Every day we go about our lives, sitting in rush hour traffic, punching the same time clock, eating the same tuna salad sandwich for lunch in the break room, and pretending to care while Bob from accounting tells you about his family vacation to Branson. The monotony of doing the same job day in and day out can be a truly soul crushing experience. But what if that tedious job that you dreaded was to go out into the world and harvest the souls of those ready to pass on to the afterlife? And what if somebody stole one of the souls that you were assigned with collecting, setting you on a journey to find the thief and unravel the mystery behind your grim choice of careers? And what if…. you were a crow?
That’s the set up for Death’s Door, the latest release from developer Acid Nerve (Titan Souls) and publisher Devolver Digital. In this Zelda-esque fantasy adventure you take on the role a nameless crow who goes to work every day as a reaper, working out of a depressingly grayscale office, complete with annoying coworkers and an asshole of a boss known as The Lord of Doors. Each day you punch the clock, strap your sword and bow to your back, and head off through a series of doors which serve as portals to the outside world where you’ll track down your targets and return their souls back to the office for processing. After the aforementioned thief makes off with one of your souls though, it turns into a race against time to track down the souls of 3 powerful beings in order to open Death’s Door and reclaim what was taken.
If you’ve played the 2D entries in Nintendo’s legendary Zelda series, you’ll feel pretty much right at home playing Death’s Door. You’ll explore a beautiful isometric world featuring unique areas that are all connected to your office hub by that series of doorways. From a snowy mountaintop to a flooded temple deep in the jungle, each area has it’s own personality and charm to it that keeps things interesting as you explore the world. There is also a quirky cast of characters to meet on your adventure, like a chef who is actually an octopus hiding behind and controlling the corpse of a human like a marionette, hoping that you won’t notice as he prepares your meal. Or Steadhone the gravedigger who buries the bodies of the souls you reap, but has grown tired of his job and asks you to end his life instead.
As you may have guessed at this point, Death’s Door has a wickedly dark sense of humor. With a story focused so much on death it could be tough to find a proper tone that doesn’t swing too much in one direction or the other, but the writers do a great job of delivering scenes that can be lighthearted and humorous one moment, and heartfelt and poignant the next. If I had to do the obligatory comparison to other stories, I guess I’d say it was like The Legend of Zelda meets The Office meets… The Addams Family. Which sounds kind of ridiculous to say out loud, but it really works here.
While the story and tone might seem like a far stretch for that Zelda comparison that I made earlier, the gameplay would absolutely feel right at home in one of Link’s adventures. Your main weapons on your quest are your sword and bow, but as you progress through the story you’ll unlock other weapons (which they call spells) such as bombs and a grappling hook. You’ll have a limited magic meter to use these items, but it’s replenished by doing melee attacks. You’ll also find additional melee weapons which you can trade the sword out for, each with their own perks, and the special weapons each have upgrades that make them more powerful. For instance the grappling hook upgrade has a powerful sword slash that you can unleash as you pull yourself towards your enemy. The rhythm of the attacks, combined with the dodge move and the ability to deflect certain projectile attacks back at your enemy is really satisfying and makes for some of the best combat I’ve experienced in the genre.
As you collect the souls of the enemies that you defeat, you can take them back to the office and turn them in to the vault keeper to enhance your combat abilities. There are four categories to put your points towards: strength, dexterity, haste, and magic. It felt refreshing to have the ability to upgrade your powers without feeling overwhelmed with a massive skill tree or endless choices to make. Some might see the somewhat small number of weapons and upgrade options as a negative, but I really appreciated the restraint shown. There’s a simplicity and an elegance to the action which really works well.
That brings me to one of the few complaints that I have about the game. When I first saw footage of Death’s Door, I thought that it looked fantastic, but my fears were that it would follow the popular trend of being another indie rogue-like game that I would undoubtedly bounce off of immediately. No matter how well made they are, that’s just not a genre that I’ve ever been able to click with. So when I learned that this game was a more traditional, linear, single player adventure I was absolutely thrilled. A few hours into the game though I discovered something that the game has in common with the rogue-like genre, and that it that Death’s Door can be hard as hell.
I’m really not a fan of overly difficult games. You can call me soft or a fake gamer or whatever the hell you want, but the truth is I honestly don’t usually play games for a challenge, and at times Death’s Door really pushed my abilities, and my patience to the limit. Thankfully though, some good design decisions helped to alleviate some of that pain and frustration. While I died many, many times over the 10 hours or so that I spent with the game, the quick loading gets you back into the action quickly, and as you progress through a level you’ll open up several shortcuts along the way. So while dying may send you back to a checkpoint that you passed 5 minutes ago, the gate that you opened or the ladder that you dropped means that you’ll make it back to where you died in no time.
The combat can feel overwhelming at times, especially when they throw 4 or 5 enemies at you, but by studying the behavior of the enemies and with a little bit of persistence you should be able to come out on top. Some of the boss encounters on the other hand really tested my resolve to the point where I wondered if I’d even be able to complete the game for review. In those few instances I had to resort to going back to earlier levels and grinding out for more souls in order to upgrade my abilities just enough to take them down. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t more than few battles that had me yelling some truly offensive obscenities at my television, and I really think that the addition of an adjustable difficulty level would help to make the game more accessible to some folks who might be turned off by the challenge and give up on what is otherwise an outstanding experience. Hopefully that’s something that the developers will keep in mind and perhaps add in the future.
Death’s Door is a melancholy adventure with memorable characters, great art and music design, and tight gameplay that hearkens back to classic adventures that have come before. It has a unique tone and a story that is well told with some sharp humor. There are some design choices that I think hampered the experience just a bit like the exclusion of a map, and the difficulty may prove to be too much for some players, but those gripes can’t take away that this is a beautifully crafted game and a must play for fans of the genre. If you think you’re up for a bit of a challenge you’ll be treated to one of the best indie games of the year.