Chaos and ruin lie on the road leading to Siradon, where the much sought-after Source of Immortality awaits. Neighboring kingdoms wishing to control the source for themselves send their armies forward, only for their forces to be crushed by the mighty immortals who guard the source. One such soldier is Sorun, who finds himself bound by a contract to Death following his untimely demise. Unable to properly die with the contract in place, Sorun fights the powerful immortals and their hordes for Death in order to reach the source and destroy it, thereby bringing balance back to the worlds of the living and dead. It is a task easier said than done, and Sorun will find himself facing harsh truths throughout his battles.
Death’s Gambit is a 2D Soulslike action RPG with Metroidvania elements released in 2018. Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is essentially an expansion of the original game that nearly triples its size and includes a wealth of alterations to streamline the title further. I never played the original Death’s Gambit, so I can’t directly compare all of the changes, but from what I’ve gathered, the list of changes and improvements is extensive. With that in mind, I’ll be approaching this review as someone who just dove straight into Afterlife, now a free DLC upgrade to those who bought the original title.
I should also note that my exposure to the genres Death’s Gambit: Afterlife resides in is extremely limited. I’ve only ever played one other Metroidvania title, and I’ve never played a Soulslike game before since their sheer difficulty intimidates me. I only picked up Death’s Gambit: Afterlife because curiosity got the better of me. At its core, Afterlife is an immensely challenging action-RPG that’s both polished and frustrating in almost equal measures. Despite the constant hurdles thrown my way, I greatly enjoyed it, and the elation I felt when finally surpassing some of the toughest bosses was second to none. I can’t say that the Soulslike genre will ever be one I’ll gravitate toward, but playing Death’s Gambit: Afterlife gave me a much healthier understanding and appreciation of it.
As Sorun, players begin Death’s Gambit: Afterlife by choosing a class from a varied list depending on their playstyle preferences. I went with Wizard because I liked the idea of flinging spells from farther away. But I was pleasantly surprised to find Sorun can equip a variety of weapons regardless of his initial class, and I quickly began equipping swords for closer-range combat. There is surprising depth and versatility in the game’s skill tree, with numerous abilities that players can spend acquired talent points on. The Afterlife version even gives players access to a secondary job class’s abilities after a certain boss fight later on in the game. Sorun begins at a relatively pitiful level with low stats all around, though as he defeats foes, he’ll acquire something called essence. Collect enough essence, and the next time you’re at a Death Idol statue to rest up, you can spend it on raising Sorun’s levels and boosting statistics of your choosing. I tended to focus a lot on the Intelligence and Haste stats due to my focus as a mage, but you can tailor Sorun’s strengths to any approach you want to take to combat. By the time you reach the penultimate final fights, Sorun will be a much stronger and more personalized fighter. It doesn’t stop there either, as even though your first playthrough caps out at Level 150, you can gain even higher levels in the various New Game Plus difficulty modes.
The Metroidvania elements of Death’s Gambit: Afterlife come into play largely thanks to the platforming sequences and differing abilities that Sorun can acquire. Sorun starts only with basic skills, such as being able to jump short distances or slide. As he defeats bosses he’ll sometimes not only gain talent points for use in his skill tree but also acquire new As he defeats bosses, he’ll sometimes gain talent points for use in his skill tree and acquire new moves, such as a double-jump that can be evolved into a temporary gliding ability or a powerful stomping ability that can break through specific barriers. These more advanced moves will often open up previously blocked areas of the maps, granting you access to areas and items you hadn’t been able to reach before. I found the platforming implemented well. I actually had fun backtracking to reach different locations whenever I learned a new ability once I jogged my memory on places I hadn’t been able to access before.
Dying plays a key role in Death’s Gambit: Afterlife. Be prepared to die a lot since even regular enemies can and will kill you from time to time until you develop appropriate strategies for fighting them. Fortunately, thanks to Sorun’s contract with Death, dying doesn’t automatically spell game over as Sorun will find himself back at the last Death Idol statue he visited whenever he perishes, complete with all of the essence he may have acquired beforehand. While you’re there you can level Sorun up, scrap items you don’t need for upgrade materials for your equipment, and get back out into the field to try and try again. Essentially, every death potentially leads to Sorun becoming that much stronger. In a way, it is a forgiving concept for a title that is usually anything but. There is a way to break the contract, unlocking permadeath, though I wouldn’t recommend it, at least not initially. About the only real annoyance to dying beyond having to travel back from wherever you’d been beforehand is that you’ll lose a healing plume at the spot where you died, should you have one. That’s significant since those feathers are the game’s primary source of healing. The only way to reacquire lost healing plumes is to backtrack unless you want to spend valuable essence on reclaiming them, which I was often reluctant to do because I prioritized strengthening Sorun instead.
The fierceness of common enemies you encounter in Death’s Gambit: Afterlife pales in comparison to the bosses in each new area of the map. Some are optional encounters, while you must defeat others to advance the story. I was impressed by the differing abilities and movesets of each boss, as you must learn how to fight each new one effectively. For instance, there is a world of difference between the Bulwark of Aldwynn and Origa or even the Eldritch Council fight. Because it is expected that you’ll likely die a few times before you develop a winning strategy against these foes, the game helpfully keeps a record of the maximum amount of damage you last inflicted on a specific boss as a motivator of sorts. I always tried to get just a little further past that marker with every subsequent fight. The title also provides a “death counter” to let you know just how many attempts you’ve made against the bosses.
