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Death’s Door Review:: A Deathly Fairy Tale

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Death is a weird concept. We’re all aware, some of us painfully so, that it’s coming for us and it’s only a matter of time before one day you look over your shoulder to find the grim reaper, and poof! You’re dead. Any one of these days could be your last. One second you’re there, the next you’re just… not. 

The whole concept of death and its ramifications is too complex and heavy for a sane person to ponder for too long and manage to stay sane, so we tend not to think too deeply about it. This has been especially clear in the past year or so, as the daily updates on the Covid death toll quickly became nothing more than meaningless numbers, and worse, just a topic of conversation, almost akin to talking about the weather. “Yeah apparently 4000 more people died yesterday in India and experts are warning us of a third wave… anyway did you watch the new Loki episode last night?”.

And yet, at the end of the day, death is what makes life meaningful, right? Just as a deadline may force you to put aside the bong, put your head down and work towards accomplishing something meaningful, so does your impending death force you to live life to the fullest. Without death, is life even life anymore or just… an existence that’s okay to waste away because who cares? You have all the time in the world! What’s the point of doing something “worthwhile” anyway if the “while” is infinite? Well then, should we be somehow grateful for death? 

Though Death’s Door doesn’t go super deep into such philosophical questions, this isometric hack ‘n’ slash action-adventure developed by Acid Nerve and published by yah boi Devolver Digital, does have something to say about immortality and definitely succeeded in making me think about death a little more deeply than I normally would like to. Philosophy aside, let’s get to the game itself, shall we? 

A Day in the Life of a Reaper

Death’s Door is a Zelda-like adventure game where you play as a cute little crow working for the Soul Reaping Commission. Armed at first with only a sword and a bow, you’re in charge of reaping souls assigned to you by the commission – you see, these souls when left alive for too long, tend to go bad, so you’re one of those in charge of reaping them before that happens. As you play through the very beginning of the game, you get the sense that it’s just another day on the job for our little crow protagonist – he’s just punching the clock, really. You get off the bus at the Soul Commission Headquarters, check in with a crow clerk to get your next assignment following which a door opens to your destination. 

Your first assignment, which also serves as a tutorial and the set-up of the narrative, leads to a place called the Grove of Spirits where, after learning the basic controls and how things work, you fight the Forest Spirit boss to reap its soul. Just when you start to bask in the accomplishment of a job well done, a hulking figure arrives out of nowhere, steals the boss’ soul, and knocks you out! I’ll let you discover for yourself what happens next, but in essence, you’re tasked with defeating and reaping the souls of 3 bosses (in any order you like) and perhaps even uncovering a secret conspiracy within the Commission itself. 

Death’s Door takes place in an almost fairy-tale-like world, where not only are the animals anthropomorphic but in some cases, inanimate objects like vases and pots are too! I’ll admit, though I found the overall concept of the world cool and interesting, there’s a lot about it, especially the intricacies of the story and lore that I found confusing and just not compelling in general (to be fair, I did kind of zone out and maybe didn’t pay as close attention as I should’ve, but I stand by my point that the story could’ve been told much more elegantly). 

However, the broad strokes of the narrative, and the overall themes about the importance of accepting death, and what the promise of immortality can do to a person, all come together well by the end. The twists at the end are surprisingly engaging and somewhat made up for the lack of a compelling narrative up to that point. Still, even if the narrative doesn’t click with you, fret not, as there’s a lot here to love! 

Simplistic Yet Satisfying Combat

Let’s start with probably the weakest (yet still very enjoyable) aspect of Death’s Door – the combat. Going into it expecting a simple hack ‘n’ slash, I honestly wasn’t disappointed at all because that’s exactly what Death’s Door is. Still, for those expecting in-depth, customizable combat with a multitude of ways to approach a situation or the ability to play around with different builds, it’s worthwhile to underline the fact that that you will most definitely not find what you’re looking for in Death’s Door (neither is Death’s Door a rogue-like, which a lot of people seem to assume at first glance for some reason). 

