There’s been no shortage of games inspired by the ever-popular and endlessly influential Dark Souls series. Personally, it’s been a bit fatiguing to see the ideas of one of my all time favorite games be laid bare by so many imitators, no matter how well-implemented. Hollow Knight features a post-death reclamation mechanic, the upcoming DOOM sequel features player-driven invasions, and Salt & Sanctuary is basically just Dark Souls minus an axis. When it comes to Death’s Gambit, we see perhaps one of the most unapologetic imitators of them all; a game with stunning visual design and a more focused narrative, it presumably seeks to improve these core ideas into something more refined. Unfortunately, it misses the mark on most fronts.
Death’s Gambit is very much aware of its influences. It pokes fun at itself for being so much like FromSoftware’s 2011 masterpiece, but these cheeky nods never feel earned. If the philosophy of Dark Souls was transmuted in some way other than serving as the skin and bones of this title I could forgive it for being smugly self aware, but Death’s Gambit does little with the formula.
In fact, being a sidescroller, I would argue that the Souls-inspired combat is handled relatively poorly. Hitting an enemy with a giant sword or hammer makes a sound comparable to a damp washcloth slapping a plaster wall, and enemies react as such. There’s no real indication that the blows you’re dealing are doing much to deter foes – they hardly recoil in some cases, and there’s no poise system from what I can tell. This all results in gameplay that feels like an awkward back-and-forth shuffle between yourself and any number of enemies, like marionettes dancing on broken strings.
My biggest gripe with the combat is that only some enemies “dedicate” themselves to an attack. What I mean by this is that, when they begin an attack animation, they can’t turn themselves to face you if you’ve rolled behind them. Other enemies, however, can awkwardly teleport themselves to face either direction whenever they’d like, constantly tracking the player before, during, and after attacks. This results in an uneven, unpredictable, and frustrating experience when trying to learn enemy patterns.
Playing as a warrior class, pumping strength for big gains and even bigger weapons, I found myself constantly contending with the stamina meter. A single roll used up about one-fourth of my stamina, and swinging heavy weapons didn’t do it any favors, either. Forget blocking, because if your stamina is depleted it results in the familiar “Please hit me as hard as you can” animation (done no favors by enemies and bosses that seem to never stop flailing about). Because Death’s Gambit is so stingy with stamina, running away or jumping around like a maniac are often the best tactics for dealing with unrelenting foes. Even when pumping endurance to boost my character’s ability to swing his sword more than a handful of times before getting tuckered out, I never felt comfortable managing that little green bar.
If you’ve seen a screenshot of Death’s Gambit, you’ve probably noticed a third resource bar: Energy. Energy is accumulated when striking foes and can be used to perform a number of actually-sweet-looking attacks specific to your weapon type of choice. These are great for getting out of harms way, buffing yourself, or attacking from afar. They’re also scattered throughout the world, encouraging exploration and dialogue with the number of NPCs who sell them. This system was by far my favorite aspect of the game, as it blended a traditional spell system with any class you’d want to play, giving them the ability to perform flashy moves regardless of their ability to read boring tomes and be huge nerds.
Another huge highlight is the art, specifically that of characters during dialogue. It’s painstakingly rendered to resemble high-quality pixel art, beautifully shaded and with amazing attention to detail. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn a third of the game’s budget went into designing and drawing Death himself, because it was jaw-dropping every time he appeared on screen. Environments can be equally beautiful, and traversing them on your trusty horse feels like a real adventure, at least until you crash into a locked gate.
The world design isn’t a far cry from what we’ve seen in similar games, but there is a surprising amount of freedom in what order you can take on the game’s challenges. It’s a little frustrating to be consistently blocked by magical one-way doors, or those that need a number of keys to unlock. However, the central line of travel (that you’ll be riding your steed along) is a clever through-line of the map that encourages exploration. Each major area is accessible through this underground horse-tunnel, and while it doesn’t make backtracking a cinch, it’s a lot better than slogging through enemies to return to a previous area.
Overall, Death’s Gambit is an inoffensive game. This would be far more forgivable if it wasn’t so obviously aping another title, but to be derivative and also so rough around the edges makes the experience a little more sour. This isn’t helped by a sub-par combat system, which results in toothless and unsatisfying encounters. While pretty to look at, Death’s Gambit is an average adventure through a world whose design and characters are deserving of much more.
This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Adult Swim Games.
Death's Gambit never quite sheds its skin as simply a Dark Souls-inspired side scroller, and is done no favors by gutless, awkward combat. There's plenty to love in its visuals and designs, but ultimately it's a title that struggles to find footing in a saturated genre.