‘Death’s Gambit’ Brings Its Own Ideas to the Souls Formula

Jeremy Ray
Games PlayStation
Games PlayStation Indie Games PC Gaming

Check your watches, because it’s about time for another 2D pixel art Soulslike with Metroidvania elements. Death’s Gambit wears its Dark Souls influence squarely on its tattered sleeve. And since this type of thing is exactly our jam, we’re rolling around in the excess of indie Soulslikes like pigs in mud.

It’s a niche-but-not-so-niche genre that grows by the month, as indies code their love letters to the Soulsborne formula and add their own unique flourishes. For fans of the formula, our cups runneth over.

Death’s Gambit, like the best of these, throws in quite a few of its own ideas while also seeming instantly familiar to any Souls fan. It’s got the roll with invincibility frames, it’s got the equivalent of bonfires, and it forces you to touch the point of your death. All of which are good, and we’d even be happy with a straight 2D Souls clone, but there’s more than enough to make this game fresh.

Starting Weapons and Skills

While your class doesn’t make too much of a difference in the long run (you can upgrade whichever attribute you want when levelling up), there are some huge differences in starting weapons. Certain weapons like the scythe are a little tougher to get your head around, and come with lore implications — in this case you’re actually working for Death.

True to the formula, weapons come with their own movesets. But there’s also a completely new and separate talent tree you’ll invest into as you level up. These passive benefits can be as simple as regenerating stamina faster while you block, or being able to dodge in the air, to more complex techniques like combo finishers that increase your damage if you switch weapons afterwards. In fact, Death’s Gambit’s emphasis on combo finishers is quite reminiscent of Dead Cells.

The Protagonist jumps in the air for a large scythe attack.
The scythe can take some getting used to, but all weapons have great perks.

Scoring hits will build up Soul Energy, which is in turn used for skills. These skills are purchasable from vendors and meant for specific weapons. Spears, for example, can perform a thrust forward, covering more distance.

There’s a nice interplay between talents and skills, as some of the talents provide conditional increases to Soul Energy. The skills used then reward you for certain playstyles and tricks.

Holding up shield while enemies shoot arrows.
You can be block-heavy, or go for parries.

Feathers Are the New Flasks

Instead of dropping your “souls” in Death’s Gambit, you drop your healing items. Feathers take the place of your Estus flask in this game, and you’ll be able to collect many more of these than the Estus shards you’re used to.

That means you need to return to the place of your death to reclaim your healing items, as opposed to just your currency for levelling up. That’s a notch more brutal than usual.

The Protagonist is on his knees with a sun in the background.
Many images are extremely reminiscent of Souls games.

The flipside is when you start to collect a LOT of these feathers, you can actually invest them into boosting The Protagonist. By taking them out of the pile of available healing feathers, you can put them into the pile of feathers increasing your damage. It’s only a small amount – 10% or so for each feather – but if you can spare it, and doing it will turn a four-hit kill into a three-hit kill on area monsters, it’s definitely worth it.

Boss Fights Have Gimmicks

We mean “gimmick” in a good way. There’s a bit of experimentation at work in these boss fights, and while there are hits and misses, we admire the bravery and innovation.

Probably the best example of what we mean is one particular fight which takes place on top of a stone platform at high altitude. The platform isn’t stable, and standing on either side will cause it to tilt. Too much of that, and it slides away, sending you to your death.

Jumping into the air to hit Kaern with a greatsword.
Fighting Kaern while keeping his platform balanced can be tough.

Keep in mind, the boss has weight too. On top of that, it’ll conjure ice blocks from the air to smash down on top of you. Not only do you have to avoid the blocks, you have to manage the overall balance of weight on the platform by smashing the right ice blocks.

All told, the other, “safer” boss fights are better and more refined, but we’re suckers for a bit of experimentation like this. It’s exactly in the spirit of Souls games, too — people forget how experimental Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were, and the missteps along the way like World Tendency or Bed of Chaos.

The Protagonist looks up at one of the toughest characters.
There are bosses the size of titans in the game, but the most deadly can be your size.

Possibly because it would be quite unfair to have you wander into a boss fight only to slide off a platform to your death, Death’s Gambit has a system in place to mitigate this. You’ll gain a large amount of souls for damaging the boss on your first try — the more damage you do, the more you’ll get.

We often had enough to level up after this, though we suspect the system exists to let you buy back your healing feather if you want to postpone that fight. Let’s call it the “nope” system.

Is Death’s Gambit Good?

Souls fans are, naturally, connoisseurs of Soulslikes. So we’ve played a few of these over the last few years. One of the best, if not the best, is also one of the first: Salt and Sanctuary. Part of why that was so good is not only did it understand what made this style of game so great, it also added enough unique flavour for the player to continue to learn interesting systems.

Death’s Gambit has enough of that, with interesting synergies between talents and skills, to reach the level of a decent Soulslike. There is a lot of homage in the game, to be sure. But there’s also a lot of interesting challenges. You’ll have a few “nope” moments and come back later to conquer that gauntlet through a combination of increased stats and knowledge of the enemy. Death’s Gambit will scratch your Souls itch for a while, in a satisfying way, before we go back to hungering for Sekiro.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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