Death’s Gambit: Afterlife Review: Cloaked in Obscurity
Death’s Gambit: Afterlife kind of has a bit of an inspirational story behind it. The game was initially released a few years back (sans the word “Afterlife“) to some feedback that was, quite frankly, rather lukewarm. People had issues with several different aspects of the game, meaning that many (myself included, actually) were hesitant to play it. Unfortunate as it is, not every game is destined to do so great—and it seemed like Death’s Gambit was one of those titles. And that, understandably, didn’t sit too well with the dev. So, what did they do? If your answer is “complain about how misunderstood they are on Twitter,” you’d be… wrong, actually! No, they went back and spent several years re-vamping the game—eventually resulting in the impressively updated Death’s Gambit: Afterlife.
I don’t want to take away from the hard work that White Rabbit did when creating Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, because I find that amount of dedication to be extremely impressive. And, while I didn’t play the original version, I can confidently say that I had fun with Afterlife. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some problems with certain parts of the game, though. Even with all of its fancy new bells and whistles, I still found myself questioning certain design choices and mechanical implementations—and, most importantly, why so much of the game was so darn cryptic.
An Undying Spirit
I’m going to be completely honest with you, dear reader—I have no idea what’s going on when it comes to Death’s Gambit: Afterlife’s story. …Okay, that might be a tad hyperbolic—there is a little bit of the story that makes sense to me. I’m aware that the game begins with protagonist Sorun leading a small group of soldiers to obtain the much sought-after source of immortality for his king, when he and his compatriots suddenly find themselves, quite literally, on Death’s door. While Sorun’s men don’t survive, Death himself manifests and offers the dying Sorun a deal—temporary immortality in exchange for seeking out the source of immortality and destroying it. Thus, Sorun’s quest continues, albeit with a new end goal in mind.
Everything make sense so far? Good, it did to me, too. Unfortunately, that was only the very beginning of Afterlife‘s story. And, while I didn’t have any issue with grasping the overarching plot, every nuisance that was thrown at me (and there are a lot of them in this game) seemed to fall upon deaf ears. Maybe my ability to comprehend the plot points of a story temporarily short-circuited or something, but, more often than not, the new characters and story elements didn’t quite make sense to me. There’s a lot of obscurity surrounding some of the finer points of the game’s story, and, while I typically am very much pro-obscurity, the way Afterlife offered up its story points typically just left me thinking things like “wait, what,” or “who are you, again?” Really, it’s a huge shame, as I like the game’s approach to writing—not only was this game focused on adding a high degree of emotional depth to its cast, but it also had a wonderful crew of voice actors working for them, too. Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good one too many times when it came to Afterlife‘s ability to tell its tale.
Here, There, Everywhere
Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is, for the most part, your typical Soulslike Metroidvania—you go from area to area killing monsters while progressively unlocking new abilities along the way, and you also die a lot. While certain parts of it do feel a bit short, it really does a nice job of delivering a Metroidvania experience overall… at least, when you know what you’re doing—and that’s not always something that’s going to be guaranteed in this game.
Metroidvanias are no stranger to obscurity, and I, as someone who’s been playing them since the days of the genre’s namesake titles, am also familiar with the obscurity that comes with the territory. Afterlife, however, seems to (once again) take the concept to a new level. Similar to its story, Afterlife‘s pacing is very straightforward in the beginning, happily railroading the player between its first few areas. After unlocking a few key power-ups, however, the game’s map begins to open up. By, like, a lot. Generally speaking, I think that making a Metroidvania less linear is a good thing as overly linear ones don’t really feel like they belong. I still, however, think that it’s good to keep the player on some kind of a path—and that’s where the game and I disagree.
For some reason, Afterlife seems content to have the player aimlessly wander around the map in order to snuff out new locations. This would be bad enough if it was just a case of the game padding things out slightly, but Afterlife also hides the entrances to many of these new areas fairly well. As I’ve already said, the combination of backtracking and obscurity isn’t something new to the genre at all, but it’s usually (thankfully) only relegated to a few instances—that’s not the case here. Additionally, because the game tends to give you access to multiple areas at once, it isn’t even always clear where you’re supposed to go, even if you know how to get there. Had the game been presented in a way that either made each new area equal in difficulty or scaled areas with each defeated boss, this would be fine. More often than not, though, every new area but the “correct” one will let you wander in about halfway, only to abruptly cut you off due to you lacking the correct item or ability.
I know that I’ve been pretty harsh on Afterlife‘s setup so far, so I’d like to end this section on a more positive note. While I do have issues with the game’s overall layout, the areas themselves are a lot of fun (given that you can get all the way through them at that time). Each area is unique and vibrant (or, at least as vibrant as a decrepit, war-torn land can get), and almost all of them have tons of secrets for players to root out. Many of the late-game areas also sport unique gimmicks that feel appropriately challenging and are genuinely fun to play around with.
The Art of Fighting
Part of what makes Soulslike games, so fun is the high degree of customization that they allow players when it comes to their characters. And, while you might not be able to technically create your character in this game (Sorun’s kind of important to the story, ya know?), Death’s Gambit certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to letting players fight how they’d like! Not only does this game have a comfy seven classes to choose some—ranging anywhere from the hard-hitting Blood Knight to the quick and stealthy Assassin—but the game even manages to throw in some enjoyably gimmicky classes, including my personal favorite, the Noble—a mid-range fighter who gains some unique skills around gathering and using resources and has his own special store in the hub area.
Generous class distribution aside, there’s really not too much else that I can say about Afterlife when it comes to combat outside of the very generic “it’s hard, but not impossibly so.” So long as you take your time to learn enemy patterns and don’t skimp out on properly leveling and equipping your character, Afterlife possesses a consistently satisfying challenge level that never feels overwhelming. Just, uh, make sure you get good at blocking and dodging.
No Rest for the Wicked
Death’s Gambit: Afterlife isn’t without its share of perplexing decisions, but, all-in-all, it’s a fun Soulslike Metroidvania with just the right amount of challenge. Sure, finding your way around the game’s world can be a little frustrating, but at least it’s fun once you get to where you need to be—and that, in my opinion, is what matters the most.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch; Publisher: Serenity Forge; Developer: White Rabbit; Players: 1; Released: September 30, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.