By now, we’ve all heard the definition of a “Souls-like” game. Typically, this is given to any game that has a modicum of difficulty and boss fights. Games are defined as the “Dark souls of *insert genre here.* However, for fans of the Souls Born saga, this more often is an insult to one of our favorite franchises, rather than a compliment to a new game.
Dark Souls, or any of the “SoulsBorne” Saga (Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne and soon to be Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice) have for more to them than their difficulty. Sure, how hard the games are draws people into them, an answer to a challenge, however most who stick around with the SoulsBorne games, fall in love with everything they have to offer; the music, the level design, the environment, the lore and so much more. That’s why calling a game “the Dark Souls” of it’s genre isn’t received with thunderous applause, but rather begrudged moans.
This however, is not a review about how tired I am of hearing games defined as “the dark souls of.” No. I give these first few paragraphs to show you what it means when I say a game reminds me of dark souls. To give you a reason for understanding why I reference the Dark Souls games so often while writing this article, and to allow better allow you to understand when a game scratches my proverbial itch.
Because Death’s Gambit, has done just that.
You awaken to your body being dragged through a battlefield. The corpses of your fallen brothers and sisters lay beside and even underneath you.
You were a coward. You ran.
You fleeted away, but not fast enough. All the guilt of running from battle, met now by all of the shame. However, Death has other plans for you. He cuts a deal with you, the Grim Reaper that is, for your life. He will keep you alive, even bring you back from the dead, if in exchange you become his soldier to fight against the villains of the world. The Immortals.
Typically, I start this section off with what the overall gameplay is like and the aesthetic of your environment, and we will get to all of that, don’t worry. However I’d like to start off this section with something I’m quite a nerd about when it comes to video games. Something that I love so much about them, yet rarely talk about in my articles. I’m going to start with the thing I crave most from my gaming experience.
When a game has good lore, it has to lean on a lot of different things; the gameplay, the music, the yada yada. But when a game has GREAT lore, it rarely has to rely on ANYTHING. Something that Death’s Gambit and the SoulsBorne games share is how readily accessible their lore is. Explicitly, there isn’t a whole lot said. You could play through the game, beat all the bosses, and receive the Thanks For Playing screen without knowing anything or anyone throughout the game. However, when you begin to look deeper, you see this incredible story begin to unfold. A story about a giant race called the Gaian, and where they all went. Where you are, and why you’re there. How these people became to be immortals. Warring factions, underground civilizations, sacrifices, motivations, reasons, etc.
The world becomes deeper. You begin to feel for these people, even your enemies. Some are trying to do good, and you must reluctantly battle them, making you question whether or not you’re not just the “good guy” but a good person. Other enemies are begging you to take their lives, only living because it is all they know how to do anymore. These monsters become people, their world becomes your own, their story becomes yours.
That is a great game.
I won’t spoil too much here, especially for a story I have yet to fully and completely piece together and comprehend. However, I will say that lore doesn’t have a gameplay neutral nature in Death’s Gambit like it does in other games.
You see, the more lore you find on a certain boss, you will end up doing more intrinsic damage to them. First piece gives you +5 percent, next gives you +10, and the one after that +15. Collecting all the lore on a certain boss in a certain area can have a huge impact on how well you do in their fight. Allowing for one of my personal favorite parts of a game’s story, to be an invaluable piece of the game as a whole.
It is a 2D, 16 bit action adventure platformer, so now you know what you’re getting into, and if that is what turns you off, you can now click off the website, the article, and go back to playing other games, I will not stop you. I know many who are simply not interested in pixel art games or platformers, no matter how good they are, and that is fine. You like what you like, and I will never judge you for that. I applaud your knowledge of how well you know your preferred style of game.
Now what does it ACTUALLY play like?
When you start, you are given a standard character screen. You are not allowed to change your appearance or physic or gender, however you may change your starting class, which gives you a certain starting weapon and starting stats. You may pick a starting item as well. I call these charms. They give you a small boost in the very, VERY beginning, but overall they don’t do a whole lot. I myself chose a pendant that has no special properties and cannot be used at all. Seriously, that is how much your charm ends up mattering.
Your weapons on the other hand, matter quite a lot. Weapons come with different combos that take 3 attacks to finish, the third attack dealing the most damage in the chain. Each weapon has a certain damage stat that is it’s base damage. You may use hard earned materials to increase a weapon’s base damage, or find/buy more powerful weapons throughout your game. However, there is a way for you to increase a weapon’s damage that is easier, not as expensive, and much more drastic.
