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One foot in the grave…

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    Death’s Gambit

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    One foot in the grave…

    Given the popularity of From Software’s "Souls" series, it’s no surprise to see another 2D game come along and give the formula a shot, and that’s exactly what we have with "Death’s Gambit" from White Rabbit games (published by Adult Swim). While it may wear its inspiration on its sleeve, does this game strike that sweet spot between frustrating and rewarding, or is this one gambit that’s not going to pay off?

    Death’s Gambit starts off very unceremoniously, with a man named Sorun waking up near a burning pile of corpses. Well… "man" may be a bit too much here, as Sorun’s skin color is definitely off. As we try to get a grip on what’s happening, a nearby lizard-man (with a gigantic axe) will call us a coward, tell us our company has been slaughtered and we should just return to Vados. Fantastic start! Shortly after that though, you will meet death and learn why you’re still alive: he has a job that he wants us to do, promising us immortality as long as we play along and help him out when the time comes, leaving us to explore this god-forsaken land.

    So yeah, there’s not much story to speak of at the start of the game, which isn’t all that dissimilar to most "souls-like" titles. Unlike most souls games though, who you are as a person and what you’re doing in this land is quickly fleshed out as you play through the game. One of the more interesting parts of the game is tied into story-telling actually, as when you die (and you will die…), you will sometimes get glimpses of who Sorun is in flashbacks that often give you some control before you return to life. These flashbacks took me completely by surprise when they first happened, but they soon took the sting out of death with their exposition (or surreal elements).

    In the end though, the game’s story heavily focuses not only on Sorun and the world around him, but what Death is trying to accomplish through Sorun as well. Overall, the story here is solid and pieced together well (with your purpose being shown to you at a good pace), but we just wish the various NPCs throughout the game (specifically the ones that seem to follow you around all the time) had more of a story line than they did.

    Before the game starts (in traditional "Souls" fashion) you will have to pick a class to play as. There’s a nice variety of classes here, from Soldier, to Assassin to even a Wizard! You know, the usual stuff, although there’s a couple odd-ball picks as well (such as Sentinel or Death’s Acolyte, which is what I picked). Each class has a different weapon and perks. For example, the Death Acolyte can restore broken Death Statues, which is where you save and rest in the game (giving them a nice perk), but the Noble class has a special vendor that only they can use to buy items from. Decisions, decisions…

    More importantly, what class you pick determines your stats and how you get "Soul Energy", which is what lets you use your abilities. Like many souls-like games though, this decision isn’t too binding, as you can level up any stat you want and soul energy isn’t 100% tied to your class, but you still want to take that into account and pick a class based on how you want to play.

    From there, the game is pretty much classic 2D action game play. You can block, parry and dodge to avoid attacks (I vastly prefer dodging) and use your weapons to deal damage. This is all paired with a stamina system, as every action you do costs stamina (forcing you to plan actions carefully). As you play through the game, you’ll gain souls that you can use to level up, increasing your damage, HP, stamina and other very important statistics. Death’s Gambit does switch some things up though. For example, you never lose your souls when you die. Instead, you drop a healing item, and need to pick it back up to obtain it again (or pay a fine at the save point). You also gain souls based on how much of a bosses HP bar you take out. Little quirks, but definitely some changes.

    The core game play is solid and "Souls-Inspired" for sure, down to equipping items and having lore in the item descriptions (the game also isn’t above poking fun at itself for this, with death joking that your mission at one point is to "ring two bells"). However, past the basics of the genre, Death’s Gambit gets really shallow, really fast. For example, there is an extreme lack of weapons in this game, Sure, there’s different weapon types, but the scythe that my Death’s Acolyte began the game with is the same one I ended the game with, simply because it’s the only one in the game. Armor is more plentiful for sure, but is also rather rare to come across, and even when you do if it doesn’t have the stats you need it’s not worth much to you.

