Despite all the innovation that frequently takes place in the indie space, there’s an awful lot of games that are content to just do what’s already been done. It can be easy to become jaded, then, when a lot of these copycat games turn out to be worse than their clear inspiration. After all, who wants to waste their time playing a weak approximation of a better game? However, every now and then a game like Death's Door comes along. Death’s Door is a game that you’ve probably played before — and we don't just mean on other platforms where it's been available for months. Developer Acid Nerve doesn’t do anything new per se, yet delivers a tremendously well-designed experience that shows true mastery of the mechanics and genres it was inspired by, making for a game you won’t want to miss.
Death’s Door begins by placing you in the role of an adorable little crow who works as a Reaper at the Reaping Commission Headquarters, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy which is responsible for administrating the process of death. Every now and then there are beings that refuse to die, and these special cases are where Reapers like your character are dispatched to kill them and collect their souls. However, a Reaper is temporarily made mortal while on a mission, and they only regain their immortality status once the soul they were assigned is successfully brought back. This usually isn’t a problem, until someone intervenes in your character’s first assignment and casts your target soul behind the eponymous Death’s Door. To open it and retrieve your soul, you have no choice but to track down the owners of the three Giant Souls and kill them so you can win back your immortality.
It’s a fine story that frames the action well, bolstered by a memorable cast of supporting characters and a dry sense of humor to keep things from getting too serious. Plus, there are some interesting observations on life and death that cast some nice moral grayness over what you’re doing. The first major boss, for example, defies death because she wants to find a way to ensure that her loved ones won’t die. Narrative never takes precedence over gameplay in Death’s Door, but the brief cutscenes and character exchanges that pepper the lengthy bouts of action gameplay do a great job of keeping you focused on the next objective while immersing you ever more into this curious world.
Death’s Door features a semi-linear open world, wherein the path you take is mostly decided in advance, even though it feels like you’re discovering it for yourself. This means that it gets the best of both worlds, as your experience with Death’s Door is tightly controlled and paced, despite how often you may think that you’re ‘lost’. A typical level sees you spawn from the nearest door and picking a direction that seems like the way to go, fighting your way through an assortment of puzzles and enemy encounters all along the way. Then, just when it feels like you’re out of your depth or definitely went the wrong way, you pull a lever or shoot a lantern and reveal a path that takes you right back to the door you started from.
One checkpoint thus functions as multiple checkpoints for a given area, because even as you’re constantly progressing, you’re usually also unlocking various pathways back that show you haven’t really strayed as far as you think. This kind of checkpoint design creates a world that feels wonderfully cohesive, and one that can simultaneously feel big and small in the best of ways.
Of course, it’s not like you’re following a straight line the whole way through. Often, you’ll come upon a fork in the road, with one of those being the intended path and the other one leading you to another shortcut or some small collectible or prize. There are also plenty of sections where a trinket is displayed tantalizingly out of reach, and you’ll need to make a mental note to come back later with another tool or ability. There’s always something useful to find or do in the world of Death’s Door and it feels very ‘dense’ and thoughtfully designed in this regard. Nothing is out of place here; there’s always something meaningful to encounter, whether it be a new item to collect or another enemy encounter to survive.
Combat is quite high-risk, high-reward, and it continuously finds new ways to keep you on the edge of your seat. Your crow is quite nimble in combat and has an array of magical abilities to supplement slashing up their foes with their trusty sword, but they go down in only a few hits. Your enemies, meanwhile, have predictable attacks and can be dispatched in a few hits, but their numbers can often be their greatest asset. When you have four or five foes coming at you, it’s much harder to not accidentally roll into a fireball or swipe and, given that you’re only able to make a few mistakes in between checkpoints, this makes for some suitably tense stand offs as you nervously glance at your dwindling health.
You can heal yourself outside of checkpoints, but it’s quite limited. Throughout your adventure, you’ll find little seeds that you plant in pots at fixed points on the map. Planting a seed grows a flower that heals you completely, but then it dies upon use and doesn’t regrow until after your next respawn. So, any healing you do outside of a checkpoint is thus contingent on you both having a spare seed to plant and finding a pot in which to plant it, and this adds a whole new layer to how you approach any combat situations. Fighting recklessly, especially in new territory, is usually unwise because you never know how long you’re going to have to go before your next respite and a big fight could always just be around the corner.
Boss fights deserve a special mention here as well. Death’s Door does a great job of throwing encounters at you that feel fulfilling and really push you to master the crow’s movements. Your crow remains as vulnerable and easily dispatched as ever, while the bosses usually take dozens of hits to go down and feature complex attack patterns that get even worse across a few phases. It usually takes a few tries before you finally get each one down, and it feels like a worthwhile accomplishment every time because it takes a potent combination of patience, skill, and lessons learned across several attempts to achieve victory.
Killing any foes rewards your crow with soul energy, and this can then be taken back to the commission headquarters and cashed in for brief upgrades to give you an edge in combat. These can do things like speeding up your dodges or reducing the time to charge an attack, and each boost feels like a welcome and distinct step up. Additionally, boosting your crow’s health and magic limits is done by finding crystals scattered throughout the world at cleverly hidden shrines. These RPG-lite elements don’t add enough depth for you to meaningfully craft ‘builds’ for your crow, but they do provide a nice sense of progression to give you the feeling that you’ve grown on your journey. All these buffs will always be secondary, however, to the more abstract growth that you go through as you get better at reading enemy movements and chaining attacks together.
If you’ve read this far and have been thinking this all sounds like something you’ve played before, you’re right. The only meaningful complaint one could reasonably make about Death’s Door is that it plays too safe. Frankly, Death’s Door doesn’t bring any noteworthy new ideas to the table, and is mostly content to be yet another game that follows in the footsteps of Soulslikes and Zelda 'ripoffs'. That said, it’s a remarkably good take on that kind of game, so much so that we’d contend it stands above most other examples in the indie gaming space.
Of course, it’s always nice to play a game that brings a creative mechanic or iteration on a tired gameplay formula, but Death’s Door serves as a good reminder that a new game doesn’t have to be original to feel like it adds something to the genre. Death’s Door may not have anything you haven’t seen before, but every single minute is crafted with precision, focus, and intent; to coin a well-worn phrase, it’s all killer and no filler.
Visually, Death’s Door manages to be stunning, even if it seems rather simplistic on the surface. The models all have an exaggerated, chunky appearance that has a cartoonish vibe, but things like the soft shadows cast by a high-up, unseen tree canopy in the forest level show off a close attention to detail on the behalf of the developers. Also, your crow is quite small relative to most of the environments, which can create a nice sense of scale and the illusion that the world is huge.
We’d be remiss to skip out on discussing the wonderful soundtrack, too, which gives Death’s Door a lovely tone of playfulness and serenity. The music is mostly comprised of low-key orchestral pieces, mixing in lots of winds, acoustic guitars, and relaxing pianos. Even with the more intense music that plays in most battles, the soundtrack of Death’s Door never feels rushed or high energy, as if it’s inviting you to take your time and fully experience everything its world has to offer you.
Death’s Door is a modern classic, utilizing old gameplay ideas in a new setting to make for a short and sweet experience you won’t want to miss. The snappy combat, rewarding exploration, and relaxing music will stick with you once you've finished, and while it may not have anything 'new' to offer, Death’s Door is so high quality that you’ll hardly have time to think about it's lack of innovation. We’d give this one a very high recommendation, especially to any fans of Zelda or Soulslike games — Acid Nerve has crafted an experience that’s absolutely worth your time and money.