There is a sense of inevitability in life – the inevitable grind of a boring job, the inevitable desire to explore your surroundings – and the terrifying inevitability of death. It can all get a little gloomy. In my experience, it can be liberating to combine all of these factors with a sprinkle of feathers and swordplay, that experience being Death’s Door from Acid Nerve.
It is all business, all the time in the office of the Reaping Commission, an other-worldly business-scape that is dedicated to the reaping of souls. You are a new Reaper, and… a crow. It’s a curious set up, in the sense that the entire role of Death (as an individual) appears to have been outsourced to you and your crow colleagues under the management of a tall bloke with a keyhole for a face, known simply as The Lord of Doors. Even as this monochromatic setting does everything in its power to communicate just how humdrum and unexciting the role of a Reaper is, there is an undeniable charm in the characters and setting that introduce you to the world.
Captain Obvious enjoys lookout duty
You are a crow. An almost overtly ordinary crow. If it was not for the presence of a sword on your back, you could easily be misinterpreted as a background element within the game, perhaps perched on a signpost overlooking the action. Even your proportions are ordinary, there are no humanoid features to give your character a first-rate PROTAGONIST feeling. You are a meek little thing, feathered and curious as to what comes next.
So you are handed your very first reaping assignment and sent out into the world proper, and what awaits you is a sombre place with a marbling of hope and joy struck through it. You almost don’t mind the looming threat that if you fail your assignment, you are doomed to age and perish – there is just so much to do and explore, while slaying cartoonish ghouls and hulking castle monsters, it’s a great time.
Then, you fail your assignment.
Solving problems with fire is a form of therapy
Storytelling is an absolute standout within Death’s Door. While the game does away with full spoken narrative dialogue, it realises that its text based communication is prime real estate. Character interactions are snappy and clever, short and to the point – but never rushed or shallow. The game even takes the time to formulate special formatting within the text to add more character to whoever is speaking – such as a zombie bloke who has his text populate in a staccato ONE. WORD. AT. A. TIME. style to really push that he isn’t speaking fluently or smoothly.
This is further elevated by the considerable charm of the characters you encounter. There is a sense of hopelessness as you come to terms with your situation – you have royally miffed your first job, and are now in a bit of a desperate bid to fix it – but you quickly come to realise that the landscape beyond the Reaping Commission seems to be populated with all manner of desperate souls who have their own hardships.
Becoming a buff birdy
A piece of dialogue very early on explains that the act of reaping is very much a necessity – any soul that persists beyond its expiry date will start to grow far larger than it should, and start to take on a dark, somewhat demonic presence. You initially take this to mean that anyone that has somehow managed to avoid their reaping is likely a villainous character, but in reality you realise that every antagonist has their own tragedy that motivates them, and even a noble cause that may have become perverted out of desperation. In defeating the showcase bosses of the game, there is victory and sadness when you realise that the thing they most feared was the inevitability of death preventing them from achieving what they most desired. Thankfully you even get a little funeral service cutscene to pay your respects.
This narrative does a stellar job of asking questions and providing answers in organic ways that intersect with your own curiosity. Things may be suggested, but not truly confirmed until you have had time to explore some of the elements that explain a motivation for a character. Environmental elements provide visual clues for the observant, and the title isn’t afraid to leave the odd question unanswered. This actually fosters a lot of mystique to the world that Death’s Door has built – and lathers on more of the unmistakable charm that permeates your experience. This is a title that surprised me a number of times, had me openly grinning at big character reveals, and once it was all finished I was buzzing to talk to others about it. So basically: please play this game so I can theorycraft with you, I am jonesing to do so.
The action that drives this story forward ticks all of the necessary boxes as well. Your little feathered form can swing a sword with snappy precision, and struck enemies provide great visual feedback when a hit is registered. Couple this with a dodge roll and some well telegraphed attacks from the baddies, and you have all the ingredients of frenetic action that never feels unfair or insurmountable. The clear animations and silhouettes of enemies are to be commended, as I personally have a habit of losing track of on screen action when the action gets too visually busy – but Death’s Door kept things incredibly readable, even when all hell was breaking loose. This is spotlighted to an exceptional degree within the many boss fights the game throws at you, as attacks will have clear tells and telegraphs to ensure that you have enough time to read and react accordingly; getting hit often comes down to greed or miscalculation on your part, rather than OMG WTF THAT WAS BS UNFAIR. The narrative bosses will each have their own unique phases, attack patterns and exploitable animations – allowing a skilled player to almost reach a point where they could execute a fight blindfolded, if they truly dared.
