It’s only in the final hours of play where Death’s Gambit begins to make good on its ambitions as a Souls-like game in the tradition of a 2D metroidvania, but there are a startling number of stumbles and missteps on the way there. When it’s not being dysfunctional, shoddy, or bug-infested, though, there is the unmistakable heart of something beautiful and pure; it's almost as if the polished, intentional version of the game is hiding behind its glitches, ungainly combat, strange pacing, and manifestly broken portions. It’s a hard sell, especially when considered next to a handful of its able contemporaries, those other indies proudly wearing a Dark Souls love on their sleeves, but for players willing to look past or even generously ignore its blunders, there's some worthwhile content and a sincere, occasionally wonderful story to explore.
The first hints of its development showed off images that were clearly meant to catch gamer attention. Deliberately paced combat against imposing foes, a purposeful challenge, the probability of dying a whole lot, and that compelling pixel art hinted at a worthy love letter to the games which inspired it. And, to be clear, Death’s Gambit’s first moments are promising, and the addition of new ingredients, like a mountable steed, help differentiate it from other games with similar motivations. The main character, Sorun, is a weathered soldier entered into a compact with a personified Death, and they journey to Caer Siorai, a well-guarded citadel which protects a magical source of immortality. As one might expect, Death isn’t happy with this relic, and Sorun is put to the task of destroying it, and will be aided and hindered by allies, turncoats, and the mystical natives of the land of Siradon.
The Dark Souls references don’t really let up through the majority of the game. Everything from the audio cues of enemies dying, to the lore-heavy item descriptions, to even the actual font and menu design presents an obsequious recreation of Miyazaki’s beloved series. Sometimes this devotion is outright hilarious in its excess, though that’s not to say that Death’s Gambit avoids putting its own decided spin on those infamously ruthless mechanics. For one, dying does not rob players of any of their shards (souls), but removes a single feather (estus) from their inventory, which can be reclaimed by returning to the scene of the crime. If you run out of feathers, though, there’s zero punishment, allowing you to wail against a boss or enemy gauntlet as many times as you like, dutifully upgrading your stats as you go with a growing stockpile of level-gaining shards.
This kindness never exactly honors the expected drastic challenge, which is essentially fine; everyone isn’t looking for that precise flavor of game difficulty. But a strange mechanic were players can clamp down their healing feathers for a boost in damage (sacrificing the ability to heal at all) gingerly removes all possible punishment for dying, aside from the traveling time lost. It comes off as a baked-in bureaucratic workaround to the only real penalty for loss in the game, and isn’t mechanically interesting in the least.
The art style and animation makes a terrific first impression as well, but reveals addition flaws on closer inspection. The game’s resolution is often inconsistent, which means that some art assets have been been blown up in size, but then placed next to others with higher resolutions, creating a noticeably shabby and disjointed effect. Some enemies have distinctly well-animated actions, some seem to have a few scant frames, and others have a mix of both. There’s a puppet-like quality to how most every character moves, which certain players may find irritatingly lazy in lieu of legitimate pixel-based frame-by-frame animation, and armor pieces add no visual change to Sorun’s appearance at all — this last detail might be a conspicuous deal-breaker for some.
The visual characteristics are the tip of the iceberg, though, and almost every corner of Death’s Gambit betrays the impression of a considerable amount of cut content. Its outright pacing feels wholly out of whack, where almost every individual area is abruptly small, leading to an unexpected “boss-rush” feel for the first half of the game. There’s a certain section where players can enter buildings in the background of a walled city, but this functionality is virtually absent anywhere else. Elsewhere, a snowy biome composed of a small handful of screens ends up absolutely crammed with traps and enemies in close quarters, leading one to believe that a certain scale for the map was initially intended, but then cut short at some point prior to release.
And then there’s the combat. Much like Dark Souls, players can equip shields, dodge-roll, parry enemies, and make use of weaponry and armor that accommodates their specific builds. Unlike any Souls game, the choice of character made at the start can greatly affect the entire playthrough, which is at least an interesting and unexpected twist, and players should thoughtfully weigh the cost of that decision. Attacks never seem to provide a satisfying sense of feedback, confusingly rendering damage received and returned. Beyond that, the stamina system feels utterly off-kilter, and even simple dodges decimate your reserves, turning many fights into extended kiting ordeals as you jockey between dangers waiting for a bar to refill. Some enemies have their own visible stamina, but most of them don't, and are happy to relentlessly wail on Sorun without pause, while others can be completely stumped by just quickly walking back and forth right on top of them, turning the battles into unintentionally ridiculous slapstick-styled standoffs.
Bugs are numerous, and include getting stuck in walls, an entire missing chunk of level geometry next to an NPC, a boss that never died despite over-killing their health bar (a glitch which granted an impressively massive sum of shards), game crashes, a special ability which fills the menu with duplicates and deletes others at random... the list goes on. It’s hard to believe that this game was competently QA-tested in light of all these loose threads.
With all of that being said however, it’s hard not to at least recommend Death’s Gambit. There are some truly magical hours here, whether it’s the few hugely entertaining and lengthy areas, or the passionate performances of the voice cast, or the unique narrative and plot, which invokes the tone of Dark Souls but manages to retain its own identity and sense of the world. There are more than a few fantastic moments, and some of the mechanical twists are thoughtfully implemented, like how the horse Sorun rides serves as a kind of fast-travel system, galloping through an underground tunnel system that unites the entire map. There’s an adorable little drunken demon, some unexpected weapons to play with, and genuinely inventive storytelling set-pieces, especially a mind-bending sequence that seems to arrive out of the blue, which players should try and avoid having spoiled for them, if they can.
There remains some hope that the developers at White Rabbit will add a few patches, and maybe even thread in the content that was evidently removed, presumably to hasten the game's release. These additions might boost the overall takeaway of Death’s Gambit into something refined and special but, in its current state, it’s a guarded recommendation, at best. Reaching the finale takes approximately 10-12 hours, and while there’s a New Game+ option made available, it’s hard to imagine that most will be tolerant of these shenanigans a second time.
Death's Gambit is available now for $19.99 on PlayStation 4 and PC. Screen Rant was provided with a code for review.