Game Reviews

Death’s Door: Review

A game about death, crows, and men with soup for heads

by Andron Smith
Death's Door Review

Death’s Door is an isometric action-adventure RPG developed by Acid Nerve who previously created the deceptively simple Titan Souls. While Titan Souls focused on more intimate one on one battles between the player and numerous bosses, Death’s Door steps up the ante with multiple weapons and powers, a beautiful yet decrepit world to explore, and colorfully tragic bosses. All of these elements combine to create a great experience that is unfortunately held back from being a timeless one by a few key design choices.

Welcome To the Hall of Doors

In Death’s Door, you play as a (super cute) crow who is referred to as the Reaper although he is one of many. At the start of the story, the Reaper arrives in a greyscale office world called the Hall Of Doors, Reaping Commission Headquarters. After interacting with a few denizens of the hall, the little bird is tasked with reaping a giant soul. It’s explained that for each task given to reapers, they open a door to the plane where the soul exists and until the reaper returns with said soul, the door remains open. Not a big deal right? Unfortunately, as long as the door is open, the repear assigned the task will continue to age. More on that soon.

During your task, tragedy strikes, and the giant soul is whisked away meaning your door can no longer be closed. You’re now aging rapidly and will no doubt perish if you don’t retrieve the soul in time. As you track down where the giant soul has gone, you encounter an aged far larger crow who sits in front of the titular Death’s Door. Yep, there is an actual door in the game named Death’s Door. The older crow explains that the giant soul you seek has already passed through didn’t have enough soul energy to open it. He insists that the Reaper go and defeat three other giant souls to open Death’s Door and complete his mission or face death.

Death’s Door’s narrative is told largely through text but delivered by its characters with more life and enthusiasm than most AAA titles can muster. While not voiced, NPCs will grunt, cheer, and moan as they provide the protagonist information on the world or just let him know how much they love typing on a keyboard. Outside of Nintendo, not many developers can exude so much personality from their mostly silent characters and this was definitely a high point for the game. It was often more exciting to bump into new NPCs to see how their eyes would bulge out than enter a new dungeon.

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The narrative itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking but is delivered in a way that players will definitely find intriguing. The core themes throughout Death’s door, unless I’m reading too much into it, are the perils of immortality and the dualism that exists in us all, especially for the game’s antagonists. Throughout each area and before the encounter with each big boss, it almost feels like you are the antagonist. As you race through their dungeons killing minions, destroying vases, and overall doing “hero” stuff, the big boss of most areas will come and chime in on your actions. The first major one, in particular, keeps asking if you’re the one who is destroying their house but never once attacks you before their encounter. However, the player is free to attack them at each of these instances and the bosses will run away, for now.

Showing the boss as just a person before you face them really adds to the idea of perhaps what you’re doing is not exactly right. While yes, the bosses are doing evil deeds and the people around them claim issues with their acts, the bosses themselves are shown to be less inclined to bloodshed until the Reaper pushes them to the point of no return. This dualism extends further as once you’ve slain the big boss of the area, the following cutscene (without spoiling too much) reveals exactly why they were doing what they were doing. While some would call that lazy storytelling, throughout the levels leading up to these final encounters, you’re given breadcrumbs that could lead you to the same conclusion. The writers of this game have really mastered giving out just enough information to satisfy players and still found a way to make me feel like an ass after slaying each boss within the game.

A Beautiful Death Complete With Soundtrack

While the story is told with a bit of lighter touch given its extremely dark undertones, the presentation of the game has a clearly darker focus. Each character and animation is lovingly created and most have a gimmick matching the area they are in. One character, for example, has a literal soup pot for their head. Somehow he can still communicate and even offers the player to drink some of his soup which thankfully the Reaper rejects. I don’t know the anatomy of soup people but I’m assuming that would have been his brain. Needless to say, I really like the character designs and every NPC looks great while somehow all fitting within the world of Death’s Door seamlessly.

The characters wouldn’t work without a great environment to live in. The main hub world, the Hall of Doors, is a hacked-together series of floating platforms with makeshift work areas and “offices” that seem disjointed from where they are in space and time. The first large area you are allowed to explore, outside of the hall, is a literal graveyard where the dead walk and are colored with deep greys and darker blacks. If that’s not on theme, I don’t know what is.

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This look worked extremely well as I’d find myself awe-stricken by how dark and decrepit one part of the area was and then when I finally found a vista that was different, was taken aback by its beauty. The designers play a lot with color within Death’s Door as the Hall of Doors is greyscaled as you wander through, but the second you leave a door into one of the many areas, the world is instantly filled with color giving a nice tonal change from the drab, by the numbers, Reaping Commission.

While most of the areas are very interesting to look at, unfortunately, I found myself getting lost within a few sections as the color choices tend to all be the same. In the jungle area, for example, the color palette is mostly greens and browns. The citizens of one of the towns within the jungle area are also light brown in color so they blended right in and I passed them a few times due to their natural camouflage (or my failing eyesight). This was a minor gripe but one that really made it hard to navigate at times (more on that later).

