Death’s Door

I knew I’d end up playing Death’s Door the first time I saw it streamed by my friends. A tiny crow, running around fighting enemies, in a pretty fantasy world is a fairly easy sell, I’d say, and that only cemented further in my head when I saw the artwork for it and fell in love with its character designs. But, aesthetics don’t make a game, and now that I’ve played it I’m left with a bevy of feelings.

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Death’s Door (PC, Switch, PS4 [reviewed], PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)

Released Jul 2021 | Developed: Acid Nerve | Published: Devolver Digital

Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 9 hours

The appeal of Death’s Door is pretty obvious to see; I mean, we play as a crow who has a job as a reaper – y’know, like the grim reaper! As an aside I think I generally love the trope of making the idea of the grim reaper into a bleak corporate job; it’s not unique to Death’s Door but it does play it well. In particular I like the touch of the reaping offices being presented in black and white while the living world is a cascade of colour and sound; it makes the very occasional flashes of colour that creep their way into the offices even more stark.

The setup in the soul reaping business is thus: when a reaper is needed, they get assigned a soul and then they pass through a magic door to the living world. Once there, they lose their contractual, job-secured immortality; reapers age normally and are vulnerable to all the same hazards as regular spods when they’re on the job, which is a handy loophole when you’re playing an action game! The crows out working have to be mindful though; the pause to their ageless existence remains held over their head for as long as it takes for them to deliver their assigned soul back to the office, so if something happens and for whatever reason a reaper can’t immediately harvest a soul, then they have to stay out until they can return with it.

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With this simple rule explained to us, take a guess how long it takes before this exact scenario befalls our hapless hero? So when our little crow is presented with their target of a giant soul, it should come as no surprise when an interloper jumps in just as we’re about to harvest and steals the soul away. Our crow gives chase, following the thief through an ancient and forbidden mountain cemetery until they finally come face-to-face with a massive door, floating just off the edge of the summit. Just then, the thief reappears; they’re an ancient and wizened crow, who reports to our protagonist that something similar happened to them years ago, and their assigned soul was sealed away behind the titular Death’s Door. He’s already offered the soul we were after up to it as well in a bid to open it, but no dice; instead he tells us the only way through is if we harvest and offer up 3 more giant souls of individuals that have lived incredibly long lives as they repeatedly cheat the ever-encroaching hand of death. With that, our adventure takes shape: our crow is pointed towards these 3 targets and must journey through the harsh wilderness to reach each one.

Death’s Door somewhat resembles an old-fashioned Zelda game with a vague Souls-lite flavouring. Most of the game you’ll spend locked in combat with the various enemies that have infested the world. Our crow comes equipped with a sword (not a scythe, for some unfathomable reason) but isn’t terribly skilled with it, by which I mean that you don’t have a ton of combat options at first. You can do a dinky three-hit combo and roll away, and that’s more or less it. You also start with a magic bow and arrow for plinking away at enemies from range. Ammo for your bow is limited to only a bare handful of shots but it’s replenished not with pickups but by connecting hits against enemies or breakable objects littered around the world. This creates a tense and enjoyable dynamic that enables you to take potshots from a marginally safer position but necessitates abandoning your place, keeping mobile, and diving in for hits. It makes the game end up a bit kitey in combat, particularly because you can only take a couple hits yourself. The temptation is often there to try and get more swipes in but you don’t typically have much staggering impact on your foes, so the game begins to flow a lot better once you embrace taking your time. A patient approach to combat in which you kite enemies and chip away with hit and run tactics seemed to me to be the only effective way to get anywhere in Death’s Door.

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Eventually you can find a few more weapons squirreled away in the world that you can switch between freely. An early area for example has a pair of knives to use and there’s a challenge run that requires you to use an umbrella for the entire game, but I think a little more could have been done with these as there’s only tiny differences between them. This is a returning theme in Death’s Door as we also unlock a small array of magic spells to supplement our ranged game but each one is essentially a variant on the same thing. That’s not to say they’re not fun or satisfying to use, but more that Death’s Door generally lacks a strong sense of progression or development. There’s a vestigial upgrade system in place in which you swap souls reaped from mooks for better strength or magic efficacy, but there’s only 4 categories to upgrade and they don’t feel impactful in the slightest.

The challenge ramps up, certainly, but the way in which we interact with them remains largely the same. This is also apparent in the puzzles which occasionally bar our path. None of them are especially taxing (thankfully) but they also never really increase in complexity; from setting some lanterns on fire in sequence to open doors to chaining together hookshot targets, the puzzles mainly exist to give some brief respite from the fighting. What I suspect many are really here for are the bosses, which are by far the centrepiece of the game. Each one is appropriately massive, with multiple phases that all require learning of attack patterns.

