Death’s Door – Don’t Fear the Reaper
PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
Sometimes, a game comes along that is just so much more than the sum of its parts. When I was lucky enough to first play a preview of Death’s Door, even though it was only the first few hours of the game, it was clear that it was something special. I called it ‘crow Zelda’, and will continue to call it crow Zelda, because the best way to describe this game is to liken it to the various pieces of media it so clearly takes inspiration from. But that isn’t to say that it isn’t unique or charming in its own right. Death’s Door is the perfect example of how many different types of familiar charm can blend together to form something new and fascinating that carves out its own niche. It’s Zelda meets Miyazaki with a huge dose of the macabre, and it has a lot to offer even those who aren’t a fan of its genre.
While ‘reaping the souls of the dead’ sounds like a pretty hardcore profession, it’s just a 9-5 for the little crow at the centre of this adventure. The collection of an assigned soul should have been a routine job for the brave corvid, but as with all good adventures, things very quickly deviate from the plan. The description of the plot on the game’s official pages is “the job gets lively when your assigned soul is stolen and you must track down a desperate thief to a realm untouched by death – where creatures grow far past their expiry and overflow with greed and power” and honestly, I’ve been trying for days at this point and I can’t beat that. There are creatures in this world that aren’t keen on mortality, and when it’s your job to ensure that the course of mortality runs smoothly, you can see how there might be some conflict for our feathered hero.
So, instead of just going through the workplace motions, the crow is forced to embark on a quest that will maintain the balance of the world and life’s natural course. Less ‘hero of time’ and more ‘hero of the mortal realm’, but still requiring the same amount of sword fighting, arrows and bombs. The isometric world of Death’s Door is like Link’s Awakening but made by Edgar Allen Poe. We have an unsuspecting hero, combat reminiscent of the Zelda classic, and a cast of quirky characters that wouldn’t be out of place in Hyrule, but everything is just a little more gothic. The guides of this world are beings like Pothead, who has a literal pot for a head (and innocently offers you tasty soup, as if that isn’t kind of like eating brains), a gravedigger who (unlike many others in his realm) wishes for death, and a bard, set on singing songs of your exploits, who will cheer you through your trials and tribulations. Everything is dark but optimistic, and the same part of me that was terrified of Ocarina of Time as a child is so fascinated by the world of Death’s Door now. I’m sorry, I can’t stop comparing this game to Zelda, but I mean it in the most complimentary way possible. There are very few games that can convey that same combination of darkness and hope, and the way Death’s Door approaches it with an injection of humour and self-awareness does set it apart from the rest.
The narrative is one of perseverance, often past the point of recklessness, and the gameplay matches that theme perfectly. Death’s Door is a difficult game, and it knows it. The enemies you’ll face, even though that aren’t classified as bosses and don’t have their own dramatic sequences, require finely-honed skills and reflexes to defeat, and the learning curve here is pretty steep. For someone who doesn’t play a lot of this kind of punishing, almost Souls-like dungeon crawler, getting into the zone took a bit of time, and I became well-acquainted with the dramatic ‘DEATH’ screen that pops up when the little crow meets their untimely end. For someone more practised in this genre, I’m told it’s a little easier – fellow Player2 editor Paul, for example, struggled far less than I did, but we both came out of the experience praising the combat. Because while I found this game difficult, I also found that it rewarded patience, timing, and as I’ve already stated, perseverance. It’s possible to become more well-equipped for the harder fights by levelling up your skills back at Crow HQ and simply getting faster or stronger, but most of my eventual advances actually came from learning the attack patterns of my enemies and just becoming better at fights that almost played out like dances. I learned the exact reach of my sword, how to roll perfectly away from ranged attacks, and the specific frame at which the swing of a hammer was no longer a threat to me, but something I could dodge underneath to get in a slash. I rarely have the patience for a game like this, but for Death’s Door, I wanted to be good enough. I wanted to exist in this world, to save it, to see this crow’s journey through to the end.
Because it’s a charming story, but the world is also beautiful. The bosses you’ll take on have that ominous charm of a Hayao Miyazaki character – the kind that makes you sure that no matter how whimsical they seem, they are capable of dark things. Each one has their own motivations for wanting to stave off death, and they’re all compelling, and the game does a great job of treating them as beings worthy of respect and ceremony, even in their worst moments. There are very few clear villains in this game, with even the greatest foes evoking at least a little sympathy for their plight. Death here is inevitable, it comes for everyone, and it is seen as something to be revered.
With each beautifully imagined character comes a unique environment, with no two sections of this world quite relying on the same mechanics or environmental style. Each dungeon gives you access to new abilities which you can then use to access new sections of the world, and there can be quite a lot of backtracking to open up new paths and discover new secrets. Every single part of this game is stunning, and for the most part, having to go back through areas was a joy, but even though there was variation between areas, it was quite easy to get lost within each section due to things looking the same. I found I didn’t know which arch to go through, or which path would take me back to a settlement I needed to revisit, and the signposts and markers designed to direct me back there weren’t always as useful as I needed them to be. There were times when it definitely felt like this game suffered for not having a map, even though I recognise part of the challenge is in learning the layout of the world. A number of checkpoint-style doors do mitigate the problem a little, allowing you to fast travel to different sections of the world, but I still found myself becoming frustrated. It was only a minor frustration, of course – stumbling upon new undiscovered areas of this world was always exciting, I just wish I could have done it with a little more direction.
And there were always new things to be found. In many ways this game doesn’t hold your hand, instead leaving you to discover its secrets and extra collectibles on your own time. There were entire mini-objectives that I stumbled upon accidentally by just happening to activate one of several objects needed to unlock a door, for example, and while this was initially confusing, I soon learned what sorts of things the game wanted me to be on the lookout for. For a person who likes exploring worlds on their own time, there’s a lot to be found here, even though the game itself is quite short and the world quite contained. There’s somewhere around ten hours of gameplay to be had here, depending on your skill level and how much time you want to spend discovering every last secret. I’ve clocked about 15 hours at this point and I’m not quite finished, but someone more skilled at this sort of game could probably shave a few hours off that.
While many things in Death’s Door’s world work to build tension, nothing does it quite the soundtrack. Each area has its own unique sound, and the soundtrack overall boasts 50 original tracks – and every single one of them is fire. It’s one of the most emotive soundtracks I think I’ve ever heard, ranging from soft, sleepy, morose tunes to the most chaotic, stress-inducing melodies designed to make the heart race. There’s one tune, the theme to a challenge called ‘Avarice’, that’s still going to play through my mind in my panicked moments. Even when there weren’t that many enemies on me, that music could still take my stress levels to the max. It’s definitely a soundtrack that’s going on rotation for when I need to, for whatever reason, simulate a sense of urgency.
There’s so much to like about this game, and it’s hard to explain exactly what it is without using vague terms like ‘nice death vibes’ and ‘gently haunting but intensely optimistic. I just want to wave my arms around a lot, and say that if you ever wanted the themes of Twilight Princess or Majora’s Mask but with the gameplay of Link’s Awakening, this might be the game for you. Or maybe ‘Grim Fandango’, but make it action. There are so many things I could compare it to, but I want to stress that even though it draws inspiration from everywhere, this game is unique, memorable, and beautifully dark. If you’re ready for a bit of intense gameplay and an exercise in perseverance, this is the game for you. Even if you aren’t, give it a go. Never in a million years would I have expected this game, but the way it sneaks up on you is a big part of its charm.
Death’s Door was reviewed on PC with a code kindly provided by Devolver Digital