When the soundtrack hits, it hits hard but at other times I found myself staving off yawns due to how calming some of the tracks could be. During the game, you’ll hear music that will feature pan flutes, snares, and all sorts of instruments that mix together perfectly. The track currently playing will also change depending on the situation you’re in such as a battle triggering. I found myself getting very hyped during boss battles as I weaved between dishing out damage and dodging their attacks so it worked really well.

One extremely high point for the soundtrack occurs in the Furnace area. As you navigate this area, you begin to activate pistons to proceed forward and the soundtrack fits it perfectly. As you continue deeper and deeper in, the piston and gears activated keep time with the track with every smack of the piston adding a beat within the song. It was a masterclass in how to enhance a gameplay experience using music and it was not lost on me.

Reaping Souls and Getting Lost

Combat and exploration are the main components of gameplay within Death’s Door.

Combat is what you’ll be doing for about half of your time through Death’s Door. The Reaper can wield a variety of weapons including their trusty primary sword, an electrified great hammer, and even a discarded umbrella. Each weapon has a basic combo consisting of two to three hits as well as a charge attack that takes a bit of time to do but hits quite a bit harder. In addition to the primary weapon, from the beginning of the game, the Reaper has a bow to use as a ranged weapon with further ranged weapons and magic being unlocked as you continue the adventure. To finish out its arsenal, the Reaper also has a decent dodge.

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The combat in Death’s Door can be a bit challenging as encounters feel quite hectic as you bump into them, especially later in the game. During combat, you’ll be able to use your ranged weapon a certain number of times (base is four times) before you need to recharge. To recharge you can hit an enemy with your melee weapon which will gain magic back at a quick rate or even find glowing red objects or other things in the world that will recover your magic when struck. This dependency on melee attacks to recharge will prevent players from just spamming bosses with ranged attacks and instead force them into needing to find openings to hit enemies if they want to play primarily at range. I found this balance extremely satisfying and the controls in battle, once you get used to them, perfect for this type of gameplay.

Throughout the game, the enemies you’ll face will pose a significant threat as you are limited to a very small pool of health. Starting out you’ll have four bars of health. This can be expanded by finding shrines around the world but I was barely able to find enough shrines to get up to five health bars before the end of the game. Each enemy or boss hit takes off one bar of health meaning no matter how far into the game you go, enemies of all types will still wreck you if you’re not careful. You can recover health but only at green pots by planting seeds or by going back through a door to the Hall of Doors. Going back through a door, however, also resets enemies so everything you killed comes back to life so you’ll have to fight your way through them again. I found that just continuing forward and playing more carefully until I found a green planting pot was a better choice.

You’ll encounter a flurry of enemies as time goes on with many having their own gimmick and pattern to learn. One enemy I particularly liked was a guy with a stone mask on his back. He rolled around and could be dispatched in a number of different ways. You could break his stone mask making him vulnerable, let him roll into a wall and hit him while he was stuck on his back, or run around behind him and hit him before he began rolling. Many of the more interesting enemies in the game, especially the bosses, share similar multi-layered approaches.

Death is a regular occurrence during gameplay as there are some enemies (I’m looking at you large bowman) who can time their attacks to hit you as soon as you get up. Effectively, a few mistakes and you’re down for the count. If you die in Death’s Door, you won’t lose any currency, your weapons, or anything like that – instead, you’ll lose progression. The doors that work as checkpoints are far and few between so as you push through the game, you’ll have long stretches of an area with no new door to save at so dying does mean going back through everything you just did. Fortunately, as you progress through areas, you do unlock shortcuts so everything becomes connected for a quicker return trip. Those walks of shame though are painful.

I will say though that most of the deaths I had were not unfair. I either misunderstood an enemy mechanic or got bodied by a group of enemies. There was one gameplay quirk though that I felt attributed more to deaths than it should have. There’s iffy soft target locking in the game so if you go to hit an object on a platform, the character attacks with a forward slice and may fly right off. One area I found tedious where I had a few deaths I would consider not due to player skill was in the furnace. You are put on a little bull-driven ride and have to hit the head repeatedly to go forward. Since there is no locking and no rails on the ride, you either go slow as balls or go too fast and inevitably fall to your death. This is something that can easily be addressed through (give me some guardrails!) but hampers an otherwise tight control scheme and difficulty balance.

Deaths-Door-Upgrade-Screen

As you defeat enemies and explore the world, you’ll collect souls that will allow you to enhance the Reaper’s abilities. There are four stats in total with each giving a different boost to your little crow. For example, I went for Dexterity early on in the game as it supposedly increased the speed of regular attacks allowing you to chain them together quicker as well as the speed of charged melee and ranged attacks. Unfortunately, these increases felt negligible as I definitely shot faster and swung a bit faster for regular attacks, but my charged melee attack never quite reached the point of feeling useful, even at four out of five upgrades. I will say that I increased strength next and that seemed to have a more substantial impact on combat so perhaps some stats just aren’t as effective as they could be.

