What’s Death’s Door?
First launching this past summer on PC and Xbox One/Series X/S, Death’s Door is the sophomore release from the UK-based indie developer Acid Nerve. The only other commercial project for which the two-person team (their cadre was slightly expanded for Death’s Door) was known previously was 2015’s Titan Souls. Upon its debut, Death’s Door earned widespread critical acclaim, many gamers and critics likening its mechanics to beloved series like Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda. Such comparisons are obviously nothing to scoff at. As someone who more or less games exclusively on the Nintendo Switch, I was very pleased when a Switch port of this 3D action-adventure title was announced just a few months later.
To jump straight into the 955-million dollar question—the estimated worth of Devolver Digital, the now-publicly traded publisher that threw their support (and wallet) behind the development of Death’s Door—does this latest indie sensation really deserve all the praise and accolades it has thus far received? (It’s also been nominated at this year’s Hollywood-esque Game Awards for the category of ‘Best Indie,’ the results of which will likely be known by the time you’re reading this). Does it really belong in the same breath as games like Zelda and Dark Souls?
If you’re looking for answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right place!
The Hall of Doors
Narration in Death’s Door is for the most part kept to a minimum. However, when characters you meet, or artifacts you discover, or cutscenes you encounter do progress the story, it is one that I found both wholly fascinating and original. At the start, it’s all fairly straightforward: You play as a nameless crow—sometimes called ‘The Foretold Crow,’ at other times merely ‘Fledgling’—who works for an administrative office known as the ‘Reaping Commission Headquarters.’ This facility is located in the ‘Hall of Doors,’ a monochrome ethereal plane of existence that is something akin to the afterlife and serves as the game’s central hub. You learn that, along with the other crows inhabiting this domain, you are a reaper whose job it is to track down monsters who’ve outstayed their welcome in the land of the living and retrieve their Souls. The energy contained in the souls is what powers various mysterious doors, enabling travel between the finite real world and the timeless realm of the Hall of Doors.
Your first assignment is to collect a ‘Giant Soul,’ which is all well and good for a feisty crow equipped with a sword and bow. Immediately after completing this task, unfortunately, the prized soul you recover is snatched away by another feathered fellow known as the Grey Crow. He’s reaping Giant Souls to open up Death’s Door, ‘the end point for all life.’
Hard Out Here For a Crow
As the Giant Soul that the Grey Crow steals from you is not enough to force open Death’s Door, he obliges you with a further undertaking: locate and defeat three powerful beings who reside across the land, the combined Giant Souls in their possession containing enough energy to unfasten Death’s Door and resolve the Grey Crow’s plight. Along the way, you’ll traverse flooded ruins, towering mountaintops, an enchanted forest, and so much more. You’ll come upon and befriend an array of oddball characters and uncover a grand conspiracy that involves the disappearance of other crows like yourself.
You don’t have much say in the matter either. With your original commission left unfinished, the privileges formerly afforded to you, as to all those residing in the Hall of Doors, have now been revoked. To put it another way, you no longer enjoy the benefits of agelessness, and monsters can now kill you. It’s hard out here for a crow!
Death’s Door is set in an isometric perspective that, at first glance, may seem more reminiscent of something in the vein of a dungeon-crawler like Diablo or a roguelike like Hades. Within the first few minutes of action, however, and definitely after your first boss encounter, comparisons to the likes of Zelda and Dark Souls will become abundantly clear (assuming you’re familiar with those). Like any Zelda, Death’s Door features weapons like swords, a bow, and later, bombs, a hookshot, and magic. Aside from upgrades that you can find for each of these, you also have health and magic bars which can each be moderately increased by locating crystal shards. Finding four vitality shards to comprise a complete crystal ups your life meter by one extra notch, just as Heart Pieces do in Zelda. The same logic applies to your magic meter.
