Death’s Door is something that I had heard a lot about, after launching as an Xbox exclusive, I watched from afar as it garnered endless praise. With this title also being published by Devolver Digital, I knew it was something I had to check out, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Created by a small team at a studio called Acid Nerve, previously releasing Titan Souls, this game is a gigantic step up in terms of quality and scope for them. I wasn’t a massive fan of Titan Souls to be honest, I found it incredibly punishing, and the lengthy breaks from failing a boss to respawning and walking all the way back over to the arena absolutely decimated the pacing for me. A part of me was worried that DD would be the same way, but rest-assured, this is far more approachable than that previous title. It is still challenging, but much more forgiving.
I’ve already spoilt how I feel about the game, but lets see if Death’s Door creaks open with a “wreeeeeeee”, or if it gets kicked right off it’s bloody hinges.
Shake your tale feathers
You start out in Death’s Door as a small crow taking the bus to work, trusty sword upon your back, ready to put another day of graft in for the man. As you arrive, you walk through some lax security checks, past the snobby employees in accounts and receive your first assignment. You are employed as a “reaper” for The Ministry and it is your job to go into the world through a system of doors (not dissimilar to Monsters Inc) and retrieve the souls of those who are scheduled to die.
This kicks off your 8-hour adventure whereby you track down those beings who have escaped Death’s grasp and extended their lives to an unnatural length. These being serve as the main bosses of the game and it is interesting to see what motivates them to cling to life, immediately making you sympathise with their struggle to let go. It helps that the writing here is charming. Whilst it isn’t going to blow you away, I would be surprised if you didn’t crack a smile or two during some of these conversations provided by the unhinged denizens of the world Acid Nerve have created.
Death’s Door’s story is one that is willing to give as much as you want to put into it. Whilst the basic journey is simple enough to follow, there is depth here and some clear messages surrounding modern day work culture and greed for those willing to look for them. As someone who works within this system as a digital marketer, these beats certainly resonated, but not in a way to mock those who participate. It is delivered sincerely and thoroughly macabre.
Certainly not the ugly duckling
The graphics of Death’s Door aren’t particularly incredible with the low poly art style putting in most of the hard work. This isn’t to say the game isn’t beautiful in its own way – it is. The art style and direction truly elevates this title from just another Zelda-esque dungeon crawler to something truly memorable. Each of the areas you visit are wonderfully distinct, from the drab, greyscale interior of The Ministry to the vibrant and frigid peaks far above Castle Lockfort, it is clear the team have a love for what they created.
The character designs also contribute to this charm and enrich the world by giving a glimpse into how your actions, or inactions impact those around you. I love most of the quirky creatures here, the workaholic crows, the man who has a bowl of soup for a head, the squid who pretends to be a chef, I could go on. It could so easily have felt quirky and random for the sake of it, there isn’t much I dislike more than try-hard humour. Thankfully, each of these characters have their own interesting tales to tell, and some are surprisingly tragic which adds to the generally melancholic tone of the game.
From a musical perspective, Death’s Door also knocks it out of the park. Once again, being unified under clear direction, the music serves to enrich the tone set by the dour story and grimly beautiful environments. The score is played on a sole piano during exploration and joined by an ensemble during prominent moments such as battles and in thriving villages. This restraint is greatly appreciated when it could’ve been so easy to throw in more instruments for something more bombastic. Less really is more sometimes, and Death’s Door proves it.
Fight like the crow
The gameplay of DD is split into four key areas; exploration, puzzles, combat and bosses. It is a tried and true formula, made popular and taking clear inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. How this top-down action adventure differs from the seminal journey through Hyrule is there is a larger focus on combat, rather than puzzles. It isn’t uncommon to be dropped into monster closets time after time as your venture through each area. It is in these sections where the fluidity of movement is essential and alleviates the frustration that one might feel when playing those older titles.
The smooth framerate and agility of your crow protagonist shines in combat sections. Similar to Titan Souls, you have an essential dodge roll maneuver, complete with i-frames to avoid damage. Mastering the use of this is a necessity to come out victorious in some of the later battles. You have a close ranges weapon which can be charged for additional damage as well as a bow for long-range confrontations. Your arsenal does grow throughout your journey, allowing for you to personalize your loadout to suit your specific needs.
