Death's Gambit is a difficult game. Judge me all you want, but I’m not a huge fan of difficult games. I’ll pretty much never start a game higher than the standard difficulty, and I have zero issues with dropping it down when the going gets rough. I’ve tried Bloodborne and Dark Souls and bounced off of both of them pretty quickly. Way back when it first came out I fell deep into the depths of Hollow Knight, but eventually, it got too tough for me too.
When I started up Death’s Gambit: Afterlife, I only knew that it was a side-scrolling, Metroidvania-style game. What I didn’t know was that it was hard. Like really hard. Like… I was stuck on one boss for weeks hard.
Death's Gambit: Afterlife is a Fantastic Metroidvania
Okay, let’s rewind. Death’s Gambit is a game that came out a few years ago. I heard the name pop-up here and there, but always mixed it up with Dead Cells. It looked like another rogue-like Metroidvania action game, and every time I saw it I wasn't in the mood for a procedurally generated game.
I heard a lot more buzz about the game when the Afterlife version came out a few months ago, which was a pretty massive update to the game. The update restructures things, adds new bosses, and generated enough buzz for me to finally realize that the game wasn’t a procedurally generated affair at all!
Instead, Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is a beautifully hand-crafted game that has you exploring a massive world on a quest to end immortality. There are several different weapons that you can use, with slightly different play styles.
This is a game where you manage stamina while swinging big weapons at powerful foes.
Battling the Bosses
Even the standard baddies in games like this can be difficult, but it’s the boss fights where things really get intense. Each one is an undertaking, with the player needing to familiarize themselves with patterns and timing in order to get through the encounter. Most of the bosses in this game are pretty comparable to those in Metroid Dread. Usually, it didn’t take more than three or four attempts to get through a fight. The “Death Counter” that accompanies each bosses introduction made even the easy ones a bit intimidating.
Thankfully, when things got tough this game gives you a lot of ways to grind. You can get increase the level of various stats to do more damage or get more health, change gear, find new abilities… there’s a lot of character development stuff that lets you make progress even when you get stuck on a boss.
There is a strange satisfaction in leaving a boss fight, beefing up, and then coming back to destroy them.
The Tundra Lord Kaern
Speaking of, that’s where this article started, wasn’t it? Near the end of the game, I ended up at a roadblock. I had two areas of the maps I hadn’t explored, each blocked with an obstacle that I couldn’t get past. I’d been stuck a few times before and found that finding walkthroughs for the Afterlife update was pretty tough. Eventually, I got frustrated enough that I pulled up a full play-through on YouTube and carefully scanned through it, looking for what I was missing while trying to avoid spoilers.
Thankfully, I happened to hit right on the hint I needed to get past one of those obstacles, and I was ready to move on! I ran down a hallway, randomly picked the lower section of a branching path, and found myself in a snow-covered environment. After fighting through the world, I ended up with a boss fight against Tundra Lord Kaern, who I immediately renamed Karen in my head.
Karen Killed Me
Karen killed me. She’s a fast-moving boss on a seesaw of ice, so you have to dodge her attacks while also making sure you don’t tip yourself off of the stage. Karen killed me a lot. It wasn’t that complicated of a fight, so I didn’t go grind to level up, I just kept trying. And I died a lot.
I died over and over again throughout the night. The next night I tried again. After a few nights, I started rotating other games into my evenings. Every time I came back to fight Karen again I felt like I was making progress, but she kept killing me. My wife eventually banned me from playing Death’s Gambit: Afterlife while we were watching trashy TV because I just kept dying to Karen over and over again and my wife was annoyed by the incessant clicking of the buttons.
I started playing River City Girls while I was stuck fighting Karen. I bounced back and forth between the two games, and I finished River City Girls while I was still stuck on Karen.
The Karen Conquest
Finally – FINALLY – about a week and a half after I first met Karen I vanquished her. In Death’s Gambit (like most Metroidvania games), the major boss fights reward you with a new ability, which unlocks a new section of the map. I couldn’t wait to see what I’d get from Karen.
I walked past her corpse into the next room and found… a health upgrade. A reward, sure, but nothing that would open new paths for me.
Crestfallen, I put my Switch down. I was horrified at the realization that had dawned on me but refused to accept it. I picked up my phone and searched Karen’s name. Two of the most horrifying words I’d ever seen popped up on my screen: Optional. Boss.
I picked up my Switch, walked out of the snowy area, took the upper section of the branching path I had passed more than ten days before, and found myself back on the road to progression.
Finishing off Death’s Gambit: Afterlife after my time battling Karen the Tundra Lord was pretty smooth. There were still a few boss fights that took a few tries to get through, but nothing in the game wrecked me the way that encounter did. I think partially that’s because I made sure to go and increase my stats every time I got stuck instead of just bashing my head against the wall, but I also feel like my reflexes had been fine-tuned by going over that fight over and over again.
I’m not sure if Karen is considered a tough boss in the wider Death’s Gambit discourse, but it’s a boss fight I’ll never forget in a game that I absolutely love getting my butt kicked by.
Death’s Gambit: Afterlife is hard, but it’s an absolutely fantastic game. Just don’t bother dealing with Karen.