It’s not only your arsenal of tools or the real-time combat of Death’s Door’s action that harken one’s thoughts back to Hyrule. There’s also the game’s dungeons and the pacing of its progression, calling to mind Nintendo’s elven exploits, and even, I would argue, a series like Metroid. As for dungeons, you have your network of rooms that require you to slaughter hordes of foes, solve ‘puzzles’ (although, it must be said, none in Death’s Door ever approach the level of sophistication and forethought that Zelda’s puzzles often involve), and acquire keys, all of which, naturally, culminates in a boss fight.
There are a handful of ways in which I think the juxtaposition to Dark Souls is most apparent in Death’s Door. The first is its boss and mini-boss fights, which can seem excruciating at first. Although controls in Death’s Door feel incredibly tight and responsive, learning enemy patterns and timing your attacks correctly sometimes takes several tries to master. If you’re not patient, foes will make you pay, and their bombardments are often bone-crushing. Take heed: you will die frequently, at least at the beginning of your journey. On the bright side, the penalty for failure is never too severe, only restarting you at the last door you crossed through, which is typically equivalent to a few rooms back. Battles also become much less taxing with time as you learn that most monsters utilize similar move sets which become easier and easier to predict.
As well, your strength and speed will grow as you collect Soul Energy, reaped from the foes that you slay. Basically, Soul Energy in Death’s Door works similar to how souls were employed in Dark Souls. It’s the currency with which you’re rewarded for taking down enemies. You exchange these at the Reaping Commission Headquarters for skill enhancements. Thankfully, you don’t lose your souls when you die!
Death’s Door also reminded me of Dark Souls in one other way. Whereas in FromSoftware’s brutal action-adventure game you must chance upon bonfires to recover your health, in Death’s Door this is accomplished by way of Seed Pots. To avail yourself of their healing benefits, you must plant a Life Seed. Life Seeds are scattered all about and never especially difficult to come by. If you want to reach Death Door’s ‘true ending,’ you’d best make sure that you find and plant all fifty seeds!
Progression and Exploration
This brings us to another of Death’s Door many highlights: progression and exploration. You’re constantly surveying areas that lie just beyond your reach, usually because you lack the correct items at your disposal to progress further. I invoked Metroid earlier. I know it may sound strange, as Death’s Door lacks any platforming elements, but in many ways it struck me as perhaps the sort of game a Metroid (or some other ‘Metroidvania’) might resemble if their usual side-scrolling vantage point was given the isometric treatment. What makes exploration in Death’s Door—and its gameplay more broadly—such an engaging affair is that you always feel duly compensated you for your efforts.
Another game that was still fresh on my mind and does this exceptionally well (hence, why the reference kept cropping up) is the recent Metroid Dread. Like Samus’s latest campaign, when Death’s Door is not kicking your ass (see the ‘Difficulty’ section above), it’s an experience that can easily make you lose track of the hours you spend with it. In a nutshell: Death’s Door’s gameplay loop is another example of game design perfection insofar as it remains so damn consistently fun and fulfilling from start to finish.
It’s hard to find much to fault in Death’s Door. Sure, I experienced my share of frustrations with certain enemies, but the game never really felt unfair. I always knew that if I kept plugging away, I would eventually succeed. As you possess no map in Death’s Door, exploration was a little tedious at first, particularly when I would acquire a new ability and then seek to return to an earlier section, knowing that I could now advance further than before. Yet, overall, I think the exclusion of a map was the right decision by the developer. Not only are you encouraged to continually take stock of your surroundings, you also have access to numerous fast travel points via the Hall of Doors. Moreover, characters liberally guide you in the general direction as to where you should go next.
