Where the heck was this game hiding? How did I manage to miss a Metroidvania with stellar sprite based graphics, that whole Dark Souls inspired setup, an engaging story, and polished gameplay? I have heard that Death’s Gambit had a bit of a false start, and that it was a more recent update that got the game to this position, but I’m still finding myself somewhat frustrated that one of the best metroidvanias I’ve ever played, period went beneath my radar for almost an entire year?
This game also makes a strong case for why I don’t feel too bad about reviewing and writing on games that have already been out for a while. There are so many games being released constantly on the Switch that it’s easy to overlook one or two, particularly those like Death’s Gambit here, which aren’t getting a whole lot of press. On top of that, I’m something of a bargain gamer, still angling for games when they go on sale (though hey, I’m willing to look at review codes and do my diligence if someone wants to grace me with one).
Okay, let’s get to actually reviewing the game here.
Death’s Gambit’s plot is a somewhat interesting take on the almost cliche exploration of a dying dark fantasy world that shows up time and time again in both Dark Souls flavored games and modern metroidvanias. I’ve complained a few times about this sort of thing (see my review of Elder Lilies, where that was pretty much my main complaint). The story here does follow Soren, a knight/soldier who was sent on an Expedition to discover the Source of Immortality. A desperate king has been sending the healthy and hearty of his land to seek out this longed for source, knowing that none of them have come back and that there are rumors of corrupted immortals guarding the Source.
Soren is one of the many who fall in his journey. He is resurrected by Death (who I totally called as being voiced by Matt Mercer of Critical Role fame). See, Death needs someone to destroy the Source of Immortality so he can do what Death is supposed to do: bring people into the afterlife and start up that whole cycle again. Soren is thus allowed to die as many times as possible in order to achieve his goal.
Along the way, Soren bumps into a handful of others who are either questing for the Source, tired of the Source, or just trying to survive in a land where some of the fiercest of beings just happen to be immortal. These characters are often pretty well fleshed out, and most are voiced acted incredibly well. I’m not just saying that because I’m a Critical Role fan. I was pleasantly surprised to find English voice acting throughout, and doubly so when it turned out to be the best I’ve seen in a metroidvania.
The characters make this game stand out. Many of them are just well written dark fantasy characters: Soren is desperate to find out what happened to his mother and wants to have their names remembered; Vrael seeks the Source to help his tribe of lizard-folk; Endless is the current guardian of the Source, who believes that all should have immortality to avoid Death. They feel like actual developed characters, many of whom deal with struggles and their own desires.
Far and away the stand-out here is Death himself. Mercer injects the character with playful life, making him come across as entirely too likeable. Death also gets some of the funniest lines and is often put into interesting situations. At one point, after I died handily from my first encounter with a boss, Death asked Soren if he’d like some advise from a wise general. After Soren says he would, Death pulls out a hand puppet and proceeds to use a mocking voice to suggest that maybe you should try using some of Soren’s special abilities.
This humor pops up a few times. There’s a race of little dinosaur creatures that live incredibly brief lives. Soren runs into a single one in a little nook, who gives him a tankard of alcohol. Returning to that nook throughout the game allows the player to see that creature’s descendants grow and build a society, which rises and falls at a rapid pace.
The creatures also have a tavern and restaurant that appears right in front of the obligatory sealed door with three seals on it (that everyone just lifted unapologetically from Super Metroid). And oh, Death has decided to get a job as a chef in the kitchen because of course he did.
This gives Death’s Gambit its own identity and personality that makes it stand apart from most of its ilk. Other games use other devices to do it, like how Blasphemous incorporates Catholic imagery and takes itself entirely too seriously, or how Ender Lilies makes it so that every being you face has a complicated backstory that you need to discover. Death’s Gambit seemed to have learned from that, and it shows up in little ways.
It helps that the gameplay is polished too, which is necessary in a game like this. Soren controls quite well, with the usual slate of Metroidvania upgrades: double-jumps, air dashes, high leaps, etc. I never felt like I was fighting the controls or that there was anything here that wasn’t unfamiliar.
One thing that did frustrate me was the incorporation of a class system. I don’t usually like that sort of thing in a Metroidvania, as there has to be some uniformity in the way a character moves and performs to work. Hollow Knight demonstrates how well a singular vision for the main character can translate into excellent combat and exploration. There are seven classes in Death’s Gambit, which would be bad enough, but the game expects you to immediately choose which class Soren is, before you figure out the controls or how the game plays or anything.