While there is an upgrade system where you can choose where to dump the souls you’ve collected – Strength, Dexterity, Magic, or Speed – that’s pretty much the extent of the RPG aspect of Death’s Door. There isn’t much in the way of weapons either – you can find an umbrella, a hammer, and a pair of daggers but they only slightly change up combat, to the point I found myself just sticking to the default sword for the most part.

The core gameplay loop stays almost identical throughout the whole game – how you play in the tutorial level is pretty much how you’ll be playing against the last boss too. You have a minimal arsenal of moves at your disposal – a basic slash attack, a stronger but slower charged attack, a dodge, and a few different ranged magic attacks that you’ll unlock as you progress through the game. The ranged magic attacks have a limited number of uses, but can be recharged by a successful melee attack, so you can imagine how the combat goes – you use your magic abilities until you run out, go in close with melee attacks, dodging to avoid getting hit and resort to ranged attacks once more when they’re recharged, rinse and repeat. 

Still, I’d be remiss to say it’s not a satisfying loop. While it is very simple, it still works great and since you can’t just spam ranged attacks and it’s dangerous to stay close to the enemy (you have very little health, 4 hits and you’re dead), it encourages you to use both melee and ranged attacks to be successful. There are also a couple of other intricacies that deepen the gameplay a little bit – enemy ranged attacks can be deflected back against them (or at other enemies) and the enemies have friendly fire enabled so you can trick them into attacking themselves, which is a lot of fun. 

Overall, I found the difficulty pretty much perfect! The bosses (there are 5 or 6 in total) can be hard, especially if you, like me, never found enough secrets to upgrade your health or magic, but they’re definitely beatable. Plus, since you don’t lose any souls when you die, dying is never punishing or frustrating, you can just try again, no sweat off your back. 

Perfect Pacing and Rewarding Exploration 

So to be honest, I liked the simplicity of the combat, but even if you don’t, I’m happy to say the exploration and puzzles more than compensate for it in the gameplay department. You’ll need to make good use of your magic attacks to solve the puzzles, which are always fun and never too difficult or frustrating. In fact, they’re mostly used to pad out the game and offer a bit of quiet brain time to contrast the fast-paced, hectic combat, and they work well for that purpose. 

As for the exploration, it’s been a long time since I played a game that makes wandering off the beaten path so enjoyable! You see, there’s a bit of Metroidvania in Death’s Door, since returning to previous levels with newly-unlocked magic abilities give you access to areas that had previously been inaccessible. Doing so rewards you with more life seeds (that you can use to heal when planted at pots spread out across every level), life/magic shards, which can be used to upgrade your health and magic, letting you take more damage and use magic attacks more frequently as well as various shiny collectible items. 

Frankly, I didn’t bother exploring a whole lot because I was looking for a challenge and wanted to beat the game with no upgrades, but some of these shards are so cleverly hidden and so rewarding to discover (the bathroom reflection one comes to mind) that I had to go back after beating the game to try and collect them all. Speaking of post-game content, there is a surprisingly good amount of things to do after beating the last boss, and a great ‘true ending’ to discover as well, which I highly recommend doing! 

This great mix of fast-paced combat, fun puzzles, and rewarding exploration makes it so that you’re never bored throughout the 10-12 hours it takes to beat the game. The pacing is honestly so good, I never felt compelled to take a break (except maybe during a couple of hard boss fights). 

Minimalist Greatness

Probably the main reason most will pick up Death’s Door in the first place is the wonderful art style and soundtrack. The color palette has a good variety depending on the level but is always simple, elegant, and never overly flashy. It’s beautiful in the way looking at nature IRL, without filters, is beautiful. 

There’s a decent amount of variety in the enemy designs too, though most are fairly predictable – from cute bats and slimes to creepy walking vases, annoying plants, and teleporting robed figures. The boss designs though are on a whole other level. One of the first bosses you’ll encounter is the super unique Guardian of the Door, which is quite literally a fricking castle with lasers and bombs to throw at you. The color scheme of this boss especially is super cool, with the pinkish-red lights from within the castle brilliantly illuminating the drab brown of the rest of it. I won’t spoil any of the other bosses, but rest assured there are some unique and fun designs in store for you to discover. 

