Metroidvania fans have had much reason to rejoice the last couple of years. Mostly thanks to the Indie development scene, 2D Metroidvanias have sprung back to life in a big way. The genre has both seen a look back to the greats in the series for inspiration while combining them with new genres for a breath of fresh air. Most notably rogue-likes and souls-likes have elevated Metroidvanias to new heights, creating a raft of modern classics.
Back in 2018, developer White Rabbit threw their own creation into the ring with Death’s Gambit for PS4 and PC. The original release of the game, inspired by Castlevania and Dark Souls, met with a mixed reception. Since then, White Rabbit has continued to work on and improve the game, the results of that work have been the Afterlife update/DLC. As a free update to Death’s Gambit owners, White Rabbit added 11 new levels to the game, along with 5 new bosses, new weapons and a serious mechanical overhaul to make this the definitive edition of Death’s Gambit. They’ve also released the game on Switch with the Death’s Gambit: Afterlife edition, making this the game it should have been on launch.
The world of Siradon is embroiled in conflict. The Guardians of the realm have discovered the key to immortality and an endless war is been fought over this very secret. Death itself, of course, is less than enthused with the situation. As Sorun, a soldier who has fallen in battle, Death has struck up a bargain with you, gifting you immortality in exchange for destroying the source of immortality in Siradon. You eagerly accept the terms as you have your own reasons for delving deeper into Siradon’s mysteries. Personal ones.
That is the setup for Death’s Gambit, a sprawling, Gothic Souls-like Metroidvania that combines the best elements of both genres to create a moody, atmospheric action platforming RPG that easily stands amongst the best in the genre.
Visually Death’s Gambit is a gorgeous 2D game with wonderfully detailed characters, animations and environments. The game enthuses a moody aesthetic with its Gothic architecture and fairy-tale landscapes. The sense of a broken world comes through in spades with a world-building aesthetic reminiscent of From Software’s original juggernaut, Demon’s Souls. Siradon is a broken world, highlighted by the broken architecture and even the sparseness of enemies per screen. Whether it’s the telegraphing of enemy attacks or the way grass sunders as you cut it, Death’s Gambit is gorgeously stylish.
Unlike most recent Metroidvanias and Souls-likes though, Death’s Gambit favours a straightforward approach to its narrative. As you progress further into the game, there’s plenty of dialogue and cutscenes to flesh the story out. You’re not just placed in the dark with the hope that you can piece it all together. But like the Souls games, it’s a rich narrative filled to the brim with its own world lore. Whether that’s told to you by the various characters you meet or through the equipment you pick up with their own histories and descriptions, Death’s Gambit is every bit as rich, detailed and complicated as anything else you’re likely to see in the dark fantasy genre.
As fantastic as I found the lore and story, it’s in the level layout and combat that Death’s Gambit truly shines.
Not having played the original vanilla release, I can’t tell you how much of Afterlife’s level layout has changed since then. But what I can say is that the game certainly feels like a sprawling Metroidvania title through and through. Each area is themed, with multiple entries and exits that you can only reach once you’ve progressed further into the game or gained new abilities. If you’ve played a Metroidvania or Souls game before, then you know how progression works. Your forward momentum will be either blocked by an ability you have yet to gain, or by an increase in enemy difficulty that requires you to level up unless you’re absolutely confident in your skills to handle everything with the minimum of levelling.
With seven classes, each with different starting and focusing stats and a specific weapon, Death’s Gambit favours a slower, more strategic approach to combat. Each stat, thankfully, is easily explained for what it actually does and how it affects your overall character build. Your weapon damage is tied into its controlling stats – along with upgrading it – which makes levelling up much easier. STR for instance controls your swords, while daggers and spears are controlled by FIN. There’s no need to try to decipher a deliberately obtuse system to character building.
For those wanting a faster pace to the combat, there’s the Wizard class and the Assassin class that you can pick, though the Assassin class is recommended for advanced Death’s Gambit players. Personally, I chose the Assassin class myself as it favoured my faster, reckless hack and slash playstyle though, ultimately, the level, enemy and placement design meant that I still had to adopt a modicum of strategy. The lower stats may initially seem like a handicap, but the game design makes certain that no class truly feels weak or underpowered.
Initially, you’re locked into one class, with another unlocked as you progress, but you can, ultimately, wield every weapon if you’re willing to put Souls Shards into the stat. Each class has an ability tree and each weapon a set of special attacks as well, making your build choices and load out highly varied. The amount of abilities in the game is staggering. Most abilities can be bought from NPC’s and they’re not cheap, while bosses drop others along with ability points to open up your class skill tree.
The moves on offer, coupled with the abilities you can equip, makes Death’s Gambit a smidgeon more complicated. You have a light attack, a heavy attack – which becomes your secondary weapon attack if you equip one – three special attacks, a block, a back step which is also a dodge roll, a counter, parry, a jump and a block-breaking slide. The complexity is in button assignment. The slide, for instance, can only be used when blocking plus using your secondary attack while two of your specials are assigned also to a button combination. It’s a lot to take in and master and even after 12 hours of playing, I still kept pulling off the wrong move in the heat of battle.
Killing enemies gives you Soul Shards, which is Death’s Gambit currency and experience system. You can buy abilities with the shards and increases your stats, which get more expensive with each infusement. Weapons and armour can be levelled up with items you gain by scrapping duplicate weapons. Luckily when you die, and you probably will a lot, instead of dropping your Shards at the site of your death, you drop one of your healing Plumes, creating the risk/reward system of either doing another run to reclaim the Plume or simply spending shards at a Death statue to reclaim it. It gets more expensive with each reclamation though, usually at the same cost as your next level increase.
Resting at Death statues both heals you and respawns enemies back into the world and when you die, you’ll respawn at the last statue you used.
Defeating enemies, including bosses, is about pattern memorisation along with quick manouvering and combat mastery. The bosses themselves are fantastic encounters, some having a rich history of their own that you’ll discover through Tomes scattered around the world or through a quick cutscene usually before you fight them. Collecting the Tomes are important as they also give you a damage buff against said bosses.
Even choosing the Assassin class, I did find Death’s Gambit to be a little on the easy side. With the minimum amount of levelling, each boss usually took me four attempts to beat.
With its beautiful art, tightly designed combat and enthralling story, Death’s Gambit: Afterlife kept pulling me back in over and over again, making for a game that I found very difficult to put down. This isn’t just the best version of Death’s Gambit that you can pick up right now, but also, easily, one of the best Metroidvanias I’ve played.
Developer: White Rabbit
Publishers: Serenity Forge, Adult Swim
Designers: Jean Canellas, Alex Kubodera
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch
Grab your copy by clicking here for £17.99 direct from the Nintendo eShop.
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