This being said, the combat is a little simplistic, there is no option to block or parry, and strategy is typically limited to identifying which minion to take down first, not necessarily how you would take them down. Suffice to say, with a short, single-button combo available for each weapon, you won’t be chaining together high scores or satiating a depleting style meter like in Devil May Cry.
Ultimately, I would say that the combat remains serviceable and interesting throughout the campaign not due to the depth of the systems, but the arenas and enemy variety on offer throughout the campaign. The combat is a welcome addition to break up your journey through the wonderfully crafted world. The combat is always engaging, occasionally challenging, but rarely frustrating.
I particularly liked that the melee weapons are all completely optional and serve as a great reward for those eager explorers. Oh, there is also an obligatory skill tree to further tailor to your combat preferences.
Exploration is pretty fly
Exploring the world presented in Death’s Door is much more alluring than the combat on offer here. You’ll traverse a range of locales, locating new items (which in true Zelda fashion open up access to further areas) and encounter many interesting landmarks throughout the 8 or so hour journey.
Through removing the common functionality of waypoints and a readable map, Acid Nerve were able to display confidence in the variety and memorable landscape and the title is all the more engaging for it. As you open up new doors, drop down ladders to previously explored areas, your mental map begins to unravel, before once again winding tightly. It is similar to something like (sigh) Dark Souls, where you are forced to learn the environment, lest you get lost and become frustrated. The inclusion of a map and objective markers would’ve been a safe option for the team, but I actually love this omission. Similarly, secret areas are alluded to by characters within the area with vague statements like “west of the castle, there is a break in the hedge…”, this makes locating these hidden goodies all the more satisfying. If they were marked on some checklist, it wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding to hunt these treasures down.
Platforming is a part of the equation here too, whilst not based on the ability to jump, there are plentiful bottomless pits and devious traps scattered throughout the game’s dungeons. The tight, responsive controls keep frustration to a minimum here, as they did with the combat. Worth noting that sections requiring precise accuracy using the bow were always generously locked on and I didn’t run into any issues here. I imagine that this was due to some kind of aim assist, but the fact it didn’t disobey me once is quite the feat.
Puzzle solving throughout the journey follows the same trend as the combat. It is incredibly straight forward, rarely stumping me for more than a few moments. There is a clear over-reliance on “light this torch to open this door” puzzles which is disappointing given the creativity on offer throughout the rest of the journey. If they end up working on a sequel, this is something that I would love to see as more of a focus.
Birds or prey?
At the end of each dungeon, after receiving your new item and battling through a formulaic hoard of baddies, you will reach a boss. What I love about these bosses is how they are built up through the areas as you explore. You hear about the fearsome frog king for a while before actually meeting him and hearing first-hand accounts of his many misgivings. Once you get to his fortress, he talks openly with you throughout your invasion of his home as his temper rapidly rises and his patience dwindled at a similar rate. This makes the eventual showdown all the more exciting as you know how many people he has hurt, why he has behaved this way and you especially don’t want him to sit on you “until your insides become your outsides”. This formula is true of every boss encounter, making each of the main adversaries a treat to face off against.
The battles themselves are also great, offering generous windows to get your attacks in and telegraphed attacks from them ensure that no loss of health comes as a surprise or as a result of anything but your lack of skill. One last thing to note about the boss battles is how they do not have a health bar, as you usually come to expect. Instead, they become cracked with red, vein-like fissures throughout the fight. This gives feedback of how you are progressing, but as it comes down to the wire, you wonder just how many more swipes their mortal shell can take. It makes the end of boss fights wonderfully tense, especially if you are one shot away from demise yourself.
Don’t be a bird brain, pick this up
Death’s Door is a wonderful little title and for the price tag the team have placed on it, it is worth every penny. Whilst the combat and puzzles may be simple, the package as a whole adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Acid Nerve have created something special in spite of those complaints, utilising fantastic music and atmosphere to create one of 2021s best, most memorable games. If you have an Xbox, this is free on Game Pass and you have no excuse not to be playing this right now. If you have any other console, you should absolutely pick this up if you are a fan of action adventure titles, particularly the older Zelda games.