27 Jul 2021 2:26 PM +00:00

Death's Door Review: Don't Fear the Reaper

Call this one a nice surprise - Death’s Door was a game I’d barely heard of until the day it was put in front of me, and it turned out to be a pretty solid experience. It wasn’t the most original thing in the world - as is well-documented at this point, it feels a lot like a 2D Zelda game with some FromSoftware flourish thrown in - but I like both of those things, and Devolver Digital’s customary effort is absolutely on show with this one.

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Read More: How to Unlock the Secret Ending of Death’s Door

A Murder of Murderous Crows

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Things start a little obscurely in Death’s Door. You are an unnamed crow with a neon sword strapped to your back, and you are dropped off by bus at an entropic limbo repurposed into a mid-twentieth century office department. That’s indie games for you, I guess.

Turns out you’re a newly-blooded Reaper, one of many who have to go out and collect souls from people who were supposed to have died some time ago. Turns out that immortality is the new hot trend in the mortal realm, and several folk have decided that eighty years and change isn’t enough time to watch all their Blu-Ray boxsets. Go find them, have a boss fight with them, and hand in their screaming souls to your supervisor as part of the daily quota.

The Dark Souls influence is strong with this one, it seems. The world feels at times like a Playmobil version of Lordran, and there’s one character who I’m certain is an homage to onion-headed Siegmeyer. But no bad thing, say I. Death’s Door marks itself as a separate entity by including more humour and focusing on its characters over the setting. It even made me laugh out loud more than once, and there’s a little more optimism here than something as bleak and fatalistic as Miyazaki’s library.

Pothead head shape dialogue in Death's Door
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Words for us all to live by.

That being said, the lore left me a little lost at times. I couldn’t tell you exactly what this world is or how it works - there’s a few implications it’s post-apocalyptic, but I don’t quite see how that leads to crows becoming typists - and I have absolutely no idea why there are so many beings trying to kill me as I walk around. Are they also on the Reapers’ to-do list? I can’t imagine they’re all immortals past their sell-by-date.

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And the mixing of disparate elements makes it a tricky tightrope walk, narratively speaking. Death and acceptance are obviously the major themes, but I’d struggle to say Death’s Door actually adds anything profound to the conversation beyond “you’re going to die, get over it”. Admittedly, I like how most of the bosses have valid reasons to want to live longer (one is just an old granny who wants to spend more time with her family, which makes for a real moment of pathos), but the idea that anybody who lives for too long literally turns into an evil monster is a plot mechanic that lacks the deeper humanity that much of the game is reaching for. I personally don’t think there’s anything in that idea to emotionally connect with or relate to, but maybe the immortals in the audience will disagree with that.

Maybe it was a mistake to play this so soon after Spiritfarer, a game that really understood these ideas and did go into greater detail on the tough realities of accepting our mortality. Or maybe the somber, thoughtful stuff feels a bit at-odds with the comedic aspects and frenetic, frothing combat.

Keep Calm and Carrion

Speaking of which, this is where the game clicked for me. It’s got that not-quite-top-down three-quarters angle and sort-of-isometric-but-not-really perspective on a tight melee combat engine. You dodge and roll around enemy attacks, slashing at them to charge up your magic meter until you can throw some ranged fury at them.

It’s really, really good, especially when viewed as a sort of Zelda/Hades/Dead Cells hybrid. Movement is fluid, the attacks have impact, and there’s a diverse pool of enemies to make sure that the encounters all feel different from each other. It’s superficially simple - a lot of what you’re doing is just rolling and cutting people like the world’s most spiteful armadillo - but it’s nuanced and refined to a spectacular degree. The bosses in particular are a moment for the game to shine, all visual flourish and tension, pulling new angles and ideas out despite the mechanical limitations.

Guardian of the Doors boss fight in death's door
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Tower defence is taken to new levels.

Well, right until the end. The bosses are still incredible experiences, but the last couple of hours are a string of high-challenge hellions that end up feeling more exhausting than exhilarating, especially when you die and have to restart after fifteen minutes of chipping away enemy health. It can’t help but slightly leave a slightly sour aftertaste, but certainly doesn’t poison the whole experience.

Beyond that, there’s an explorative quality, with collectables, platforming and puzzles aplenty, with a touch of Metroidvania and dungeoneering about it. Each location has a clear visual style that marks it out as unique, though it’s quite easy to get lost once you’re in there, as rooms tend to blur together a little. That may be intentional - you are supposed to be wandering uncharted, hostile territory - but there’s the occasional moment where the game might’ve done a little more to meet me halfway.

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Leave A Beautiful Corpse

We’ve mentioned it a little before, but it bears repeating: this is a really good-looking game, and that makes a big difference. Atmosphere matters, and a world isn’t worth exploring if it’s just featureless rooms and no surprises. Death’s Door understands that, and the result is one of the best-looking games of its type since Hollow Knight. Colours are used effectively, characters are instantly memorable, and the game is great at conveying scope and scale even with the distant camera perspective. It’s also backed by a tuneful, subtle soundtrack that knows when to ramp up the intensity for the more stabby situations.

Then there’s the animation, which is top-tier. Your own little morbid corvid still acts like a bird in cutscenes, heading twitching around like it’s trying to look at as many sparkly things as possible, and some of the funniest moments just come through how characters move, doing aerobic stretches before a fight or making elaborate gestures that threaten to tip them over.

Betty boss monster smiling in Death's Door
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Looks soft, hits hard.

The only criticism I have on this front is the occasional odd moment where it feels like the game is trying too hard to be quirky. This isn’t a problem when it’s actually funny or feels like some abstract, Studio Ghibli fairy tale. But it’s harder to enjoy when it just feels like Devolver Digital trying to live up to its own irreverent reputation. A majorly powerful character turning out to be a tiny little sprite was fine, but giving them a zip-up fanny pack just felt like a step too far, in some way I struggle to articulate properly. It drags me out of the world and leaves me a little more confused about the tone of the game. Immersion is broken and the experience is lessened, all reinforcing the lesson we’re taught since childhood - fanny packs make everything worse.

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Verdict

One more time for those in the cheap seats: Death’s Door is definitely good. The problems it has are not dealbreakers and the places it excels - namely gameplay and atmosphere - more than suffice for a robust experience. Sure, it is short, but it’s also no longer than it needs to be, a lesson that a lot of games still need to learn. Enjoy it across a weekend or a week at most, and try not to burst a blood vessel on some of the later bosses.

4/5

Review copy provided by the publisher

Reviewed on Steam