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Death's Gambit - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Bosses provide small amounts of exp if you die
  • Use of horse for "fast travel"
  • Not having to grind to reclaim lost experience

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Controls sometimes unresponsive
  • Can't see what's ahead of me
  • UI lacks polish
  • Sometimes can't avoid damage
  • Feather drops where you died
  • Grinding to reclaim Pheonix Feathers

Overall Impression : C-
A little bit more frustrating than it's worth

Death's Gambit - cover

Developer:
White Rabbit

Publisher:
Adult Swim Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam or Good ol' Games),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
14 August, 2018

Genre:
fantasy hack-n-slash RPG, "Souls-like"

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
violence, blood

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.deathsgambit.com

Being that Death's Gambit is produced by Adult Swim, I wasn't sure if it was going to turn into an outright parody of Dark Souls. Was this going to be some kind of comedic satire? Or a serious and thoughtful game? Or just a mindless hack-n-slash with little regard paid to story or narrative. It surely wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Death's Gambit wastes little time before mocking Dark Souls.

Much of the game's design is blatantly inspired by Dark Souls, except for the title's font, which is evocative of Demon's Souls. From the menus, to the character creation screen, to the main character's armor that looks suspiciously like Artorias of the Abyss' armor, to the death mechanics, you'll see Dark Souls mirrored in almost every element of the Death's Gambit's design. As such, it's very hard to judge Death's Gambit without appealing back to the game(s) that so clearly inspired it.

Music is one strange element of production in which Death's Gambit deviates considerably from its inspiration. The main menu music is reminiscent of old-school RPGs, such as Final Fantasy X, rather than silence, and this trend of not being silent extends to the rest of the game. Instead of a mostly-quiet experience with calming strings in the hub and an intense orchestra for boss battles, Death's Gambit has pretty constant background music as you traverse the world. This makes the music, overall, feel less memorable, as it kind of just disappears into the background. The background music for the Central Sanctuary reminds me of Resident Evil's save room while I'm listening to it, but I can't actually remember what it sounds like once I stop playing.

Lessons from Dark Souls

Death's Gambit is, sadly, plagued by a lot of nagging little problems and lack of polish. Some of them are even issues that have been present in the Souls games, but which have been fixed (or at least addressed) by FromSoft in sequels. In these cases, White Rabbit should have known better. The most egregious of such offenders might be the inability to purchase multiple copies of any given consumable at a time. The Buy screen doesn't tell you how much of a given item you already have, and the Enchant screen doesn't tell you which items are equipped. If you use up all of a given consumable, it's removed from your item bar, and if you buy more, they are not put back into your item bar.

Nagging annoyances include text and foreground decorations obstructing the action.

The game also puts text overlays on the screen, sometimes while enemies are present. You can't read the text while you're focusing on not dying, but the text also gets in the way of the action. It's nice that they make sure that the player sees some of the important lore that you find, but don't do it if you're going to have enemies attack the player at the same time!

To top it all off, a lot of the text is really small and difficult to read, with no option to enlarge it. If you're playing on a console, sitting more than about 8 feet from the TV, you will probably have to lean forward and squint to read most of these menus.

A lot of other nagging annoyances are related to the 2-D nature of the game, and which serve to make the game feel more difficult than it needs to be. First and foremost, you can't always see what's directly in front of you. You can use the right analog stick to pan the camera, but it doesn't pan very far. Enemies sometimes are hidden behind foreground obstacles, which allows them to get in cheap hits. The platforming (and the controls in general) can sometimes feel annoyingly sticky. I get hit by a lot traps and miss a lot of jumps because the jump button doesn't seem to trigger as quickly as I expect it to.

You can't buy consumable items in bulk.

Death's Gambit also doesn't bother with any input-buffering at all. I know that the input-buffering is something that a lot of Dark Souls players get annoyed with, especially if you're playing at a high enough level that you're counting frames. Yes, Dark Souls has sometimes overdone it with the input-buffering, but I [personally] really suffer from its absence in Death's Gambit. I frequently miss dodges, jumps, and attacks because I press the button a split-second before the previous animation has completed, and so the character just stands there and takes a hit. This makes the controls feel unresponsive, even though there isn't really an input lag.

Lastly, developer White Rabbit or publisher Adult Swim (I'm not sure who to blame this one on) decided to put a big black box with a logo in the top of the recorded footage -- kind of like a watermark. So I can't capture screenshots from the console's capture feature unless I want a big, fat black box covering the top left corner. I have to use the Twitch stream instead. I've seen other games that put similar stamps on captured footage (such as Nioh putting copyright info in the bottom corner). This practice is obnoxious, and it needs to stop!

Game publishers need to stop imposing these ugly watermarks in captured footage.

I keep my experience?!

