Oscar Wilde once said in De Profundis that most people “are other people; their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation”. Harsh, perhaps, but it teaches a valuable lesson, especially if we apply it to the world of art. There is effectively nothing new under the sun, and everything which exists is a patchwork of influences sewn together to create a cohesive and original whole. That’s how art works; we digest the things that make us excited and add a little of our lived experience, creating something that’s unique while still bearing clear influence from other works.
We see this in the world of video games too. Way back in 2011, Japanese company FromSoftware released the dark fantasy RPG Dark Souls, thus changing the video game landscape for the foreseeable future and birthing a legion of imitators. Games like Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary and The Surge proudly wear their Dark Souls influence on their sleeve, sporting mechanics and aesthetics often lifted lovingly from the Souls series.
Most of these games also have something unique about them that sets them apart; Salt and Sanctuary has Metroidvania elements, The Surge is set in a sci-fi future, and Lords of the Fallen, erm, is over far too quickly. Dark Souls is an influence on these games, but it doesn’t necessarily define them; rather, it serves as a template from which they can develop their own unique vision. Although many of us can name mechanics we’ve seen before when playing a game, it’s rare that we sit down to experience a genuine, bona fide rip-off, an honest-to-goodness forgery with almost no identity of its own.
Unfortunately, that’s really the only way to describe Los Angeles developer White Rabbit Games’ first effort, Death’s Gambit, a 2D Souls-like with Metroidvania elements. It’s not often that a game gives away its intentions on its loading screen, but anyone who’s played any of the Dark Souls games will immediately be able to spot the font in which the word “Loading” is written. If one was to be kind, one could say that this is intentional; it’s a settling back into the comfort zone, a way to signal to fans of these games that, yes, you have opened the ominous-looking oak doors to your happy place, and you know exactly what to expect.
If this is the case, though, then Death’s Gambit is doubly disappointing. Although it aims to copy From Software’s homework word-for-word, it doesn’t speak their language, so it’s got no idea what it’s writing. Taking place in a dark medieval fantasy world (don’t they all), Death contacts main character Sorun to dispatch the immortal protectors of the land of Siradon. Along the way, you get insight into Sorun’s backstory and his reason for coming to this place. It’s all steeped in ambiguity so perhaps it’s best to wait for the requisite phonebook fan encyclopedia before you delve into this one too much.
Of course, if you do so, you might not actually find anything worth delving for, because Death’s Gambit is the latest in a long line of pretenders to the Souls throne, and it makes the exact same fatal narrative mistake that almost all of them have. When playing through Dark Souls (less so its sequels), it’s hard not to feel like director Hidetaka Miyazaki knows exactly what the significance is of every single element in that world, whether he communicates it to the player or not. To varying degrees, each pretender has failed to follow in Miyazaki’s footsteps, so the worlds of these games tend to resemble hollowed-out replicas with none of the soul or gravity.
Here’s the storytelling formula for this genre. Take one dark fantasy world in which death is impermanent, with bonus points if you manage to awkwardly shoehorn it into the story. This story should be very unclear, with all characters talking in cryptic word-salad style; always replace short words with long ones if you can, because that sounds way cooler. Bosses should all have very dignified-sounding names and titles, but you don’t need to give any thought to what they actually mean within their world. “Manus, Father of the Abyss” was an awesome name, right? Your world should contain nothing but names like this, for the bosses, the locations, and even the NPCs. Finally, each item the player picks up should have some oblique bit of backstory attached to it followed by a chin-stroking thought for the day-style question, such as “what if the gods are blind?”.
Death’s Gambit falls into every single one of these traps. Its world is ill-thought-out and boring, bringing to mind Darksiders with its wordy dialogue, dull characters, and cardboard cut-out protagonist. Making Sorun an actual character in his own right is a grave misstep; when the backstory of the setting is the biggest mystery to the player, adding another less interesting mystery just dilutes the narrative. At best, the protagonist should be significant only in their role, not in their personality. Sorun is a generic reactive slab, and his dialogue is breathtakingly mundane when it’s not outright bizarre. It’s clear the writers didn’t quite know what to do with Sorun, so sometimes he’s a sarcastic back-talker with all the wit of a screaming hyena, and other times he’s a wise man, philosophically expounding on the events of the day, or trying to, at any rate.
