You know Dark Souls, right? It’s a great game. Absolutely phenomenal. Honestly one of the best I’ve played. We’ve spent some time on it. Well, let’s imagine you’re a game designer. And you look at Dark Souls. And you see how fantastic it is. And you’re like “Aww, I wish I made that.” You find your craft at the top of its form and wish you could be there, making something of that level.
Well, Death’s Gambit is what you would get if you just went ahead and made Dark Souls again anyway, and put your stamp on it and called it yours.
Honestly, that describes the game really well. This is 2d indie action-platformer Dark Souls. Everything about the game, from its structure, to its set up, to its atmosphere, to its means of storytelling, absolutely everything was incredibly clearly inspired by Dark Souls. Even the unique things it does were built on a Dark Souls base, rather than truly standing on their own. For a while, I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. The game is good. No doubt about that. This is a team that was just making Dark Souls in a different form, sure, but also a team that truly understood what makes Dark Souls great, way more than most of the game’s imitators. But the thought I struggled with was whether or not there was a place for a game like this. Like, why would I play a Dark Souls imitator if I could just play the original?
It took a while, but eventually, the unique bits about Death’s Gambit won me over. Particularly, it was the more compact nature of Death’s Gambit that did it for me. I love Dark Souls. It is a hugely dense, long-form game. The run we did here took me over 70 hours of game time, and there are plenty of those hours I didn’t make any real progress in, just trying and failing and learning and trying again over and over. Dark Souls is a huge, multi-layered cake. Death’s Gambit is a cupcake. And sometimes, you just want a cupcake. You get the complete experience in around ten hours game time. Even though the bosses required a similar mechanically complex means of handling, and had the same scale of tension as Dark Souls, they were far more achievable and it doesn’t take quite as much an investment in time to achieve them. The levels have less back and forth, better placed checkpoints, and it doesn’t take as long to traverse them. So yeah, here, you get a lot of what you probably love about Dark Souls, but you’re able to do it with less of an investment of time. And I ended up finding that really valuable. Snack size Dark Souls is really meaningful as well, especially when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do the “Try, Die, Learn, Repeat” for hours on end that Dark Souls requires before you complete any particular challenge.
And I do rather like a lot of the unique things it does here, some of which wouldn’t work out in OG Dark Souls. In addition to your starting class being a selection of stats and starting equipment, they also come with their own abilities and skill trees. You can still spec any class however you want and gear them with whatever they have the stats for, but your unique abilities and your skill trees are different for every class, and both give more replayability as well as more impact. I wouldn’t want that in Dark Souls, the ability to design anything however you want there is really powerful to the game’s structure, but it works a lot better in a quicker game. So does the way they’ll sometimes interrupt your deaths to give you a bit of story before they revive you. Your character here is a defined personality with a bit of backstory, which I wouldn’t want in Dark Souls but I feel they were able to make work here. I also have to give particular props to the way this game handles death. Normally, in Dark Souls and all the games that copied it thinking this was why Dark Souls was good without understanding the other factors around this, when you die, you lose all your money/experience points unless you can get to where you were and grab those back. Here, you leave behind one use of your standard recovery item. Which you can choose to pay out the nose with via money/experience if you can’t get those back yourself, so that option is there, but it’s not by default. It still keeps death feeling like it has consequence and impact, but it’s not as punitive and time-sinky as losing your combined cash/development resource. That’s something I’d absolutely like to see more Souls-likes picking up on. Between that and the better-placed checkpoints, you can bounce back from failure with a lot less frustration, which is fantastic in a game that’s built around you failing a whole lot. Honestly, the walk back after Death in Dark Souls was always my least favorite part of the game, and it almost absolutely ruined both Demon Souls and Bloodborne for me. You have a game here that mitigates it very well, while still using the same structure, so… yeah. Good going.
Combat maintains the relatively slower pace, high consquence actions, and generally more thoughtful, tactical feel of Dark Souls, although it’s slight faster. You’ve got a couple of additional factors here, though. Being a 2D action platformer, of course you have to worry about aerial combat and environmental threats. Positioning becomes a lot more important, and you’ll need to know the range and arc of your weapons in a variety of different circumstances, both ground-based and in the air. As in Dark Souls, defense is your primary consideration in most circumstances, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for how you and your enemy will move in all these circumstances as well. In addition to your bread and butter weapon attacks, you also equip three abilities at a time, most of which will have you do a heavy attack, and will often also leave an ongoing buff, debuff, or other active factor for the next while. There’s a fair amount of variety to them, and I found myself really relying on them a lot as the game progressed. In fact, by the time of the endgame, my own success seemed to lie just as much as my designing equipment and abilities in effective combination as it did with my in-the-moment twitch reflexes and decision making.
Presentation in this game is a bit weird. The art is absolutely gorgeous. All over. It looks really fantastic in screenshots. The animation is horrible. The game makes heavy use of rotoscoping, even for basic animations, and with the complexity of the sprites, it looks particularly unnatural to see them wholly shifted into angles. You get stray pixels and mismatched components everywhere. Which is a shame. Because the art design is so good, and the pixel art, generally, so fitting, this game could have been a visual treat, but that ends up just making the poor animations stand out. Music is pretty great, though. Definitely worth a listen.
Storywise, it does have a lot of the opaque storytelling that Dark Souls did so well, giving hints and pieces in item descriptions and bits of dialogue and whatnot, and having a lot of features you come across that are only hinted at, while also having a more clear throughline than Dark Souls had. You’ve got a defined character, Sorun, a soldier of a nation that’s been locked in a decades’ long war with a nation of lizardfolk that had uncovered the secret to immortality. The rulers want the secret of immortality themselves, while Sorun’s looking for his mother, who was drafted into this same war when he was a child and never returned. Sorun, is killed in battle early on, but Death appears before him, and offers him a deal. Death, understandably, isn’t a fan of immortality being out there, and if Sorun is willing to slay all the immortals of the land, Death will grant him eternal life himself. However, he warns that immortality has costs of its own. Sorun agrees, and a contract is signed, although Sorun’s more concerned with his own aims, and uses the quest against the immortals as a means to an end.
The world of Siradon here is also rather interesting as well, and it does some nifty things of its own. As Death warned, immortality has not been kind to its residents, and although everyone else wants it, as you venture inward you find that it has caused this civilization to tear itself apart. You’ll run across high magic establishments. You’ll run across unique takes on standard fantasy settings. You’ll get hints that things aren’t quite as clear as expected, through some enemies and locations that seem way out of place. You’ll end up in absolutely freaky locations that seem straight out of the depths of your fears. And through it all, you’ll get these hints, leading you along to greater places. The locations are phenomenal, both from a soulsian level design perspective as well as from a lore/backstory one.
Also, I’ve got to give good props to the boss fights here. The bosses are the best parts of the game, and all of them deliver a great amount of tension. Some of them used mechanics I hadn’t seen before in a game like this. And almost all of them hit that fantastic Souls level of skill ceilings, where they seem completely impossible at first, but you try, and fail, and learn and grow as you’re doing so, until you earn the ability to overcome them and feel absolutely phenomenal doing so. It doesn’t take as long as Dark Souls did, as I previously mentioned, and they’re not as complicated, but they’re still thrilling fights nonetheless.
So yeah, it took me a while to warm up to Death’s Gambit, but I ended up really enjoying my time with it. This is a game that copies Dark Souls so closely it’s not possible for it to be anything more, but it does feature enough smart changes and care in the design that it does create something different. I could definitely see myself diving back into it, and its more compact design makes it easier to do so when I’m jonesing for some Souls goodness but not ready to make a huge commitment for it.