    Another thing that disappointed me was that, for the most part, different classes that you pick share the exact same skill tree (you gain skill points for defeating bosses usually). Abilities are tied to the weapon you are using (and again, you can change weapons in the game), but it would have been nice to see different skill trees for different classes. Bonus points to the developers for naming one of the skills "Takahashi’s Bane", a clear reference to Dean Takahashi who was that "Video Game Journalist" from Games Beat that just performed so poorly on Cuphead (shout out to provincial_umbrella for that gem!).

    One last complaint is the relative lack of abilities overall. Like we mentioned earlier, most abilities are tied to weapons (usually three per weapon type), but there’s a few that aren’t. Overall though, there’s just not that many abilities, which leads to some repetitive game play (although unlocking certain skills can change things up… for example, I swear by the 4x damage air attack skill).

    Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that yes, this game is HARD. Death’s Gambit wears its inspiration on its sleeve, and includes tough bosses, hidden traps, and hidden enemies basically everywhere. "Souls" fans will feel right at home, and this is what you want from a 2D incarnation, but you may very well find yourself facing a boss for the eighth time in a row asking yourself what you’re doing with your life…

    One thing is abundantly clear right off the bat though: this game is just plain gorgeous. I knew I was in for a visual treat right from the game’s title screen, with lush pixel-art graphics in the background and embers floating by… and sure enough, the game didn’t disappoint me. The overall look of the game is decidedly retro-inspired, with pixel art comprising the vast majority of the title, and man… plenty of effort was put into it for sure, as there are small touches and details here and there that just scream "this was someone’s passion-project".

    While the game is indeed gorgeous, it also has quite a bit of variety when it comes to its environments (which is greatly appreciated). The medieval theme is in full force here for many areas, but there’s also mountainous, snow-covered areas, under-water locations and even a defunct hi-tech area (that just made me want to go play Super Metroid, honestly). The animation throughout the game was also solid, although when too much was happening on screen, I did experience some noticeable lag, as the game liked to pause at the end of my weapon combos. It was definitely annoying, although not game-breaking as the game usually caught up with itself rather quickly.

    Speaking of lag though, we should note that this game not only had lag, but also hard-crashed on me several times. I wasn’t able to tell what I did to make the game crash, but whenever it did I was able to get back in and proceed (so no game-breaking bugs as far as we experienced). The developers also seem to have noticed the hiccups, as the game’s been patched (as of this review) to "Version 1.04" to squash bugs.

    When it came to the game’s audio, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how melancholy the soundtrack was overall. A perfect fit for the tone and themes of the game, honestly. There’s a lot of piano and strings in this game’s soundtrack, but plenty of dramatic tracks too (mainly reserved for the boss fights). Still, some of these are pure gold (my favorites so far are "Moonlit Sniper" and "Forest Meadow", definitely check those out!). The voice acting in the game is solid as well (with Matthew Mercer as Death), but you should know that Sorun believes in the "silent protagonist" version of heroes.

    With the game’s class system, there’s already some built-in replayability to be had (as I type this, I’m contemplating a new run-through the game with an intelligence build since I found a sword that scales with that stat…). Sure, you can change your build mid-game, but since you can’t re-roll your stats you’ll feel like you’re wasting your potential if you stacked finesse over, say, intelligence (for example).

    Or you could just roll with the game’s "New Game +" feature, which you get as soon as you beat the game. I was able to choose from "Level 1-3" when it came to the new game plus option, although the slider went much further than that (which leads me to believe the game can get much harder, but that you can also likely pump up your levels as well). We should also note that you can re-challenge bosses in "Heroic" mode for further rewards and trophies.

    Overall: 7/10

    In the end, Death’s Gambit is a solid 2D "Souls" clone, that actually attempts to tell a direct story and provides the same challenge that fans are looking for. That and it’s just downright beautiful. Unfortunately, the game play here is fairly shallow, with limited weapons and abilities. It can also be rather short if you are skilled at these types of games (I mean… I definitely grinded some levels…). If you can’t get enough of "Souls" action and are looking for your next challenge, you should definitely have your eye on Death’s Gambit. If not, this is a title you can definitely save for a rainy day.

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