Date: September 30, 2021
Ever since I stepped out of my first Vita-Chamber in Bioshock, I’ve been a sucker for games that explain why your character keeps respawning. Dark Souls’ Dark Sign, the simulations in Assassins Creed, Prince of Persia’s “Wait… that’s not how it happened”, all serve to support a player’s suspension of disbelief, allowing them to better immerse themselves in the narrative. In Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, your ability to die to the same boss over and over is explained in perhaps the most straightforward way of all: at the start of the game, you meet Death, who gives you a contract stating that he won’t let you die. Makes sense, right? Assuming you can get over the fact that Death is an actual creature, that is.
Afterlife is a free update to Death’s Gambit, though “update” doesn’t really convey just how much new stuff has been crammed into White Rabbit’s 2018 2D Soulslike. The update arrives as the game launches on Nintendo Switch, which helps explain why so much effort has gone into updating the game. This isn’t just a remaster for a new platform, however, as Aftermath adds new Metroidvania-style movement upgrades, 10 new levels, 22 new weapons,100 new talents, and tons of other tweaks and improvements. The story has also been expanded, with additional cutscenes and new alternate endings.
It’s a lot, and turns what was a relatively short game — I finished my original playthrough in about 9 hours — into a sprawling adventure, with closer to 20 hours of content. Much of the new content is optional, allowing for an incredible amount of freedom when it comes to the order in which you progress through the game. Being able to go and explore somewhere else when you’re stuck on a boss is a great feature to have in a challenging game like Death’s Gambit; I definitely shook my fist at a few bosses and told them I’d be back for them later. It never felt too bad to show a boss my back, either. There was almost always a path I’d wanted to take, or a secret I was now able to access thanks to a recently acquired power.
If you’re a fan of similar games like Hollow Knight or Salt and Sanctuary, chances are you’ve probably already checked out Death’s Gambit. If you haven’t, the release of Afterlife is a great reason to finally do so. It checks all the boxes: freedom of movement, back-tracking to get loot, hidden rooms, and way too many weapons and spells to list them all here. The combat is smooth, and most of the weapons and spells have a satisfying weight or spectacle to them. Many enemies and bosses have a gimmick or two as well, so combat rarely gets repetitive. Instead, every new encounter requires you to consider your enemy and the environment if you want to survive.
However, many of the boss encounters have been made much easier by the addition of the new movement abilities, sometimes too much so. Being able to double jump and air-dash trivializes a significant number of boss attacks, and I’d argue a few of the bosses are straight up broken if you abuse your ability to stay airborne. Frequently, this meant that it took me “only” 5 tries to beat a boss instead of 20, so whether or not this is actually a bad thing will depend on your comfort level with this sort of game.
It’s also worth noting that you can challenge each boss to a Heroic Rematch after you defeat them, and these fights are much, much more difficult. It doesn’t change the fact that the standard boss fights can be too easy, but it does mean that players who want more of a challenge can get it.
Compared to a lot of Metroidvanias, Death’s Gambit is story-rich, and is also unique in that the story is relatively non-optional. After every handful of deaths, you’ll get a flashback to Soren (the protagonist) as a child, where you’ll learn a bit more about the personality of the undead creature you control as well as what happened to its family. It’s not the most original backstory, but the world in which it’s set feels original, if only because it combines so many disparate tropes and settings. I don’t want to spoil it too much, so let’s just say that what at first appears to be a stock standard dark fantasy world ends up being something a little more complex.
While I can’t say that I enjoyed Death’s Gambits story, I certainly appreciated what White Rabbit tried to do with it. I think a large part of what made it hard to really buy into the narrative was how quickly the tone would shift. In one particularly glaring instance, I listened to a hipster lizard’s weird mixtape, and then died and was thrust into another serious flashback to Soren’s childhood. There are moments like this throughout the game, where something incredibly silly lies hidden in the depths of something horrific. Contrast is an effective artistic tool, but sometimes Death’s Gambit pushes it too far.
The art design is sometimes inconsistent as well. Death’s Gambit has plenty of awesome-looking foes and boasts detailed environments, but it also has some enemies that are literally circles. I had a moment where I thought maybe something had failed to load, and I was looking at a placeholder. Then the floating circle undulated slightly, and I realized my mistake. I was equally confused by the decision to not create a pixel art UI to match the rest of the game’s aesthetic — I personally found that the stark lines of high-def hud elements clashed with the pixel art, though this may not bother everyone. The art for the items and spells was also sometimes lacking.
But these quibbles don’t detract from the overall aesthetic, which I think works quite well. Indeed, many of the game’s environments and creatures are terrifying, majestic, or just plain cute. I’ll never forget the moment where I cast a light spell in a darkened hallway to reveal a monster with fangs for a face standing right next to me, and I will always carry the guilt of slaying the adorable lizard-knight (complete with a frog for a steed) who was apparently on his way to a costume party. The environments range from dark, dreary eldritch lairs to snow-covered peaks, and consistently impressed me with their variety. I never stopped being eager to see what lay beyond that next locked door, and the joy of exploration was maintained throughout.
Death’s Gambit is clearly a game made by people who want to play a game like Death’s Gambit. It’s unapologetic in both its gameplay and its style, and you can tell they weren’t worried about the game appealing to the widest possible audience. Instead, they worked to make a game for people who like 2D Soulslikes (and with the Afterlife update, Metroidvanias), and they did a fantastic job.
Have you tried Afterlife yet? Let us know what you thought in the comments!