It’s a stupid move, and it all but requires the player to either take a chance on a class or look up a guide before starting the game (which is what I did). The class locks you into some upgrades and all but forces a certain weapon type on you. I picked Acolyte of Death, because it felt the most original, was stated as a mobile build, and sounded cool. That gave me a scythe, a weapon I often dislike in games, and locked me into certain abilities that I did happen to enjoy. I could technically have switched to my usual daggers partway through the game, but by the time I got a good set of daggers and bought at least one ability, I had gotten used to the scythe (which is pretty good in this game, go figure) and had gotten several abilities.
This just needlessly locks the player into one play style. I do like the idea and setup; I’m already looking forward to replaying the game as a wizard, and maybe the dagger wielding assassin, but it’s poorly implemented. Compounding that is the fact that after selecting a class, you’re given a selection of starting items, with no clue which to pick. I picked what turned out to be a sword included as a joke reference to some relatively obscure Dark Souls player. I thought it might unlock something cool later on, but nope, it’s just there to be a garbage weapon.
I emphasize these boneheaded moves because they’re frustrating, and they immediately hit you when you start the game. I wasn’t really thrilled to be pulling up guides less than five minutes into playing the game, trying to figure out how to select a class that would fit my preferred metroidvania play style.
Fortunately, the rest of the game is amazing. The exploration feels organic and is naturally rewarding, giving new weapons, items, upgrades, and lore throughout the game. Finding lore is actually rewarding on two levels, as you not only learn more about the world and the characters in it, but receive bonuses to damaging bosses as you gather more lore about them. It makes sense and further invests the player in seeking out and exploring an area before hitting the boss.
The bosses all felt pretty challenging, with very few that felt overwhelming. Usually if you ran into a boss that was something of a wall, you could simply go to another area to find more upgrades or level up a little. I did this with the boss where Death mocked me with that puppet, as I figured I wasn’t ready to take her yet.
They also often include some interesting mechanics. The one I have a picture of above has a platform balanced on a sharp peak. Where you and the boss stand influences how the platform tilts, and you can slide right off (sadly the boss cannot, which I did try in one attempt). It makes the fight more engaging without feeling too gimmicky.
That repeats a few times: one boss requires you to switch Soren’s polarity by using the ground pound move (and if you’ve got a weapon that gives bonuses when you ground pound, this becomes more fun). It shows some creativity and makes the boss fights engaging and fun for the most part, something you want to do instead of something you’re forced to.
I did die over fifty times to a single boss. See, to get the best ending you have to beat Heroic versions of the various bosses, which are challenges. I went to the ones that were the lowest level, because while I enjoyed the game, I didn’t want to play it forever (I have other games to get through). One of those was the Soul of the Phoenix. She was tough enough for me to figure out, and that was before she suddenly spawned a duplicate version of herself.
There’s another difficulty spike boss known as the Gravity Mage, and I’m just going to loosely mention that, as he spoils some of the plot. He’s also tough and took me a handful of tries, though not as much as the Soul. (And I am at this point a sort of veteran player of these kind of games).
There is another frustrating element that’s sort of connected to that. For some reason, the game withholds the fast travel ability until nearly the very end of the game. That’s incredibly frustrating in a Metroidvania game, where exploration is key to success. It needlessly pads out the middle part of the game, as you’re likely going to be traversing the same areas a few times, either to move away from a difficulty spike boss to level or to search new areas after you unlock an ability. I can understand wanting to leave cool abilities for later bosses, but this felt needlessly punishing.
I do want to circle back to the story for a moment. There is a twist in the narrative that I honestly didn’t originally see coming, even though they sort of tell you about it right from the beginning. I don’t want to spoil it too much, as I think it’s one of the things that elevates Death’s Gambit’s narrative a few more notches, making it one of the best I’ve seen in video games. I will say it’s a neat way of approaching the game, and it builds on the interactive aspect of the narrative to make this particularly rewarding (I may come back to this if I write a more in depth discussion of that later).
This is probably going in my top 5 favorite Metroidvanias of all time. It does so many things very, very right. That does make the handful of places it messes up all the more frustrating. Having a more dynamic or flexible class system, including fast travel earlier in the game, and just being a bit more lenient to a player starting up the game would’ve made this thing nearly perfect, fighting with at least Bloodstained (my second favorite Metroidvania) in my listing, if not a possible challenger for Hollow Knight’s crown.
Alas, it falls just short of such lofty heights. It’s still very much a game you should seek out if you like this sort of thing. It may even be a good entry point if you just enjoy action RPGs or are curious about the genre; it’s difficult, but not punishingly so for the most part.
9 incredibly engaging story that incorporates the interactivity of video games mixed with stunning pixel graphics and an incredibly well polished gaming experience; hampered only by a few poor decisions