I have a big problem with Death’s Door, or at least with the writing of this review. Whilst I want to tell you about it, the charm of the characters, the fluidity of the combat and the sheer joy it’s brought me I’d much rather just be playing it. I’d be happy to keep this experience to myself and continuously play this game, and all future Acid Nerve developed titles forevermore. Alas, I probably should say something. So, here are some words about the joy I’ve felt whilst playing Death’s Door.
Death’s door is a game that eases you in. Similar to many modern isometric action-adventure games it begins quite calmly; for a game where you’re a crow reaping souls. It eases players in with the attack, dodge, repeat process of an early boss fight, much like Acid Nerve’s previous release Titan Souls. It eases you in with its story, a routine reaping suddenly gone awry. And it eases you in with its depth, quips from other crows alluding to what’s to come and the black and white tonal environment of the Hall of Doors. Once it’s done this for all of ten minutes those training wheels come off and it allows more exploration both of the word and of a playstyle. Death’s Door allows you to get to grips with it then plunges you into the challenge ahead.
The simple movement and combat central to the game is an easy language to understand. Attacking, timing a dodge and firing the bow are quickly grasped and the early enemies don’t provide too much annoyance. Yet the loop ramps up quite quickly. Death’s Door doesn’t hold hands and whilst expecting the player to pick the loop up presenting some early challenging encounters it isn’t punishing. The combat begins to ramp up in the second third with a wealth of enemy types and combinations of these. Yes, the UK is quite hot at the moment but I was sweating during some of the later encounters. The last few boss battles especially had me pausing just to calm myself as the tension was high. Knowing I was close to defeating an enemy to then mistime a roll and die brought a sigh of frustration, followed by a big exhale to reset and go again. Death or even quitting the game mid-area puts the player back to the last door. Whilst enemies have popped back into existence, completed puzzles and unlocked paths remain so. It is this simple respect for my time that allowed me to go back, and back, and back again to it with ease. It’s compelling, fluid and fun combat inviting me to go back and do just a little more.
Each of the world’s areas are unique. This goes for both the aesthetic and the play style. The world is a set of linked levels with four themes, the Graveyard, The Urn Witches Estate, The Frog King’s Throne, and The Mountains. Again Death’s Door’s simplicity in its complexity shows here. The Urn Witches Estate is made up of four areas. The Gardens link with her Ceramic Mansion, then down to the Inner Furnace and finally her Laboratory. Four aesthetically distinct areas, all linked by motifs and symbolism. The pathing of areas is easy to pick up and navigate through. It has that level of connection to navigate the world which the ‘soulsborne‘ games are so lauded for. These areas are also distinct in the style of challenge, The Gardens provide some exploration and combat challenges, the Mansion a series of puzzle rooms, the Inner Furnace is platform-based whilst feeling like a more frantic combination of puzzles and combat challenges. Finally, the Laboratory where you face off against the Urn Witch. It changes up the play enough to keep you pushing and invested in getting towards the end. To take a look back at Titan Souls, it was less an adventure game and more a series of large boss battles. Death’s Door evolves this. There are boss battles, plenty of them if you delve into all the games hidden areas and secrets. The journey between these battles is interesting and incredibly fun. Taking in the beautifully crafted world and the challenge it presents can be as thrilling as the boss battles themselves. One of my favourite areas slowed everything down however. The Stranded Sailor, a mini settlement with limited combat opportunities deep into the game offered respite, exposition and humour. It’s an area that gives glimpses of ability locked paths (I won’t spoil those abilities here). The topography and asset placement at the edge of the screen illustrated with a glance that I’d be returning when tooled up to tackle new paths and puzzles to ‘reap’ some pretty big rewards. Plenty of times these glimpses gave just enough to signify that there was another path, something hidden to work through. This is one of Death’s Door’s best elements and after completing the game (beating the last boss and seeing credits) I knew there was more to find. At that point, I hadn’t realised how much more there was, and with a simple change to the world how different the experience would be.
Another of Death’s Door’s best elements are the small details. Some of the animations are fantastic. Within each area are large doors which have to be unlocked. On the other side of this door is a big Thanos-looking chest. A big reward. A new ability ready to be claimed. All is not as it seems though and the challenges presented are some of the greatest faced early in the game. Avarice is another sweat-producing place. The exceptional detail though is in the chest opening animation. Make sure to watch the Crow as each chest begins to open, slight variations in the Crows animation show growth and a level of personality we rarely get from a smaller studio. The animations for the different abilities, weapons swings and how enemies move are incredibly fluid and a joy to watch. Death’s Door is a product that has a lot of care and attention put into it.
Finally, the writing and music. Death’s Door has a level of humour to it players will be familiar with if they’ve played other Devolver Digital releases. Devolver Digital has a knack for publishing darkly comedic, and over-the-top games. Death’s Door whilst humourous enough to make me laugh out loud is restrained. It doesn’t write over-the-top comedy but remains dark in places and this fits the tone, the aesthetic and the play style. Whilst there isn’t any voice acting, the soundtrack perfectly suits the world. David Fenn, one half of Acid Nerve alongside Mark Foster, also composed the soundtrack for Moonlighter and this can be instantly picked out. Like the writing, the music matches excellently with the tone of each area. From the serene melodies exploring calmer areas to the intense, bombastic sounds of boss battles it just fits. One stand-out track is in the Inner Furnace. It is an area where the player flicks switches to unlock rising and falling platforms to progress across. The timing of the platforms matches the music’s beat so the steady thump of a piston moving a platform is in perfect time with the tune. It is another level of detail that this game is full of.
Death’s Door does everything right. I have no criticism about this game. I’m sure others could find some if they looked hard enough, nothing is perfect. I am having so much fun with it that any issue just doesn’t present itself and the joy I feel at getting through an area, defeating a boss and then repeating the process is compelling. It is an excellently crafted experience I can see as a serious contender for game of the year.
Should you play it? Yes
Why… It is a fantastically crafted experience at the top of the action-adventure genre. With around 8 hours of main game and a whole bunch of secrets to find it is a delight to go back to again and again.
But… For me there are no buts, this is a game of the year contender.
Reviewed on PC/Steam
Developer/Publisher: Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital
Playable on: PC/Xbox
Released: 20th July, 2021
Review code provided from Devolver Digital via Indigo Pearl