Death’s Gambit

A game by White Rabbit for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, originally released in 2018.
Death’s Gambit is a hardcore action-RPG set in a dark world, taking its inspirations from the Dark Souls series with its limited safe areas, tough enemies that respawn when you save, and overwhelmingly difficult bosses that can only be overcome by paying attention to their movements and dodging or blocking with the appropriate timing. Slashing away mindlessly only kills you faster… but death is only temporary.

When the game begins, a dragonlike humanoid is dragging a body toward a huge pyre that is already stacked with dead soldiers. But it turns out that the soldier being dragged, named Sorun, is still alive. Sorun makes a deal with Death, who has decided to take a chance on him (a gambit, if you will) to help him rid the world of its defiant immortals. With this contract signed, Sorun will be resurrected when killed, sending him back to the most recent save point to continue his journey.

The player is able to select between one of seven character classes, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, perks, weapons, and starting inventory. These classes each have varying vitality, strength, finesse, endurance, intelligence, and haste, and each of these stats may be upgraded individually to suit the player’s preferred method of dispatching enemies.

Vitality determines the length of the player’s health meter, which is highest for the soldier class but lowest for wizards, whereas wizards have high intelligence, allowing them to cast ranged magic. Strength determines melee attack power, finesse allows the player to equip special weapons, and haste determines the player’s speed at firing bows, cooldown periods, and stamina regeneration. Stamina is depleted by performing attacks and dodge rolls, and the length of the stamina meter is determined by the player’s endurance stat. Once the player’s stamina is depleted, he cannot attack again until the meter refills, further enforcing the fact that the player must be mindful of his actions in order to succeed.

The soldier begins the game with a greatsword, which is a powerful but slow two-handed weapon. He has a slow overhead swing and a wider slash while jumping, and the player can hold the ATTACK button to charge a stronger attack. He carries a metal shield, and successfully blocking grants him soul energy to use in special attacks.

The assassin carries a pair of daggers that allow for faster attacks at a lower range. He has a 5-hit combo and a medium-range jumping slash. He has a weaker wooden shield, but dodging grants him soul energy for use in special attacks.

The blood knight carries an axe that allows him to perform a medium speed 2-hit combo and a wide slash while jumping. If he follows up with a retaliatory strike soon after taking damage, some of his health will be restored (working similarly to the system employed in Bloodborne), allowing the player to recover from some mistakes. This is particularly helpful given that health restoratives are uncommon.

The wizard is the only projectile-based character class, and he fires magical bolts that extend all the way across the screen. His 3-hit combo fires a single projectile, then two, and then three, and the player can angle his attacks by pressing UP or DOWN while firing. While jumping, the wizard tosses three projectiles downward at an angle.

The noble carries a halberd, which has a long range but very slow attacks. He has a 3-hit combo which consists of two slow jabs followed by a slow overhead strike, and he can also perform a wide sweeping jump strike. He gains soul energy by using items.

The sentinel carries a longsword that allows for a slow overhead strike, but no combo. He can also perform a wide slow slash while jumping. Parrying grants him soul energy for special attacks.

Finally, the Acolyte of Death carries a scythe, which sweeps wide and low by default. His 3-hit combo is slow and consists of a low sweep, followed by an uppercut, and then a wide spinning attack. Jumping and attacking delivers a wide slow slash. The acolyte can restore broken Death idols to give him more places to save, and he gains soul energy by killing enemies.

The attack speed for most character classes is quite slow, with combat focused on lining up successful strikes, dodge rolling to avoid attacks or to get behind enemies, backstepping to avoid immediate danger, parrying enemy strikes, and using a shield to block.

The player can perform a 1.5x variable jump to avoid some attacks, such as incoming arrows, and this is also used for some minor platforming. The player hangs in the air for a moment when performing aerial strikes, allowing him to line up his shot and also granting a somewhat longer jump. The player's slow movement speed and lack of acrobatic dexterity make make it difficult to recover from mistakes, as falling means taking damage from level hazards, facing additional enemies, or passing back through large swaths of the environment in an attempt to loop back around and try again.