The game’s NPCs don’t fare much better. Death’s Gambit is trying for a cast of weary wanderers, each with their own backstory, but the weak, lackluster voice acting and mediocre writing puts paid to this sharpish. The characters and world of Death’s Gambit don’t feel lived-in or designed. Instead, they feel decidedly “video game”-y, just a setting for the player to kill some sweet bosses, gather some loot and explore. In another game which was more sure of its own identity, this might be a fine objective to settle for, but since Death’s Gambit is clearly such a hollow imitation, it misses the mark by a country mile.
There are going to be plenty of people who don’t care one whit for narrative design, and only want an enjoyably challenging game to tickle the same neurons games of this genre usually do. I’d argue those people are missing the point somewhat, but I do understand that argument, and Death’s Gambit fares slightly better in this area, but only slightly. The combat is…decent. It’s a reasonable facsimile of Souls-style stamina management, punishing enemy weak points and watching for sudden ambushes. There’s a pleasing variety of enemy designs on display, and a few of the weapons almost feel satisfying, with greatswords and scythes packing a pleasing punch.
Despite this promising start, though, Death’s Gambit undermines its solid combat foundations at every turn. The game’s collision detection is terrible, with enemy hitboxes frequently out of range when they shouldn’t be and vice versa. Likewise, when an enemy actually does hit you, there’s absolutely no sense of weight or impact. Taking a blow from a massive knight with a huge sword should feel solid and weighty, the vibration shooting up your shield arm as you skid across the arena. Death’s Gambit has no moments like this, and most attacks simply touch Sorun, dealing an absurdly massive amount of damage in the process. Simply put, although the combat is functional, it never feels enjoyable.
This is partly down to the punishing difficulty level. The whole of Death’s Gambit is very hard, but it doesn’t feel designed around that difficulty level. There are several points in the game where enemies will group up, quickly becoming completely impossible to surmount. Some enemies can even spawn slightly less powerful versions of early-game bosses and can do so ad infinitum, completely out of the player’s reach.
Bosses can be immense damage sponges, capable of ending Sorun in a single blow but taking a ridiculous amount of punishment themselves. I’ve heard some of the bosses referred to as “DPS checks” in this game, which rather speaks to the meat of the matter. This isn’t a game designed to be enjoyed, but to be min-maxed, exploited, and experimented with. Rather than being a game designed with love, care and attention, Death’s Gambit is a game designed to be broken, and so it’s broken from the beginning.
The final element of gameplay in Death’s Gambit is exploration, and it’s not really worth mentioning, to be honest. If you’ve played Super Metroid, then imagine a watered-down version of that where revisiting older areas isn’t really worth it and no new significant exploration elements are unlocked, and you’re pretty much there. The game’s Metroidvania elements pretty much come down to backtracking and unlocking shortcuts to older areas; the platforming isn’t particularly challenging, so it’s more of a nuisance than a mechanic since everything feels like it’s in service of the combat rather than exploration. There isn’t much in Death’s Gambit to see, anyway. The game’s criminally short, clocking in at around 8 hours, and the world design is so rote and flat that exploring it feels more like a chore than the intrepid expedition it should be.
All in all, Death’s Gambit falls far, far short of its primary influence. In a genre so overloaded with high-quality games, there’s really nothing Death’s Gambit does especially well to mark it out from the pack. With uninspired combat, rote exploration and a story that’s both incomprehensibly told and far too omnipresent, genre aficionados and newcomers alike would do well to look elsewhere. Oscar Wilde also said that “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”. There’s promise in White Rabbit yet, but to realize it, they’ll need to chalk Death’s Gambit up as the mistake it is and use the experience to create something more well-realized.
Death's Gambit shows moments of potential, but they're undercut by bad storytelling, flat combat, and a nagging sense that it's all been done better elsewhere.
- Occasionally Decent Combat
- Nice Pixel Visuals
- Variety In Character Builds
- Terrible Storytelling
- Flat, Uninspired World Design
- Intrusive Soundtrack
- Boring Bosses
- No Innovation