Indie Game of the Week 170: Death's Gambit

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Gotta say, all of Jan's gallivanting around Yharham put me in the mood for another Soulslike, even though it wasn't that long ago I completed The Surge. Fortunately, Death's Gambit is a bit shorter and less intense than most games of its type, following Salt and Sanctuary and Hollow Knight's approach of a side-scrolling 2D game that can throw in a few mechanics from the explormer sub-genre to supplement the Souls-inspired action-RPG core. A knight in the service of the nation of Vados, you and your squad are suddenly cut down by a pack of powerful Immortals: once-human demi-gods who have determined how to cheat Death. Naturally, Death himself isn't too thrilled about this and gives you the choice of entering his servitude: destroy the source of the Immortals' power deep within their stronghold and take your vengeance, and he'll keep bringing you back from the brink of annihilation until your task is completed (or you can tear up his contract and go "Ironman mode" if you prefer).

The "Soulslike" as a genre construct, in addition to needing a better name, is still relatively in its nascency despite being the product of a long history of methodical real-time RPGs dating back to the original Dungeon Master in 1987 (or earlier still, if you consider Falcom's Dragon Slayer or Namco's Tower of Druaga). That means that while FromSoftware codified a lot with Demon's Souls and the games to follow - "difficulty" which is largely dependent on memorizing enemy and trap pattern recognition, shrewdly upgrading stats and equipment, and gaining familiarity with the combat engine; you can recover what you lost after death if you can manage to reach your body; level design that is frequently recursive and involves shortcuts and hidden routes to areas new and old; a "jigsaw puzzle" approach to lore that is derived from vague contextual clues and item descriptions that make more sense when combined; and a general apocalyptic malaise that is baked into the weathered aesthetic and crumbling topography alike - there's no specific quality that can't be modified if it serves the type of adventure you want to make instead. An example with Death's Gambit is how, upon death, you don't lose your currency/experience "souls" surrogate but rather one of your stock of regenerating curatives (the game's equivalent of Estus Flasks). You can then run back to recover the curative or pay at the level-up shrine to have it returned to you if it's in a place you're not eager to revisit, though there's no risk of losing it permanently if you should happen to die again. This set-up means you're never in that situation where you're underlevelled from losing too many huge caches of souls out of carelessness, but what you leave behind is always worth finding your way back to one way or another. Another kindness is that you can earn a percentage of a boss's reward in souls by how much of its health bar you managed to drop before it killed you: you won't gain any more unless you beat your record on a subsequent attempt (or win), but that little boost might be enough for the extra level you need to tip the balance in your favor. There's also how you can break down items in your inventory into soul stones and then use those stones to upgrade your preferred weapons and gear, or a skilltree partially based on the player's chosen class that offers various passive and active skills but can only be traversed with items earned from bosses.

The game's fond of its little references, like this angry phoenix's napalm bombing run here.
The game's fond of its little references, like this angry phoenix's napalm bombing run here.

Death's Gambit is full of these little touches of convenience, though the jury's out on how much easier it actually makes the game. Most of these features more in the service of allaying frustration with Souls' more demanding (or trolly) aspects. The combat too takes some directions many games of this sub-genre don't usually visit. There's a few cases where DPS is important, such as chests that you have to break open but are constantly regenerating their endurance, or a certain boss with a lot of vitality that slowly destroys more of the arena as the battle presses on and demands you finish it off before you have nowhere safe left to stand. Enemy attacks are much more contingent on learning the specific hitboxes and reach of their weapon swings, and adapting to the combat is often the case of knowing how far back is safe or dodge-rolling at the point of contact to i-frame yourself free of damage. Each weapon has its own suite of special abilities you can buy and use (all of which operate on cooldowns and an "energy" stat that builds up after causing damage), which makes each weapon type an investment but never so much that you're forced to stick with any one of them - it's not quite like Nioh where you have to pour a lot of finite building points into mastering a specific style. Like with most Soulslikes, I've found the more compelling bosses and encounters are against humanoid foes that use speed and skill against you, as opposed to the enormous lumbering foes that are nonetheless visually impressive.

The biggest detriment to Death's Gambit is a technical one, and one that (after reading around a bit) seems to affect everyone differently depending on whether they're playing on an underpowered or overpowered system. Because the game seemingly has no fixed FPS, it'll constantly speed up and slow down depending on the local sprite count and nearby particle effects. When it's fast, it feels a little too chaotic and difficult to follow. When it's slow, it feels like you're wading through molasses and perhaps makes the game a little too easy, as you have all the time in the world to read and evade a telegraphed attack. However, that it seems to flip between fast and slow at any given moment makes it feel like I'm playing an obnoxious action movie from the '00s than the melancholy slow burn its aesthetic suggests it to be, and I'm wondering if a toggle to lock the FPS might not go unappreciated. As it is, it's not a dealbreaker, but it is another reminder that performance is usually the most vital component of a video game to get right, especially when so much of the gameplay is predicated on timing.

This guy's ode to Super Mario World's Iggy Koopa made for an interesting fight. One handy if perhaps unnecessary boon is indicating on the boss health bar when their next
This guy's ode to Super Mario World's Iggy Koopa made for an interesting fight. One handy if perhaps unnecessary boon is indicating on the boss health bar when their next "phase" begins.

Overall, though, I'm having a fine enough time with Death's Gambit. It seemed to underwhelm its early adopters when it released in 2018, but perhaps I'm playing a version that - while still far from perfect, see above - has been improved considerably since its initial release. It's not the most imaginative game in the wider Soulslike canon, as a morose fallen soldier cursed to forever resurrect until his task is complete, but I still appreciate the game's stabs at lore around its Immortal foes and at a wider world outside of this immediate region; one fun aspect of the way the game handles lore is that you can find tomes that give you some background on a boss, which also has the benefit of a 5% damage boost against them if they've yet to be fought. Visually, the game can suffer some lesser "paper doll" style animations, but the pixel art is otherwise fairly decent and shines with its backgrounds and larger foes. Even if it is lavishly devoted to Souls, the experience of playing Death's Gambit frequently intimates that its developers know that franchise well enough to have replicated its more subtle qualities in addition to the broader touchstones. It's challenging to do one of these games right even disregarding the limitations of an Indie studio's budget, but Death's Gambit has acquitted itself well enough so far.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (I might have a little more to add onto this review once I've completed the game sometime this weekend, so watch this space.)

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