At Death’s Gambit's main menu, we oversee the aftermath of chaos. "What could possibly have happened here?" we think to ourselves as the music swells. It provides a subtle hint of the events that unfurl, as your character, Sorun, suddenly gets dragged across the muddy terrain after a battle. Despite its gorgeously gothic medieval setting, nothing could quite prepare us for the challenges we later faced.
Set in the fantasy land of Siradon, a world rife with mystery and danger, a soldier dying on the battlefield signs a contract with Death. As a part of this contract, he must defeat every last immortal still looming Siradon. He agrees, and thus our adventure begins.
Death Gambit’s strikingly dark tone and pixelated design make it visually enjoyable to experience while acting as a main source of encouragement to progress further and unlock what else the world offers. You choose from seven classes, such as the Assassin, with an emphasis on quick snappy attacks, or the axe-wielding Blood Knight, with a thirst for aggressive combat. Whatever your pick, there’s room to play around and revisit different classes through multiple playthroughs, and each class requires a different method of approach in order to be successful in combat.
Serving as an action RPG first and platformer second, this side-scrolling game is punishingly reminiscent of the tough encounters experienced before it, including the infamous Dark Souls and Bloodborne franchises. Death’s Gambit also requires a great deal of strategy, from dodging to jumping to well-timed hits, with an emphasis on exploring its branching paths to obtain essential buffs and perks to enchant or consume, though few and far between. This is a necessity in order to survive its brutal bosses, which time and time again left us frustrated with how difficult they were to defeat. It's fortunate that their stylish character design and varied styles of attack keep the experience on good footing and prevent these battles from turning stale.
With so much emphasis on darkness and death, the difficulties to keep Death’s Gambit’s narrative to stay afloat often wavers as a result. The main ensemble of characters feel intriguing enough to want to maintain a rapport with and learn more about, but it doesn’t make it immune from its fair share of cliché moments and bad voice acting from some of its smaller roles. Having a mute character without a vocal lead feels like an odd design choice too, especially when responding to characters that are voiced and met with silence and subtitles.
Checkpoints, otherwise known as the aptly named Death Idols, provide a brief respite when times get tough. These statues grant players the gift to upgrade their health, stamina, and speed, as well as act as respawn points when you die. Idols are few and far between, and often involve starting a few minutes behind which can be slightly exhausting straight after a fight.
This is a game where you’ll probably die quite a lot, and developer White Rabbit knows as such. Each time you do, you drop a feather that you can either go back and obtain if you’re feeling lucky enough, or collect shards from enemies to regain them at Death Idols. These feathers can be used for health, and act as your lifeline in sticky situations. It’s not all doom and gloom upon death either, as the game cuts to some jarring cutscenes that attempt to retell Sorun’s history, or at least allude to it. These cutscenes are left to the player to piece together, and we were often left puzzled by them.
Our experience with Death’s Gambit, however, did falter at times. After trying out three new save files we encountered five occasions where our files corrupted, causing the game to crash at inconvenient moments. It rarely stole from the experience, but it did deter us from wanting to dabble with new playthroughs in fear that the same situation would occur again.
That being said, how Death’s Gambit stands as an actual platforming game is pretty poor, and chooses to lean on its RPG elements to chug along. It's not a bad choice, but with more interesting puzzles and platforming having been integrated, the overall experience would have felt more balanced and a little more wholesome. Although it provides a challenge with plenty of replay value being added through heroic rematches – replay encounters of boss fights – we doubt this is a game we’ll be playing months down the line.
Death’s Gambit is 40 per cent trial and error, 40 per cent reliant on upgrades, and 20 per cent luck. Racing to the next level only to be stopped abruptly in your path by an opposing foe issues an element of surprise and delightful unpredictability, and exploring its pixelated medieval world feels both refreshing and nostalgic. Though the inclusion of a fully voiced cast and more platforming elements wouldn’t go amiss, its difficult boss battle encounters are enough to keep you motivated, providing you have a great deal of patience, and are willing to put in some time upgrading your character and skill set. Just don't get mad if you die, like, a lot.