“When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to make video games for a living. Seeing the fan reaction to small games that I made was the most rewarding feeling,” says Jean Canellas, lead designer at White Rabbit studios, currently working on PlayStation and PC exclusive Death’s Gambit. After interning at the USC Behavioral Media Center, where he worked on health-related games, and Backflip studios, where he worked on mobile games, Canellas worked on an RTS called The Maestros for his senior thesis. Near the end of that project, Canellas began work on Death’s Gambit with classmate and good friend, Alex Kubodera.
Death’s Gambit is a 2D action-RPG game where you explore an alien planet in order to defeat the Immortals, sworn enemies of Death. “Alex and I wanted to made something with the difficulty of Dark Souls and the epic boss battles of Shadow of the Colossus,” Canellas says of the gameplay. “The art is inspired by Castlevania, Studio Ghibli, Dark Souls and Sword and Sorcery. On a narrative level, the initial concept of immortality came from binge-watching Ghost in the Shell. I felt that themes of immortality would really resonate in a Dark Souls style world,” he explains.
Death’s Gambit begins with the protagonist on the verge of death, before Death himself makes an appearance, offering him salvation in exchange for completing a mission. That mission is defeating Death’s sworn enemies, the Immortals.
Interestingly, although the game is 2D, the developers are not going for a retro feel. “We want the game to feel modern,” Canellas says, “We don’t have retro sound effects or music, and the art style is a modern 2D rather than a retro 2D.” Below are two tracks from Death’s Gambit’s score, composed by Kyle Hnedak.
Experience in Death’s Gambit is called “Hope”, and you use it to level up. When you do level up, you choose a particular stat to level. Those stats are: Vitality, Strength, Finesse, Haste, Intelligence, Endurance and another, which the team is keeping a secret. In addition to increasing a chosen stat, leveling up allows the player to equip better items. “Items are a huge part of our game,” Canellas begins, “When you defeat a boss, you get items, and depending on in what way you defeat that boss, you might get different items,” he finishes. Since the bosses are immortal, you can go back and defeat them again in different ways to get different items.
The player has two main weapon slots, three ability slots, item slots, a shield slot and a heal. The inclusion of a permanent shield slot was a reaction to Dark Souls. “In Dark Souls, you have to equip a shield to a weapon slot, and by midgame, no one is running with a shield. We thought that was an interesting design decision, but we wanted to see what it’s reverse would be like; you always have a shield,” Canellas explains, though he warns that blocking is not always the best option in a fight.
With your two weapon slots, you can roll with two ranged weapons, though you must then be wary of limited ammunition, two heavy weapons, two fast weapons, or any combination you’d like. “Our abilities are very interesting, because you have weapon abilities. Let’s take the great sword, for instance: there are several abilities to go along with that sword. One of them grants the player bleeding damage,” Canellas says. He continues, “You’ll want to save abilities like that for boss fights, as they have limited usage and only regenerate at save points.”
The way in which heals work in Death’s Gambit is also peculiar, Canellas notes. There are different healing items with different effects. Some have a long casting time and restore quite a bit of health. Some have short casting times but more limited restoration. “When you die, you drop a heal where you died that you’ll have to pick up, meaning you’ll start off your next life with one less heal. Essentially, this forces the player to get better after every death,” Canellas says. He also highlights another of the games unique aspects: it’s save points. “At a save point, you can decide to have less healing items in exchange for more damage. This creates a risk reward system: if you’re fighting a boss do you want more healing or more damage? We want players to constantly make interesting decisions like that in our game.” The location of those save points is also important to note. “Interestingly, most of our save points are right next to the boss, which is drastically different from any Souls game. Leaving the save point next to the bosses allows us to make more complex bosses, and our bosses are more complex than the bosses of Dark Souls.” There will be more than ten boss battles in the game, with some bosses that are so big the camera has to zoom out, and some bosses that are the player’s size, which strike at deadly speeds.
Completion of Death’s Gambit will be about as hard as Dark Souls, with post-game content that is much harder. In lieu of that, however, Canellas and the team at White Rabbit are doing everything they can to make the game accessible. “We know that Dark Souls can be very inaccessible, so we plan on tutorializing things at the beginning to introduce players new to the genre,” he affirms.
Death’s Gambit is coming to PlayStation 4 and PC in 2016, although the developers have PlayStation Vita in their mindset. “You’re not the only one who would love the game on Vita,” Canellas tells me. “However, developing for the Vits is more complicated than many people perceive – lot’s of things have to be taken into consideration. I’ll leave you with this: we’re definitely thinking about it!”
Below, you can find the official reveal trailer for Death’s Gambit as well as the E3 demo of Death’s Gambit being played by Kubodera while Canellas is being interviewed by PlayStation’s Ryan Clements.