Death’s Door is relentlessly clever. Not just smart, which it is, and not just stylish or well designed, two more things it also is, but outright clever. A collection of razor-sharp mechanics and heartfelt ruminations on the human experience, Death’s Door quietly emerges as one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s a veritable melange of genres and tones unified by a tight combat loop and writing that manages to be insightful and genuinely funny.
Developer Acid Nerve has spent the years since their previous hit Titan Souls sharpening their eye for design and the result is a confident game that knows exactly what it wants to say and how to make you pay attention.
Death’s Door Review
Death’s Door casts you as a cog in a much larger machine. An office worker whose office just so happens to be in the business of collecting souls for their journeys into the afterlife. You ride the shabby public bus to work, your co-workers are disinterested and the best work you’ve done in years is swiftly taken by a senior employee. You’re also an adorable crow. For reasons you unpack through the game’s modest narrative, death has stopped calling on the realm and if you’re ever going to understand why you’ll need to find a way to chat to the big man upstairs.
The story that unfolds is a charming affair filled with outstanding characters and some light probing of bigger questions. Death’s Door isn’t as interested in its bureaucratic interpretation of a spiritual system as it might initially seem, opting to deploy it more in service of humour and aesthetics, but this looser focus keeps the game light on its feet. Death’s Door‘s tongue-in-cheek tone is instead in service of its compassionate examination of the things we do when faced with our final hours. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming and melancholic all at once, shifting between tones like only the best of fables could.
You’ll be facing off with many who are struggling with the return of death to their world. Death’s Door features a small but memorable cast of “boss” characters, rulers of their corner of the world who are each struggling with their imminent demise. I threw those quotation marks around boss because while they do function as such the game never outright establishes any sense of traditional antagonism toward them. They’re an odd bunch of very sad folks who need to be stopped for mercy’s sake more than anything else.
So off you waddle to the three corners of the land where these sorry excuses for foes have made their home in the game’s dungeons. While each location does feature a bespoke gauntlet of combat arenas and puzzles to solve, they also often spill out into the world itself, blurring the line between “dungeon” and overworld. You’ll weave in and out of these places, accessing hidden paths and the like to snake your way through the initial layers only to find an even harsher trial awaiting you deeper inside.
Death’s Door‘s combat loop is a tight and rhythmically addictive one, adjustable enough to your own playstyle but simple enough to be picked up immediately. It’s a familiar loop; light and heavy attacks, a dodge and a small selection of magic abilities. You’ll be given a handful of weapons to choose from, each altering the speed and reach of your attacks, as well as a straightforward upgrade tree to bolster offence, agility, spell casting and so on.
But Death’s Door thrives in this unpretentious array of options, confidently asserting that fantastic combat doesn’t require reinvention but refinement. Early on in the game I found a pair of daggers that allowed me to swiftly roll into an opponent, land several hits, and dodge away again before they could even take a swing. As the enemies got tougher I wanted to draw more blood, boosting my attack in the skill tree by spending the souls you collect from fallen foes.
By the time I found a giant, f*ck off hammer to wield, I was deftly switching between the two weapons mid-combat, my newly improved dodge making me feel like a ghost between swings. Death’s Door is frequently trying but never unfair, a delicate balancing act of difficulty and player skill that always made it clear how I had failed and where I could improve on the next round, which you’ll swiftly load into anyway. It also conveys key information to you in subtle ways; enemies lack health bars but instead show literal fracture lines on their bodies as you wear them down.
The highest compliment I can think to pay a game’s combat loop is to compare it to that of FromSoftware’s and Death’s Door is as compelling an example of difficulty as any of the Souls titles. Even at its most testing, I always wanted to go back for more, savouring each dodged blow and precious chunk of the four-hit health system saved. I go back and forth on whether a more traditional healing option would benefit Death’s Door (as is you can plant healing seeds in select spots only) but the balance the game is able to achieve feels so precarious I shudder to think of it toppling. You are able to upgrade this health pool but it takes far longer than you’d expect and isn’t strictly necessary to finish.
While I’m indulging in trite comparisons it’s also worth noting that Death’s Door manages to combine this combat with a world that feels like a puzzle box fairytale Aonuma would be proud of. You’ll spend a lot of your time in the game exploring different environments that house secrets, shortcuts and small wonders to discover. The tilted top-down camera is cleverly used to disguise pathways and upon discovering them you’ll be treated to a neat little shift in perspective, literally.
The world and inhabitants of Death’s Door are beautifully realised through a minimalist but endearingly evocative art direction. The designs themselves run the gambit from classic fantasy architecture to neon-infused modern structures, a contrast that somehow manages to unify the world into a cohesive vision. Its broad strokes and autumnal tones paint a melancholic picture that makes the pops of bright colour and character you restore to it earned and welcome.
Death’s Door is also just wildly cool. It has a pervasive swagger, effortlessly sliding between styles and tones in both its writing and aesthetic touches. There is a litany of small things, like the various trinkets and creatures you encounter out in the world invading the office and causing a ruckus over time. Then there are the whipsmart big things, the super-imposed DEATH screen or the treasure chests that refuse to offer you your prize unless you beat them into submission.
It’s a celebration of games themselves in many ways, references and reverence abound. Death’s Door respects your time, dolling out new toys and information at a steady pace across the fifteen to twenty-hour runtime. Its combat is practically flawless, confidently challenging you to push a little harder so you may see the next delight its beautiful world has to offer. It’s an immaculately crafted experience that kept me on the hook for more and saddened me to let go once the credits rolled.
But Death’s Door is a game that prepares you for the end, relishing in the journey all the same.
Death’s Door was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by the publisher.