Apple dedicated some of its valuable press conference stage time to a game called Pascal’s Wager back in September 2019. The goal was to demonstrate the power of the new A13 chip that powers the latest iPhones and iPads. The game was impressive, with its “console-quality” graphics and intricate combat engine.
Some evidence before we get started:
- Pascal’s Wager is a third-person action-RPG
- It’s set in a spooky, medieval setting
- Every enemy is super dangerous, and can kill you during any encounter if you’re not careful
- The combat engine relies on managing stamina while alternating between light and heavy attacks
- Light and heavy attacks are assigned to the triggers when played with a controller
- You pick up weird items with weird names and have no idea what they do. (e.g., Anthozoan Bones, Active Sendrils)
- You must approach altars scattered throughout the map to save your game and heal — and healing causes all of the enemies to respawn
And finally, my favorite:
- There’s this talking egg that needs help
Shameless may actually be an understatement.
All that said, Pascal’s Wager isn’t a bad game, as long as you have the proper setup. You’ll need a controller, for starters. Imagine playing Dark Souls on a touch screen; there may be no purer form of hell. I tried it, because I was curious, but it didn’t take long before I abandoned this approach for the obvious reasons. It just doesn’t work very well, especially with a game that demands so much precision in timing and movement.
Mercifully, the iPhone and iPad now support PlayStation 4 and Xbox One controllers via Bluetooth, and the game becomes much more viable once you’re playing with one. You’ll instantly feel right at home if you’re even somewhat familiar with the Souls games, because all the buttons are in the exact same place!
I used the touchscreen controls during my initial attempt at a boss fight, and you can see the results above. Then I connected my PS4 controller, and was able to dodge roll and parry like a champ. All of the familiar vibes of a Dark Souls boss, like learning attack patterns and avoiding inopportune death stomps, apply here. I was finally able to take out a boss named The Flagellant once I mastered its timing and learned how to get in a few quick hits before rolling away, something I’m not sure I would have ever been able to do with the touch controls.
The feeling of satisfaction was comparable to taking out the Cleric Beast in Bloodborne for the first time; so the game is at least successful at delivering some of what makes so many of us fans of the Souls series. And delivering on that promise on an iOS device is kind of the whole point of Pascal’s Wager; I didn’t expect anything too blazingly original from this game.
To be fair to Pascal’s Wager, it does try to branch out from the Souls model in a few key areas, for better or worse. Unlike the massive, sprawling, interconnected maps of Souls games, Pascal’s Wager is set across smaller, disconnected maps that split the game into discrete “levels.” You’re still following the familiar loop of opening shortcuts and trying to reach the next safe altar, but you won’t have the thrill of realizing the dungeon you’ve been crawling in is directly below where the whole game started.
Another major change: After the first area, I unlocked the ability to switch between characters. The starting character, a Geralt-looking grumpy Gus with dual swords, is joined by a masked dude with a big, heavy coffin that he swings around.
Switching between the two can happen at any time outside of combat and it does actually introduce an interesting level of variety. In Souls games I always find myself locked into a specific play style based on how I’ve built my character. Here it’s a lot less limiting, and the different characters each work well against different types of enemies.
But Pascal’s Wager fails to deliver the same level of storytelling as the games that inspired it. Dark Souls games have an incredibly complex stories that are essentially only hinted at through item descriptions and visual clues. Players have to be invested, and put the time in, to learn and understand what’s going on, and why.
Pascal’s Wager goes another way, with lengthy, horribly-acted cutscenes and dialogue trees that are best skipped. The air of mystery that surrounds FromSoftware’s franchise is replaced by an overabundance of exposition that harkens back to the Star Wars prequels. That loss of an evocative setting and obscured lore makes the entire game feel much less interesting.
But if you’re able to ignore all of that and just focus on the actual gameplay, Pascal’s Wager does feel like playing Dark Souls on a phone. Assuming that’s even something you want to do.
Pascal’s Wager is now available for iOS devices, and will be available for Android devices at an unspecified time in the future. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” download code provided by Giant Network. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.