Despite all the innovations that often occur in the indie space, there are so many games out there that settle for just doing what has already been done. It can then be easy to get jaded when many of these copycat games turn out to be worse than their apparent inspiration. After all, who wants to waste their time faintly approximating the best game? However, games like Death’s Door appear from time to time. Death’s Door is a game that you’ve probably played before, and we don’t just mean on other platforms where it has been available for months. Developer Acid Nerve isn’t doing anything new by itself, but offers an extremely well-crafted experience that showcases true prowess in the mechanics and genres he was inspired by, making it a game you won’t want to miss out on.
Death’s Door begins with you as an adorable little raven who works as the Reaper at the headquarters of the Harvest Commission, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is responsible for managing the death process. From time to time, creatures appear that refuse to die, and on these special occasions, Reapers like your character are sent to kill them and take their souls. However, the Reaper temporarily becomes mortal while on a mission, and he regains his immortality status only after the soul he was assigned has successfully returned. This is usually not a problem until someone intervenes with your character’s first mission and closes your target soul behind the eponymous Death Door. To open it and take your soul, you have no choice but to hunt down the owners of the three giant souls and kill them in order to regain your immortality.
It’s a beautiful story that describes the action well, backed 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 about life and death that throw some moral dullness on what you do. For example, the first big boss challenges death because he wants to find a way to ensure that her loved ones don’t die. The narrative never prevails over the gameplay in Death’s Door, but the short cutscenes and character exchanges that complement the lengthy combat are great at helping you focus on your next target and immersing you further into this curious world.
Death’s Door has a semi-linear open world in which the path you take is mostly determined in advance, even if it seems like you are opening it yourself. This means that he uses the best of both worlds, as your experience with the Door of Death is tightly controlled and regulated, despite how often you may think you are “lost.” A typical level sees you spawn from the nearest door and take the direction that seems right, fighting your way through many puzzles and encountering enemies along the way. Then when you feel like you’re out of your depth or definitely went the wrong way, you press a lever or shoot a lantern and discover a path that will lead you straight to the door you started from.
Thus, a single checkpoint functions as multiple checkpoints for a given area, because even if you are constantly progressing, you will usually also unlock various backtracks that show that you are not really off track as far as you think you are. This design of checkpoints creates a remarkably cohesive world that can appear large at the same time. and small at best.
Of course, this does not mean that you follow a straight line all the time. Often times you will find yourself at a fork in the road, one of which will be the intended road and the other will lead you to another shortcut, small collectible or prize. There are also many sections where the trinket is tantalizingly displayed out of reach, and you’ll need to make a mental note to come back later with a different tool or ability. There is always something useful in the world of Death’s Door to find or do, and it seems very dense and thoughtful in this regard. There is nothing out of place here; There is always something meaningful, whether it’s a new item to collect or facing another enemy to survive.
Fighting comes with high risk and high rewards, and he constantly finds new ways to keep you on your toes. Your crow is quite agile in combat and has many magical abilities that complement hitting opponents with their trusty sword, but they die in just a few hits. Meanwhile, your enemies have predictable attacks and can be destroyed in a few hits, but their number can often be their biggest advantage. When four or five opponents are walking towards you, it’s much more difficult not to accidentally slide into a fireball or swipe, and given that you can only make a few mistakes between checkpoints, this creates a rather tense confrontation as you nervously stare at your dwindling health.
You can heal yourself outside of checkpoints, but that’s pretty limited. Throughout the adventure, you will find small seeds that you plant in pots at fixed points on the map. Planting a seed grows a flower that heals you completely, but then dies on use and does not grow back until your next respawn. So any healing you do outside of the checkpoint depends on having a spare seed to plant and finding a pot to plant in, and this adds a whole new level of approach to any combat situation. Fighting recklessly, especially in new territory, is usually unwise because you never know how long you will have to get through before the next respite, and a big battle may always be around the corner.
The boss fights deserve special mention. Death’s Door does a great job of giving you meetings that are satisfying and really push you to master the crow moves. Your crow remains as vulnerable and easily eliminated as before, while bosses usually take dozens of hits to fall and exhibit complex attack patterns that worse through several stages. It usually takes a few tries before you finally master each one, and it seems like a worthwhile achievement each time because it takes a powerful combination of patience, skill, and lessons learned from multiple tries to achieve victory.
Killing any enemies rewards your raven with soul energy, which can then be taken to the commission headquarters and cashed in for brief upgrades that will give you an edge in combat. They can do things like speeding up your dodges or shortening the time to charge your attack, and each power-up feels like a welcome and special step forward. Additionally, crystals can be found scattered throughout the world in cleverly hidden shrines to boost your crow’s health and magical limits. These RPG-lite elements don’t add enough depth for you to meaningfully build “builds” for your crow, but they do give a good sense of progress to give you the feeling that you’ve grown up on your journey. However, all of these buffs will always be secondary to more abstract growth, which you progress as you better understand enemy movements and combine attacks together.
If you’ve read this far and thought it all sounds like you’ve played before, you’re right. The only meaningful complaint about Death’s Door that could reasonably be made is that she’s playing too safely. To be fair, Death’s Door doesn’t offer any noteworthy new ideas and is mostly content with being another game that follows in the footsteps of Soulslikes and Zelda’s heist. However, it is wonderful good take on such a game, so much so that we can argue that it stands above most other examples in the indie gaming space.
Sure, it’s always nice to play a game that has creative mechanics or an iteration of a weary gameplay formula, but Death 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. The Door of Death may not have something you haven’t seen before, but every minute is created with precision, focus and intent; To put it bluntly, this is all killer, not filler.
Visually, the “Door of Death” looks stunning, even if outwardly it seems rather simplistic. All models have an exaggerated, chunky look with a cartoonish vibe, but things like the soft shadows cast by the invisible canopy of trees at forest level showcase the developers’ meticulous attention to detail. Plus, your crow is quite small compared to most environments, which can create a pleasant sense of scale and the illusion that the world is huge…
It would be an oversight not to mention the wonderful soundtrack, which lends Doors of Death a lovely tone of playfulness and serenity. The music is mostly composed of low-key orchestral pieces mixed with many winds, acoustic guitars and relaxing pianos. Even with the more intense music playing in most of the battles, the Death’s Door game soundtrack never feels rushed or high-energy, as if it invites you to take your time and fully experience everything the world has to offer you.