The slow attacks and wide moveset create a very technical experience - with a deliberate pace - where players must be mindful of enemy behaviors rather than slashing madly at any enemy they encounter, and each move has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, performing a dodge roll allows the player to avoid all incoming damage, but doing so also drains his stamina, granting him fewer strikes in his follow-up attack. On the other hand, blocking with a shield allows for a quick counterattack, as the player can follow up with a shield bash, a kick to cause defending enemies to drop their guard, or strike with his primary weapon, but if the player’s block is broken, he remains vulnerable for several seconds, which can be a death sentence during boss encounters.

Notably, the player encounters new weapons and equipment throughout the experience, allowing him to swap for more damaging weapons or take advantage of their differing attack types. There are also bows and arrows that may be equipped in a second weapon slot, allowing the player to swap between them quickly. New weapons and equipment are found by hunting down treasure chests or killing enemies, and killed enemies also drop shards that are used to level up stats.

Per soulslike conventions, there are designated safe locations where you can save your game, but doing so causes all defeated enemies to respawn. From these spaces, you can spend shards to level up your stats, selecting any of your six attributes and increasing them by one. Each time you do so, the cost for the next upgrade increases, making it important that you focus early upgrades to suit your playstyle, since you can’t afford to become a master at everything. You keep shards even when killed, so it’s possible to level up your stats and overcome tougher foes through attrition.

Phoenix plumes are key to your survival as you traverse the game world. You can stockpile several plumes, but you drop one each time you are killed and resurrected. You can return to the spot where you died to reclaim a plume, although this can be dangerous, particularly if you lost it during a difficult enemy encounter or boss fight. However, you can also spend shards at save points to recall all plumes to you. Plumes can be combined with one another to grant you a strength bonus, and they can be used during gameplay to restore a certain amount of health (with better plumes restoring more health). Doing so takes several seconds – making it dangerous during combat – and removes the plume from your inventory, but you get it back when you reach a save point.

Gameplay is tough and requires that you pay close attention to enemy movement patterns lest you find your health quickly reduced in huge chunks. Each new enemy is a potentially deadly threat until you learn its patterns and gain the skills to overcome it. This makes for slow overall progress as you don’t have enough health to make that many mistakes, so you’ll need to venture out from safe areas, encounter a few foes, and then return to restore your health until you get good enough to fight your way through them.

Bosses in particular are seemingly impossible during your initial encounters with them. Many of them move quickly and are able to deal heavy damage. Until you learn their patterns, you're unlikely to make much headway, and even once you do know their patterns, you need to play well by balancing strikes with dodges and blocks. Narratively, bosses know that you’re being resurrected and will comment on that fact when you return to face them again.

You can also opt to re-fight any defeated boss by returning to their room and speaking with them, although these fights are more difficult than the original encounters. Ability points are gained when you defeat bosses, which allows for upgrades along a tree, but regardless of which branch you select, the upgrades are only marginally useful as compared to levelling up your base stats.

The overall narrative is light, with the player mostly left to his own devices, only occasionally speaking with townsfolk, shopkeepers, and bosses… but the player isn’t simply controlling some nameless hero. Over time, the main character’s backstory is told, presented during cutscenes between resurrections, slowly giving the player a view into the character’s life before taking up a contract with Death.

The world is open, but many avenues are inaccessible to the player in the early going. Instead, the player will find a single route forward and then unlock doors that allow for faster backtracking and easier exploration in the future. There are also lots of side paths and hidden passageways that lead to new items, weapons, armor, or books that grant damage bonuses against specified bosses. There is no map, but the methodical pace and repeated gameplay – and repeated deaths – help the player to commit much of the geography to memory over time.

Gameplay takes place across a variety of environments, ranging from forests to caverns to towns to mountains. Each of these areas has a unique theme, but the tone is very dark overall, and the game is accompanied by a sweeping and adventuresome soundtrack. Some enemies take the form of armored humans, while others are monsters, with boss encounters being showcase pieces, sometimes against towering creatures that dwarf the player with their size. Completing the game unlocks a New Game+ mode which allows the player to tweak some of the difficulty settings.

Death’s Gambit was developed by White Rabbit, a studio based in Los Angeles, California and headed by Jean Canellas and Alex Kubodera, unofficially founded in 2014. Music for the game was composed by Kyle Hnedak. The game originally started as a prototype created by Jean Canellas in 2012.

The game was published by Adult Swim Games, which is responsible for publishing a number of 2D action games, including Super House of Dead Ninjas, Völgarr the Viking, Fist Puncher, Super Comboman, Oblitus, Westerado: Double Barreled, Rise & Shine, and Rain World.