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Death's Gambit (PC) artwork

Death's Gambit (PC) review

"Whatever the gambit may have been, the execution comes up short."

You're Death's right hand. You'll explore the world of Siradon and "discover the true price of immortality." In a cool twist, you'll discover that dying is not permanent and that all of your deaths amount to progression on an alternate plane, and not simply to a literal pile of corpses in the real world. But much more significantly, you'll tackle this unforgiving side-scrolling adventure and discover the lamentable intersection of arresting art, misguided ambition and faulty, unsatisfying gameplay.

Death's Gambit has been compared to the Souls series, labeled a challenging metroidvania, and likened to Shadow of the Colossus. None of that is quite right. It's a small game, with closely connected passages made to seem even closer by the fact you can travel between areas on horseback. (You can just as easily get around without the horse, in which case your loyal steed stands in one place for the rest of the game, neglected and unwanted.)

The world of Siradon is sparsely populated, and the feeling its near uninhabited caverns, forests and hallways invokes, treads the line between haunting, Metroid-style isolation, and boredom inducing vacuity. But maybe that's part of the plan. Maybe this is the Shadow of the Colossus inspiration rearing its head, in which case, the lack of enemies would be by design. When the important enemies -- the bosses -- reveal themselves, it will all make sense. Right?

Regrettably, it's actually in this area that the game proves most disappointing. The bosses are admittedly intimidating -- some fill the entire screen. But their attack patterns are surprisingly basic and limited. Annoyingly, this fact does not preclude them from also being ridiculously damaging. It's as if you were playing some iteration of Street Fighter, and you came upon M. Bison or whoever, and he had at his disposal only a handful of moves: maybe a standing jab, a crouching short kick, and so on, but every time he touched you with one of his uninspired attacks, it depleted half your energy.

You would probably want to take evasive maneuvers in the face of such a powerful enemy. You would if you could, but your own move set is severely hamstrung. You can jump, and you can roll, and the rolling would be quite useful (and possibly all that you'd need), except for the fact that after a few rolls, your stamina is utterly sapped and you'll teeter, like a staggered prizefighter, totally defenseless for a few seconds which is the same thing as an eternity when incoming attacks register as catastrophic.

But hold that thought! Did you really take damage? There's no feedback from the game to suggest that you did, save the red numbers that flash on the screen while your vitality bar drains with a laughable quickness. Your character isn't knocked back, won't flicker indicating temporary invincibility, doesn't utter a sound to suggest pain. The lack of feedback is mutual too: you can walk through enemies and take damage or not take damage -- aside from the numerical indicators, who can tell? And so, if not through skillful evasion, how do you prevail? Simple: through the tedium of grinding your levels up over time, you can triumph through attrition (read: button mash to lose the race to 0 HP!).

And yet, despite all of these gameplay failings, Death's Gambit is as pretty as you'd heard, and still more broken than I've let on. I'd like to say that the sound design is the game's saving grace, but I can't. Yes, the music is beautiful and the voice acting is excellent, but sometimes the tunes abruptly cut off when you explore a new area, and the sound effects are sorely lacking. Opportunities were rife to really make the sound count, especially in a game wholly deficient with respect to general feedback: where is the clank of a sword against a shield? The sibilance of arrows through the air? Not here, not usually.

The controls too, range from counter intuitive to head-scratchingly pointless. Hold down the left bumper to climb a ladder while simultaneously pressing up? Why? And if you're looking to pause the action, just stop, because you can't, and shame on you for thinking that you would be able to. Early on, before I knew better, I actually thought I managed the feat during a battle, as I had brought up my item screen. But then I saw, just beneath the overlay of the item grid, my avatar being annihilated whilst I perused the menu. Fantastic.

I've noticed that there has been a lot of chatter outlining some of these same or similar complaints; many true believers have found themselves disappointed, considering the failings of Death's Gambit in its current state to be a terrible shame because they were on board with the Early Access version of the game, or else they wanted it to be a fantasy epic, or else a 2D Souls masterpiece, or all of the above. I had none of these expectations going in, so I'm not let down per se; I am not mourning what could have been. I can only accept Death's Gambit at face value for what it is -- a sumptuous potpourri of art and ideas not fully or properly implemented. And a below average adventure game.


Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (September 08, 2018)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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EmP posted September 08, 2018:

I honestly thought this would be your killer game for the year. The trailer had instant classic written all over it. But it's amazing how easily you can hid tiny levels behind spectacle. Good review on a game the world expected better of.
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Masters posted September 08, 2018:

I never thought that, to be honest. But I did expect better. Thanks for reading -- on to the next one!

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