It might not be from a logical place, but the term ‘Souls-like’ has pretty much always bothered me. FromSoftware’s Souls games have a multitude of disparate parts that add up to make them unique and popular. While most people think of tightly balanced game feel and nerve-wrenching combat, the series also has smart storytelling and worldbuilding methods based on world design and player exploration. Watch Dogs’ hacking invasion system, in which one player invades another’s world and has to hide near the host for a period of time while they try to hunt and kill the invader, seems directly influenced by the asymmetrical nature of the Souls series’ multiplayer. So, does that make Watch Dogs a Souls-like game?
Still, the comparisons to Dark Souls are inevitable, no, unavoidable when playing a game like developer White Rabbit’s Death’s Gambit. This 2D indie wears its influence on its sleeve. In fact, Death’s Gambit has stolen Dark Souls’ skin.
Death’s Gambit is a 2D action-RPG in a dark fantasy setting called Siradon. You play as Sorun, a soldier revived by Death to fulfill an ultimate task: defeat the immortal beings plaguing the land and destroy the source of their undeath. Epic, world-altering quest; tick. Along the way, you meet moody, morally-ambiguous NPCs and terrifying bosses as you traverse from an interconnected hub area. Soulslike NPC and world design; tick.
One big change from the Souls formula is that Sorun’s story is heavily character-oriented on top of puzzle-piece worldbuilding. Having a set character has allowed White Rabbit to give Sorun a meaningful backstory that helps explain his presence in Siradon, and his determination in completing his task. It also allows him to have existing personal relations with some of the bosses. I found Sorun’s personal story far more compelling than his task, although by the end of the story they were intrinsically linked. Sorun’s tale touches upon themes of family and legacy, what one leaves behind, and how the world would stagnate without death and generational progress. By the game’s end, I found myself invested in Sorun. It’s a shame that he’s one of the only characters without a voice actor, which seems like an oversight rather than a deliberate choice.
The combat, while necessarily altered for a 2D plane, is still very much based around stamina management and learning attack patterns to successfully block, dodge, parry and find openings. Enemy variety ranges from your basic grunts, to towering black-iron knights with laser swords, to lurching, slimy monstrosities with too many teeth. The combat felt fun enough, and defeating enemies was always satisfying. However, the implementation of stamina felt unnecessary and unbalanced. Often, dodging and blocking an enemy’s full attack pattern would leave Sorun with little-to-no-stamina; at least, until I’d spent hours on his Endurance and Haste stats to increase the overall stamina bar and its regeneration speed. I’m not sure if the stamina bar really added much to the overall experience of Death’s Gambit; certainly, it could be implemented better.
When you die in Death’s Gambit, you don’t lose your currency (shards, rather than souls). Instead, you lose a healing item (feathers). You can try to make to make it back to where you died to regain that heal, or you can spend a level-up’s worth of shards at a Death Idol (bonfire) to recall all lost feathers. I didn’t have to do this often; mostly, I’d do so if I’d lost a few feathers over different zones in a previous play session, and couldn’t recall exactly where to find them.
The other major difference from Dark Souls is to do with class selection. Each starting class has a unique ability; I chose the Blood Knight, which allows for a Bloodborne-esque health regain when attacking after taking damage. Another, the Acolyte of Death, can patch up broken Death Idols, essentially gaining more checkpoints. Once I’ve had a bit of a break, I’m excited to dip back into Death’s Gambit and try some of the other classes. Once you’ve picked a class, you can still change your weapon and equipment and experiment with your stat build, like other Soulslike titles, but you can’t change your classes’ ability.
Death’s Gambit excels in its world design. It borrows the best elements from Dark Souls’ world layout, allowing the player to explore in multiple directions from a central hub, and discover bosses in whatever order they like. It feels like there’s an intended progression in boss difficulty, but there’s nothing to stop you from taking on really tough areas earlier than expected. The game rewards your exploration with stunning pixel art. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some great surprise zones that toy with your expectations of the setting, with homages to classic 2D action games.
Last and least, bugs. I only encountered two bugs, both game crashes. The first was forgivable, as I can’t actually remember when it took place, but the second crash took place towards the end of the final boss fight, forcing me to restart it from scratch after reloading the game. Still, neither really affected my overall experience with Death’s Gambit.
Death’s Gambit doesn’t really have its own identity, but it stand strong despite its nature as an homage piece. The little license it has taken with the Soulsborne formula, it’s character-oriented storyline, allows it to talk a little in its own voice. It could do more to differentiate itself from its peers and heritage, but it’s still an incredibly enjoyable experience well worth checking out.
REVIEW CODE: A FREE Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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