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These are simultaneously some of the most rewarding and frustrating parts of the game. I absolutely found a couple of the bosses to be riveting, a heady rush of tense dodges and teeth-gritted determination and the rush of relief that came when they finally fell was intoxicating – but not all of them were so good. At least a couple of them were, as far as I care, failures of game design. One boss I loved on a thematic level but the patterns were so mind-numbingly repetitive that the challenge was mainly in staying awake and aware enough to not die and have to restart, and one late-game boss barely telegraphed its attacks, which made for a singularly annoying experience.

The consensus seems to be that Death’s Door, while not soul-crushingly hard, is still a tough game. That’s essentially enough for me to know that it’s not a game for me. I play to relax and enjoy myself, and at no point while playing Death’s Door did I feel a sense of serenity or calm. Instead it was a tense experience, one fraught with gritted teeth and frustrated sighs. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the good things about it; it remains a wonderfully designed world filled with kooky creatures and it has a thrilling, mysterious narrative woven around it, but I also know it’s a game made for people who want a little bit of challenge as they play, and that’s not me.

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It’s also not a game for those without serious patience for what largely amounts to busywork. That’s less so the case for the main game, but the post-game absolutely takes the mick. There’s a hidden ending to find but to do so one needs to traipse around the world gathering collectibles and that simply doesn’t hold the interest well enough I’m afraid. I also kind of hate the healing system in this game. One of the aforementioned collectibles you can find littered around are magic seeds, which can be picked up and then planted in special planters dotted throughout each area. They then immediately sprout into a magic flower which you can use to fully heal yourself. That flower is then spent until you either die and respawn or you return to the central office and then go back to the living world. Thing is, I think this game would have benefited greatly from some way to heal during combat instead of using this system, which comes across as slightly asinine; not only are you punished if you fail to find the seeds, but it also doesn’t offer any help during difficult encounters, which is precisely when you want healing to work.

Despite my grumbles about the gameplay, Death’s Door remains a charming game at least. The aesthetic choices made here are truly gorgeous; the general style has a kind of cartoony feel with the dumpy-bodied crows and chunky enemy designs. It’s not quite Burton-esque entirely but there’s definitely some kind of bleak fantasy vibes on show here, and the occasionally washed out colour palette makes it all the more startling when the game indulges in bright splashes of colour or flashy effects to punctuate an attack. There’s a fun variety of locations on offer here as well; after we set out from Death’s Door on its lonely perch at the summit of the mountain cemetery, we trek through some imaginative places. A personal favourite of mine was the mansion of the Urn Witch, a stately home filled with creepy, claustrophobic rooms barely lit by flickering candlelight, with corners covered in massive cobwebs and shadows jumping across the walls as the fires ebbed and flowed. It’s not the only exciting locale though. One section features a huge fight across a flooded castle grounds and while it made for one of the most infuriating parts of the game to play, it’s hard to deny that the murky waters and dilapidated crenellations made for a sombre and fitting place for a pitched battle. On a similar level, the part of the game that sees our crow cut a one-bird swathe through massed enemy forces while also launching between crumbling towers perched precariously in the peaks of a snowy mountain range as the winds and ice howl around them was equally ludically difficult but aesthetically deeply satisfying.

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It’s also a game chock full of wonderful characters. Many occupy little more than bit parts but are written with such care and love that they’re hard to forget. In particular I love the proprietor of the small food shack that squats at the bottom of the mountains who definitely isn’t a squid manipulating the corpse of a sailor and is 100% a regular fleshy human; he’s almost as much fun as the poor sod in the reapers’ office who begins the game as a regular desk-bound worker, fated to dole out assignments for eternity, but slowly gets more exasperated as our crow’s desk next to theirs fills up with detritus and clutter gathered up during their adventure. The best character has to be the gravedigger you meet in the cemetery below Death’s Door; at first he seems just a standard tropey chap, weary with the years spent interring bodies and with a morbid aura about him, but I was caught completely unaware when he shambled up after I defeated a boss and delivered a heartfelt and morose eulogy for them. It’s this kind of imaginative writing that remains the purview of indie games; I can’t imagine any AAA game being brave enough to do something similar.

The game I was most reminded by when I finished up Death’s Door was Celeste, funnily enough. Not because they’re in any way ludonarratively similar, but more because they both occupy a related niche in my mind in that they’re distinctly beloved indie games that I wish I liked more than I did. Both are games where I can step back, look from a distance, and appreciate the things they do well; Death’s Door does though have some of what I would consider fairly obvious flaws that sit aside from my own personal distaste towards needlessly difficult games. A more robust and deep progression and upgrade system would have done wonders for pushing the game forward, while a change to the pointlessly restrictive healing would have offered some much-needed respite as well as allay a piece of negative game design. Despite those gripes, there’s still a lot to recommend in Death’s Door, and I can’t escape the fact that a few weeks removed from beating it I do still think about it a lot. While I’m not quite at the point of wanting to replay it, there’s a vague nagging sense in my mind that I might enjoy reinstalling it and pushing for completion if only to spend a bit more time in its world, and that has to count for something.

5/7 – GREAT.

Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.

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