Death's Gambit departs from its Dark Souls inspirations in its death mechanics. Instead of losing all your accumulated experience (shards) when you die, you instead lose a Pheonix Feather, which is this game's equivalent of a healing Estus charge. So each successive death reduces your healing potential and effectively makes the game harder. You can also lose multiple feathers in this way, so if you die in one area and then decide to challenge a different area instead (without first picking up your lost feather), you can lose another feather in the new area. You'd then be down two feathers, and have to go to two different places to pick them up.

You may have to grind for the shards needed to reclaim lost Pheonix Feathers.

You don't lose your experience however, and you can spend experience at the Death Shrines (checkpoints) to reclaim your lost feathers. The cost will go up as the game progresses, which can lead to some more annoyances. If you lose your feather in a place that is not easy to get back to, or if you lose it in a boss chamber and don't want to challenge that boss again, you will have to spend experience to reclaim those feathers, or accept that you have to move forward with less healing potential. However, gaining the experience necessary to reclaim those feathers may require some annoying and tedious farming -- unless you had the foresight to leave yourself with a reserve of experience for that very occasion. There just aren't very many places in the game that are well-suited to farming, so you have to go really far out of your way to do it.

The game also drops your feather at the exact location that you died. There aren't any bottomless pits for you to permanently lose your feathers in, but you can get them stuck in obnoxiously-difficult traps.

Pheonix feathers are dropped on the spot you died, including in the middle of obnoxious traps.

The upside to this respawn formula is that your character development doesn't get dead-ended if you die a couple times in a row. If you fail in one area, you don't have to farm somewhere else to level up in order to proceed. The game will also give you a small sum of shards when you die to bosses, but only if you deal more damage to the boss than you had previously. The amount of shards you get will be dependent on how much of the boss's health you chip away. Even if you get stone-walled by a difficult boss, and keep throwing yourself at it repeatedly, you might still be given a drip-feed of shards that you can eventually use to level up.

It's not a strict improvement over Dark Souls, nor is it a strict downgrade; it's just different. Both games require farming to replace lost resources, they just shift that farming to different circumstances. The downside to Death's Gambit is that having to reclaim your lost feathers often forces you to retry the same place that killed you, since you'd otherwise be stuck trying to challenge a different area with the handicap of less healing. If an area proves too hard in Dark Souls, however, you can write off your lost souls and just go explore somewhere else. There also just aren't very many good places to farm for shards. So if you need to level up or buy more Crystal Bombs to replace all the ones that you used up against the Dark Knight, you have to go very far out of your way to earn enough shards.

Bosses provide small amounts of experience, even when they kill you.

Death's Gambit is much more forgiving with death in general, especially considering that you never permanently lose anything from dying. Dark Souls, on the other hand, is more punishing, but is easier to manage by banking your souls whenever you can, and has plenty of readily-available farming so that you don't have to waste as much time running across the entire game map to accumulate enough experience to level.

Fast Travel? Or traveling fast

Perhaps my favorite deviation from the Souls formula is the use of a horse as a pseudo-fast travel mechanic. You can't teleport from checkpoint shrine to checkpoint shrine in Death's Gambit, which means that you'll learn the layout of the environments pretty well over the course of play. You'll also revisit areas from other directions, which may help you find secrets that you may have missed.

If you do need to get back to the Central Sanctuary or to another area on the opposite end of the map, there is a "Rider's Passage" tunnel that links up many areas of the map. You can ride your horse along this passage to get to places quickly. There's even bells that you can ring (continuing with a motif from Dark Souls) to summon the horse to your present position. The horse will even trample and kill any grunt enemies that may stand in your way. This is a sensical and functional pseudo-fast travel system that I like a lot. It's not "fast travel"; it's "traveling fast".

Use your horse to "fast travel" around the map, and trample any grunts who dare stand in your way.

Even this brilliant mechanic is not perfect though. A lot of the game's map is very vertical, and the horse only traverses the one horizontal tunnel. Spreading the map out over more horizontal space would have made the horse feel much more useful. For the first half of the game, the horse is barely faster than walking, which means it's generally not worth travelling the vertical distance to get to the Rider's Passage. For a large chunk of the second half of the game, the horse is stuck behind a one-way locked shortcut gate, and so you can't even use it at all. The horse is a great idea, but it's sorely under-utilized.

More fluid controls would be more enjoyable

You won't have to deal with these annoyances for long, as Death's Gambit is a pretty short little game. It is, however, just long enough for the nagging annoyances to become frequent and pervasive enough to start to drag down the experience in the second half.

If the character handled a bit more fluidly, if some of the cheap deaths and grind had been toned down a notch or two, and if the horse was present and useful as a fast travel tool for more of the game, then this would be a very easy game to recommend. As it stands, however, there are better games for you to invest your money and time into. For example, playing this game encouraged me to finally pick up Salt & Sanctuary, which, based on my limited play with it so far, is a much better 2-D Dark Souls clone.

Play Death's Gambit if you want. As a Dark Souls aficionado, I was intrigued to play this alternative take on the Souls formula. But for most players, it might end up being a little more frustrating than it's worth.

Are the chests with regenerating health really necessary?

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