As I mentioned before, you start out with certain stats depending on the type of warrior you chose. When you kill enemies, you collect shards, the game’s currency. You can use these shards to level up your character by spending them on 1 upgrade point to your stats. Now each weapon scales with your stats; axes, swords, greatswords, halberds scale with your Strength stat, Scythes, spears and bows scale with your Finesse stat, Spells and tomes scale with your Intellect stat. There’s also Vitality (health), endurance (stamina) and Haste (stamina regeneration). Spending these points is a ton of fun, plus you get to see your character slowly get stronger and really become your own.
On top of that, there is a talent tree. Every time you kill one of the major bosses, you are given a Talent Point, which you can then use to upgrade your character. For instance, I have an upgrade that allows me to take %25 of the damage I would have taken if I hadn’t blocked, and heal for that much, but only if I’m below a certain amount of health. Or there are upgrades where you gain health back for every successful hit after taking damage, much like BloodBorne.
One of the more valuable parts of combat however, are the abilities. You can learn abilities from NPCs all over, allowing you to deal more damage, shoot more arrows at once, slam into the ground for massive damage, etc. However these abilities are weapon specific. Meaning if you find an ability that suits your playstyle more, but it is for a sword and you have a spear, you need to find a sword to use it. And if you’ve leveled up a different stat than that weapon would use, it may not even be worth it.
Some may find these systems to be limiting. For instance if I were to level up all the way in Finesse and later find a sword I really like but it requires strength and my strength is at like, 3, then I can’t use that weapon. This is true, but it also supplies a consequence for your build, which makes it much more personal, and it supplies a replayability factor to accommodate different play styles you may want to employ.
Last part of combat that is important are Auras. They aren’t always necessarily for combat, but they are useful. You find auras throughout the world and they have their own equip slot. Auras give you things like additional movement speed after killing enemies, extra health until you die again, an overshield that takes your first hit after resting at a shine, etc. Auras are not necessary, and oftentimes don’t make too drastic of a difference in gameplay, however they are nice to have in a pinch and can really help you gain just enough of an edge to defeat a particular boss you’re struggling with.
In summary, here’s the bare bones of it: You can carry 2 weapons, 3 abilities, 4 items (like bombs or antidotes) 1 aura, 1 shield and 2 armor (helmet and boots, giving you boosts to certain stats usually, like +4 vitality) I didn’t talk about a couple of these things because they are not very important as far as actively playing the game is concerned, however they are good passive buffs.
MUSIC AND ART:
For any who have read my previous articles, this section will sound very similar. In fact, it may sound EXACTLY like my last article’s music and art segment, but I’m still gonna write it because
When I booted the game up for the first time, I felt, even as weird as it may sound, like I was sitting and listening to a Studio Ghibli movie. The orchestral parts were so moving and the music flowed in a wonderfully beautiful way. I often start my streams with some royalty free music on a starting soon screen, but with this game, I opted to simply let the game play in the background. The music was gorgeous.
It only got better the further along I went, suspenseful areas filled me with angst, boss fights with excitement and dread, exploring new areas meant exploring new music, and that was more than enough reason for me.
Art and visuals was equally as brilliant. There’s something to be said about pixel art that cannot be expressed. It truly is gorgeous. The set pieces are amazing, animations fluid and responsive, and bosses are unique! With bigger bosses it isn’t as impressive simply because to animate them in pixel art, rigging them is faster than pixeling their movements, making them move more like those paper figures you would make in school with the little tacs on the knees, elbows and other joints. It gives the illusion of movement, but looks very disjointed. Beside from that though, which is a rare enough occurrence thus far I considered not putting it in the article, the game is eye candy. Even in the most stressful boss fights I found myself studying the boss’s movements and realizing how fluid and beautiful they were. Typically right before I missed a shield block and died, but still.
Overall Impressions, I thoroughly enjoy this game. I feel like I sang a lot of praise during this review, and didn’t point out enough flaws. Honestly though, that’s because in my eyes, the game has very little wrong with it. Wonderful world building, incredible design, even full voice acting (except your own character’s voice.)
In the end, for $19.99, this game scratched my SoulsBorne itch, without being as punishing, and with a story and world full of life and love. This is a game that White Rabbit should be proud to have made. A game that sung to my heart deeper than I expected, and has me crawling back after… Every. Single. Death.
Death’s Gambit is out now for 19.99 USD and is available on PS4 and Windows OS as of the time of this writing.