The other thing that stood out to me about the enemies is how tangible they felt. I’m not sure whether it’s the well-made animations or the art style, but all the enemies have this almost clay-like quality to them that made me feel like they were actual physical objects every time I slashed or shot them. Furthermore, sometimes your finishing attack results in a striking animation that’s not only super satisfying but also makes the physics feel extremely real – the eyeball of an enemy’s mask-shield rolls away, or the straw hat of the scarecrow-type enemy pops out when defeated, etc. All of this gives the impression that the enemies are almost action figures, complete with detachable parts. I’m not sure if I got my point across well enough, but something bout the art style, animations, and these detachable parts made me reminisce about my childhood days playing with the ‘goddamn’ Batman or Power Rangers toys. 

The soundtrack is consistently excellent as well – it’s beautifully melancholic but never depressing, and transitions into a fast-paced stimulating track during combat that raises the tension and will have you on edge, frantically click-clacking away on your controller. 

Somber Yet Playful 

What I took away from Death’s Door and will probably remember for years to come is its specific, well-crafted tone. The tone of Death’s Door is a bit peculiar in that, a lot of it, aided by the wonderful soundtrack, is melancholic, and for a game dealing with death, rightfully so. However, there’s also a lot of playful charm in here (a character with a pot for a head, aptly named Pothead, comes to mind) that ends up making it feel a lot more heartwarming and wholesome than you’d expect! The sense of humor on display helps balance this tone a lot and is something I highly appreciated – it’s not obnoxious and in your face, but just subtle enough and peppered periodically through the story that it brings the perfect amount of levity to the narrative, while still keeping the somber tone of death ever-present. 

This walking of a tightrope between charming humor and the sombreness of death worked extremely well and is probably the most memorable thing about Deaths Door for me. After defeating each boss, an immortal (or is he?) character with a headstone for a head, aptly called Steadhone, gives a humorous yet respectful eulogy to the recently departed boss, which just brought a huge smile to my face each time. In just a couple of lines, Steadhone acknowledges the boss’ evil/misguided motivations and pokes fun at them, while still paying respect to their good qualities, the value of their life. He might have been a dick but he did do some good things and hey, he’s dead after all, RIP. 

Also, as you progress through the story, the Soul Reaping Commission – which at first is very Sin City-ish in its black-and-white aesthetic – slowly fills up with more and more of the cute plantlike forest spirits that you meet in the very first level. These spirits bring color to the dull Commission, increasingly livening the place up, cheering up the crow clerks and the other staff. 

These elements – the silly yet well-spread-out humor, Steadhone’s eulogies, and the takeover of the forest spirits – work superbly well counterposed with the subject matter of death together to create a very specific, zen tone that I found very enjoyable. Death’s Door leaves you with an optimistic viewpoint on the concept of death itself, almost as if it’s telling you, “Yup, death sucks and it’s scary, but hey, immortality corrupts so you wouldn’t want that anyway! Don’t take it all too seriously, just have some fun!”.

Real Talk 

Death’s Door is an excellent hack ‘n’ slash, action-adventure game, and the perfect midway point between Zelda and Dark Souls, not only in terms of gameplay and difficulty, but also in its narrative, lore, and especially its tone. Though the lack of depth in combat may be a letdown, the rewarding exploration and puzzles, the interesting story, the great pacing, and the delightfully designed bosses more than make up for it, no question about it. 

Does it do anything super innovative, never-before-seen in games? No, absolutely not. However, the overall package here, and the cohesion of it, is pulled off expertly (not just for a debut studio title from a core team of just 5 people!) and is a true delight to experience from beginning to end. I highly recommend Death’s Door to pretty much anyone who likes Zelda, Dark Souls, and anything in between. 

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