The game rewards exploration with plenty of secrets and pickups to get as time goes on. Often, a dark shape around a corner can lead to a ladder that spins the camera around and reveals your prize. Most of the shrines I did manage to find were hidden away in some off-the-beaten-path. Now, there is no mini-map or map in the game (in the build I played) meaning it’s up to you to figure out where to go and somehow keep track of your surroundings. With that, we’ll go into some of my frustrations with Death’s Door’s design.

There are a number of dungeons within the game that leads to a well-crafted and fun big boss fight. In fact, the big boss fights will probably be the main draw for many players. However, every dungeon I encountered had the same objectives which really made continuing the game a bit of a trudge. Each dungeon asks you to journey through its innards and find four souls to unlock a door within the dungeon. Once unlocked, it will lead you to a treasure chest of Avarice. These treasure chests test your mettle with multiple waves of enemies and once you clear the treasure chest, you’re spat back out with a new power-up. This powerup will give you what you need to get out of the dungeon and into the big boss’ lair where you’ll fight your way through and eventually fight the big boss. Then you go on to the next dungeon and find four souls, deal with the treasure chest, get an item, fight your way through the big boss’ lair, and so on. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

grandma-crow-warning

So what’s the problem with that when there is another title in the same genre that hasn’t changed its formula in decades? Well, that series that shall not be named does a really good job of providing the player more tools to play with as they explore through each dungeon. Rather than reward the player for clearing the dungeon after it’s already over (and you’re moving on to a new sub-area), it gives you the tool during the dungeon so you can learn how to use it throughout and builds the dungeons around this. Death’s Door, on the other hand, fails to captivate the player as they trudge through the monotony of another dungeon that is basically the previous one with a different coat of paint. This repetition is executed well, mind you, due to its well-crafted combat system and ingenious boss design, but knowing how every dungeon after the first is going to play out is a bit disappointing.

My next major point of contention is circling back to there being no map or guide points to really help navigate the world. Yep, I get that it’s supposed to be up to me to keep track of everything in the game and “explore”. However, there are so many areas I probably missed within this game as I had no hint or reason to explore beyond what I thought was the path to the next dungeon or area. Having a map does cause players to use only the map to get around, but if done in the right way can give the incentive to explore those “undiscovered” areas on the map and lead to players seeing more of the game world.

The above frustration really got exacerbated as I found myself getting lost a number of times due to everything looking the same and NPCs proving not useful. Again, while vague answers from NPCs are fine and dandy, there is an inconsistency in how the game delivers tips to the player. The grey crow I spoke about earlier takes over the camera to show explicitly what the doors look like before you set off on your grand adventure. Later in the game, someone opens a similar door for you and I wasn’t able to catch where it was (it was an area that looked like everything else in the surrounding area) and was hoping she’d show me again. When speaking to her though, she started NPC rambling and refused to show me the door. I accepted this and found it myself but was really pissed off when I talked to the Grey crow again and he showed me the next door I should go to complete while taking over the camera again. If one NPC has camera control, just make them all do it. With no major landmarks and the environments blending together, I’m sure many players will get lost until guides and maps are created by the community. That said, I found most of my play sessions would end because I was fed up with walking around in circles or was dreading mapping out and exploring new territory.

The Verdict

Deaths-Door-Second-Avarice-Chest-Cleared

Death’s Door is a great action-adventure RPG full of fun characters, interesting themes, and finely tuned combat with some of the best boss battles I’ve seen in recent years. However, the developers seemed to be playing extremely safe for this genre. The decision to use crows instead of people was a good artistic move but it’s odd that the crow’s kit didn’t include more avian inspiration to further drive this design choice home. The stat upgrades available definitely give a bit of a push to the Reaper but are the standards in most RPGs with little originality added to them. The environments and dungeons, as mentioned before, were definitely themed well but given the zaniness of the hall of doors, I’d expect more variety from them on a presentation and gameplay level. Effectively, they developed something guaranteed to sell and review well, but not a game that took risks in its design to really stand out from other entries in the genre.

All in all, Acid Nerve did a great job with Death’s Door and by pushing just a little bit more while taking a few calculated risks, they would have an outstanding game rather than a very good one. Still more than worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre and aren’t looking for something revolutionary. There is also some post-game content that should add some additional run time to your enjoyment.

- This article was updated on July 29th, 2021

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Death's Door

  • Score: 4 / 5
  • Available On: PC, Xbox
  • Published By: Devolver Digital
  • Developed By: Acid Nerve
  • Genre: Fantasy Action-Adventure
  • US Release Date: July 20th, 2021
  • Reviewed On: PC
  • Quote: "Acid Nerve did a great job with Death’s Door and by pushing just a little bit more while taking a few calculated risks, they would have an outstanding game rather than a very good one."
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