Certain bosses I found strategies for after only a handful of tries. But implementing those strategies can still be a challenge as you have to factor in both limited healing and making the right move at precisely the right time. The challenge level was always present and real with every boss encounter. I found some boss fights to be more entertaining than others once I got the hang of them. Bysurge the Lightning Lurker and the Dark Knight were particular favorites of mine, as was a thought-provoking optional boss that requires overcoming puzzle sequences to do damage. However, some bosses teetered more toward the frustrating and could overstay their welcome. The biggest contenders for me were Galaxy Mage Amulvaro and Endless, as my attempts to fight them quickly rose into the hundreds, even after I figured out how to beat them, due to timing issues and seemingly bad luck. Depending on your playstyle, some boss fights might be significantly more challenging than others. Still, because battling the bosses of Death’s Gambit: Afterlife can be so harrowing, the thrill of finally overcoming their challenge is immense and had me feeling giddy and accomplished hours later.
For those wanting even more of a challenge than the bosses typically provide, Death’s Gambit: Afterlife gives you the option of fighting your vanquished foes again in Heroic Mode. In this mode, souped-up and more powerful versions of bosses inflict even more devastating injury to Sorun. These Heroic fights can test a player’s mettle, and defeating some of them, at least, is necessary to unlock the requirements for certain game endings. Heroic battles provide not only more challenges to overcome but also further replayability.
There is much to uncover throughout Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, and the areas to explore are lengthy. There is a map that somewhat helps players navigate, though it, unfortunately, isn’t the most detailed as it’s mainly just nondescript blocks where bosses and Sorun’s location noted. One area you uncover doesn’t even have a map, which can make traversing it all the more difficult. If you ever get tired of traveling on foot, you can use a bell to call a warhorse to ride in certain areas. The controls for horseback riding are intuitive and easy to pick up.
Aside from desperate boss fights, involved platforming sequences, and throngs of enemies, you also encounter some colorful NPCs. Often, they gather at a spot called the Central Sanctuary, a hub of sorts where Sorun can converse with the other characters and potentially learn abilities from them or buy items. You can choose to attack these characters, too, though doing so means you lose out on their services later on. I ended up dispatching two Central Sanctuary residents for differing reasons myself, so your interactions with them provide an element of player choice. Unfortunately, while the NPCs are a colorful bunch, they don’t have much of a significant presence in the main plot, so you don’t learn much about them. Vrael and Ione are the two clear-cut exceptions, who have more prominent roles in story scenes, and are arguably some of the standouts in the cast as a result. Excluding Ione, most bosses aren’t overly memorable beyond their abilities in battle. Origa and Endless are probably the two others I remember most from the story as they were given more to work with in the plot. Death is a constant presence throughout Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, and his commentary ranges from the hilarious to the philosophical. I also found Sorun’s story of searching for his mother, who had been drafted into the campaign before him, to be quite personal, too.
The narrative of Death’s Gambit: Afterlife deals very much with the fear of death and the quest for immortality, even if it destroys balance. The message is one you‘ve probably seen in RPGs before (I immediately thought of Xande’s plotline from Final Fantasy III when I first heard of it), but the way this title tackles the concept is rather interesting and surprisingly emotional. Alongside the bleakness, there is also a sense of humor. A few lines even had me chuckling. If anything, I’d say the narrative balance between the humor and serious elements of the story isn’t quite there. There will be long segments of humorous dialogue, only for the player to be hit with very dark or depressing commentary rather abruptly. Still, the plot of Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is compelling enough to keep you going even when fights reach more challenging heights, for which I give it credit.
The voice acting for Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is incredible. Matt Mercer’s portrayal of Death is especially amazing, and I also came to grow very fond of the voice actors for Endless, Ione, and Vrael while playing. Everyone does phenomenal work in their given roles, even if they’re just saying a collection of stock phrases during fights. The voice acting helps bring the characters to life. Also of special note is the utterly gorgeous and very fitting soundtrack for Afterlife. Not only did the music fit the atmosphere of each area perfectly, but the OST helped to motivate me during some of the more challenging boss fights.
Visually, Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is a gorgeous, sprite-filled game that readily brings to mind the bleak, dark fantasy setting the title is trying to convey throughout its entirety. I loved the attention to detail in each area’s background, as well as the characters’ and creatures’ appearance. Each portion of the map has a different gorgeous design aesthetic. Visual novel-style character portraits used during story scenes provide a clearer look at prominent characters. Graphically, while overall having an understandably darker vibe, there’s still a stark beauty to Death’s Gambit: Afterlife.
Death’s Gambit: Afterlife was something of a surprise to me in many ways. I went into the game with trepidation and uncertainty of what to expect. The game can be rough at times and frustrating in others, but I found myself enjoying the title overall more than I thought I would at first. There’s something to be said for felling foes after a lengthy struggle, of finding that winning strategy and managing to successfully implement it at long last. It didn’t hurt that the game’s story manages to be compellingly personal with some touching moments and bursts of humor. Overall, I’m glad that I decided to give Death’s Gambit: Afterlife a try. I’d most certainly recommend it to those who’ve already tried the initial game just to see the extensive overhaul it received. The level of challenge here is extremely high, but the sense of accomplishment from playing the game and overcoming it is real.