to you. As a change of pace, dying while one of your feathers is dropped doesn’t seem to force the feather to be lost permanently.
These differences in Souls-like death mechanics make the difficulty of the boss fights much more manageable. Most of them have a checkpoint very close to them, and losing phoenix feathers to them can even be helpful since there’s a talent that gives you a 20% damage boost after you pick up a lost feather. Each boss has something very unique about them, such as regular enemies spawning mid fight, a tilting platform you have to manage, or a shifting state that changes how you have to strategize. I never felt like I was being crushed by an insurmountable foe, especially since I had a lot of choice when it came to any given fight – I could easily walk away, hop on my horse, try a different boss and then come back after I had leveled up. The combat isn’t currently perfect (although they plan on improving it.) The presentation needs a boost, maybe better sound effects, or more of a “Stop” in the attack animations to give it a real feeling of weight. But once you get used to it it’s very functional and, in my opinion, it’s fun.
However, the gameplay sort of crumbles when it comes to the systems behind the combat. It wouldn’t be a Metroidvania Review for a game that has a talent tree and leveling system if I didn’t complain at least a little about its implementation. The stat system itself is more similar to Bloodborne in the sense that there are fewer sacrifices and build nuances than Dark Souls. Basically you pick your favorite weapon group – aka the Big Heavy weapons, fast stabby weapons with bows, or the magic ones – and then pump up the primary stat, boosting things like Endurance and Vitality as needed. I personally felt that this sort of stat system was a little shallow and maybe it could be cut without ruining much, but it’s mostly harmless.
You also have a talent tree which is more disappointing. It’s pretty standard Souls-Like fare to have a bunch of starting classes that are meaningless once you actually start leveling into the game, but the Talent Tree ostensibly could have broken that mold and made each class unique. This is still technically true – each class has exactly two talents unique to them. Other than that, every class has access to the exact same options, which would also be okay but there are a few key talents in the tree that effectively define the viability of all other end-game builds; namely one that gives you infinite ammo for a limited time and another that gives an insane burst of 4x damage to an aerial attack after a combo. My endgame build ended up being the long sword in my left hand, which gets a “combo” after only two swings, and the Great Hammer in my right. I’d swing at the air for a combo to “charge up” the attack and then whack bosses for almost a fifth of their health. It’s still fun, but it really affects replay value since any other build would essentially be a “Challenge Run” while the more dominant strategies exist. Tweaking the Talent Tree is something else on White Rabbit Game’s to-do list though – and I hope they are especially mindful of the potential there is with the class talents.
What really needs fixing in my opinion though is how you upgrade items. Instead of farming titanite or a bunch of monster parts like in Salt and Sanctuary, enemies drop a bunch of items which you can disenchant for upgrades. This is a good idea, since it allows them to reward you with gear without it filling up your pack. The problem is that no matter how upgraded a piece of gear is, it always gives you a single crafting material item. When I finally unlocked the enchanter, I spent all of my materials upgrading my Halberd, and then I walked to the right and found out that the nearby merchant actually sold +4 Halberds for a Shard price that would have taken much less work to farm than it would be to get the materials that I had just spent. It’d make more sense if upgraded items gave more crafting materials when you disenchant them. It turns out it kind of doesn’t matter though, since unlike other Souls-like games where upgrading weapons is almost more important than leveling up, upgrading weapons in this game seems to provide a meager +1 damage, which is basically meaningless when your Great Hammer is already doing 100. The upgrade system is a mess.
Something else that is also a bit messy is the story, which could have been the great thing to set Death’s Gambit apart from other souls-likes. The presentation is intriguing, and I think a lot of scenes are very effective at conveying emotion. I’m a bit ambivalent about story important scenes occurring after you die, since that might get a little annoying while you’re trying to focus on killing a boss, but contextually it’s an interesting idea. The problem I have is that while there are muddled emotions conveyed in the presentation, there isn’t actually any payoff for it – or at least its payoff feels rushed and incomplete. The game also heavily teases the possibility of multiple endings, but unless it’s buried so well that the community just hasn’t found it yet, it doesn’t exist in the current build of the game. Death’s Gambit has a story that is just grasping at something profound, but it just drops the ball as of this patch.
Death’s Gambit is still a good game, but I have faith that it can be much better game. Because of that it’s really difficult for me to say “Yeah go buy it right now.” I think if you go in with the right expectations you won’t be completely disappointed – I wasn’t. But if you wanted to wait until White Rabbit Games actually finishes the thing, I wouldn’t blame you.
The presentation needs a little more ''Crunch'' but the fundamentals of combat design are there and a lot of variety is present
Not a huge focus, but the overall level design provides some interesting parts
Exploration is easy and its fun to test where you're supposed to go next, but there aren't huge rewards for really checking every corner
Not a focus. Variety activities are here and there but nothing that will make you think too hard.
Presentation-wise it gets a lot of things right, but it doesn't do anything profound as of the current patch
The dirty pixel art is beautiful though the animations could use a little more tweaking for conveyance purposes
Beautiful piano music sets a great meloncholy mood
The current leveling system is a bit of a mess, but still provides quite a few options you can try on subsequent play throughs
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