I’ve cited a lot of beloved, topnotch franchises in describing Death’s Door. While I’m not the first to draw some of these comparisons, it still might be viewed as almost sacrilege to hold up a game next to a Zelda and a Metroid and a Dark Souls—unless, of course, it succeeds at actually delivering an experience that is worthy of such mentions. I’ll reserve my final judgement for how great of a game I believe Death’s Door to be for the conclusion of this review. For now, I’ll simply ponder, given the lofty company from which Death’s Door clearly drew upon for inspiration, is it a hodgepodge of these disparate identities or does it forge something that is uniquely its own? I’m confident in affirming that it’s the latter, and the reason perhaps lies chiefly in its presentation.
Visual and Audio
Visually, Death’s Door doesn’t stand out for being especially gorgeous or detailed in its textures. Nonetheless, there is a cleanness and simplicity to its environments and characters that summoned to mind a cartoonish or putty-like style such as is found in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake, minus the shiny gloss. From the seamless cutscenes that transition into various zoomed-in angles and perspectives, to the dense greenery of the ‘Overgrown Ruins,’ an area that particularly stood out to me as being one of the prettiest in the game, Death’s Door aesthetics are, in a word, enchanting.
Death’s Door’s musical score is no less beautiful, a piano-heavy soundtrack that somehow wholly encompasses both the sadness and the charm that the game perpetually exudes. It’s an adventure that will make you chuckle when meeting a man named Pothead, who has a literal pot for a head, while at other times fill you with deep sympathy for taking the life of… a talking frog. Death’s Door is a quest that deals intimately with the prospect of death looming over all living beings, and the melodies that David Fenn composed for every section are alternately soothing and melancholic. The finest example of this (and my personal favorite) is arguably—yet again—the Overgrown Ruins’ titular track.
There were a couple of minor issues that I encountered while playing Death’s Door. These were very minor but merit attention all the same. There were a couple of bugs, including a boss who fell off a cliff but didn’t die, disabling any attempt I made to engage with him further. The other issue I ran into, though admittedly only once, was a serious stuttering in frame rates when too many enemies clogged the screen. Other than these, Death’s Door is as alluring in its presentation and performance on the Nintendo Switch, whether docked or in handheld mode, as it is in any other facet, rightfully putting it in contention with the best games of 2021 that I’ve played.
Now back to my question posed in the opening: Is it really correct to call Death’s Door an indie Zelda-meets-Dark Souls mashup?
Yes and no. (Read the sentence before this if you skipped down to the conclusion—yeah, I see you!—and are confused right now.)
Death’s Door isn’t an overly ambitious title. It’s plain to see that Acid Nerve honed in on specific elements that appealed to them from earlier paragons of the action-adventure genre with a laser-like focus, and from these created something that feels familiar yet distinct. While the peculiarity of Death’s Door, in my view, rests primarily in its original cast and storytelling, unique artistic sensibility, and arresting soundtrack, it’s none the worse off for it. Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is one of my favorite indie games despite being little more than a top-down, 2D Zelda clone. Death’s Door is by no means a mere knockoff but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it elevates any of the ingredients it borrows from to new heights either. Instead, it takes a little bit of genius from this, a little magic from that. The result is something that does deserve to be mentioned among the greats, even if as no more than an entry point for those rare breed of gamers out there who have somehow never played either a Zelda or a Dark Souls game.
As a trip that take will most casual players anywhere between 12-15 hours to finish on the first playthrough (I achieved 100% after approximately 18 hours, and I used a guide to collect the last few remaining items needed to unlock the ‘true ending’), Death’s Door is not only an excellent introduction to games of a similar make-up. Veterans of the classics I’ve mentioned throughout the preceding paragraphs will find plenty to love here too. Unless you’re a master of the craft, however, remember what I said at the outset, and stay persistent.
Be prepared to eat crow.
- Alluring, stylish aesthetic
- Extremely tight and responsive controls
- Fun and engaging, if not occasionally frustrating, combat
- Nigh on perfect pacing and progression
- Memorable, tranquil soundtrack
- May prove difficult (at first) for casual players
- Navigation without a map can feel overwhelming at times
- Frame rates stutter if too many enemies clog the screen
A review copy was provided by the publisher.