What awaits you is a sombre place with a marbling of hope and joy struck through it
Enemies within the game are a fun blend of weird, goofy and creepy – with larger boss characters taking the time to incorporate all of these elements in different ways. In discussing my preview with a friend, he observed that the character design can feel a little Hayao Miyazaki’esque in the bold proportions and simple detailing, and now I can’t unsee it. It’s a sharp and impressive aesthetic that blends the world and its characters together beautifully. Environments will simply end where they no longer persist, showing a void where unknown space would be – like solid rock within a cave. It keeps the on screen visuals incredibly readable, as doorways will display a light source that abruptly ends, and communicate that continuing ‘offscreen’ will take you somewhere new. It’s hard to describe, but easy to understand when you are navigating the world.
Progression and exploration within the world is a joyous affair, with many of the game’s puzzles designed in a way where moving forward will also incorporate shortcuts to where you may have already been. As the world opens up and your own abilities improve or change you will find yourself in a position where you can start to backtrack and explore away from your main objective, in the pursuit of more player power. At one point I was navigating a jungle ruin that required me to bait an explosive creature to destroy crumbled walls – until I discovered a wall that was alone, with no explosive creature nearby to crumble it. A short chin-scratch later I accepted that the solution must become available to me later on, and sure enough I received the ability to throw a bomb whereever I wished. This natural progression of puzzle solving via environmental elements leading to a personal player power-up feels exciting time and time again, as puzzles start to represent the path to growing stronger.
There is a level of Zelda-esque progression within the game, as you unlock abilities and power ups from dungeons that will affect how you traverse the world elsewhere. I took delight in noting certain elements within the environments that just seemed too bespoke to be a pointless visual doodad, and was excited when a new tool or toy let me interact with them. You can also spend your collected souls like a currency, to increase your generic combat proficiencies, such as increasing the strength of your melee attacks, or reducing the cooldown between dodge rolls. When it comes to hitpoints, your crow has a meagre pool of four total at the start of the game. Now, these can be refilled within the game world by planting a life seed at key locations, should you have one in your pocket – and shrines do exist that will grant you a life crystal, which follow the rule of ‘collect four to increase your total health’ – but I’ll be honest, I finished the game and did not find more than a handful. While these shrines promise a girthier health or magic pool, they are so well hidden that I missed most of them, and I take great pride in my observational powers. I ended the game with 11 hours played, and I had a total of three life crystals and two magic crystals, resulting in no increase to either pool. However, since the aim of the game is to avoid damage where you can, all it did was motivate me to play better.
Speaking of hidden stuff – I have no idea if the game has more than two weapon options. There are numerous slots for weapons, and I found a total of three including an umbrella – still leaving three further slots empty. I had my sword from the beginning of the game, and a set of daggers that unleashed a fun flurry of blows (the umbrella felt more like a meme item) but I couldn’t for the life of me find more. This suggests that the weapons are entirely optional, considering that I finished almost the entire game with the sword and magic alone. Is this a complaint? I actually have no idea, because all it has done is leave me wanting to explore and see where the other weapons may have ended up. The only demotivating factor was the lack of an immediate ‘New Game+’ option, but I am hoping this arrives in the game’s future.
Never forgetti Betty the yeti
The charm of the game’s characters and environments is also beautifully supplemented by its music. Environments have a calming backing track that capture the vibe of where you are, and the tempo will swell when combat is joined. There were a few occasions where my efforts against a particularly difficult boss (I don’t want to discuss the number of deaths) actually had me humming along to the music so I could better understand the flow of the fight, and get a rough idea of what was coming next. Beyond the music, audio design ensures that environments and encounters are well formulated for players. Trust me, you’ll never forget the sound of the large scythe guy winding up a swing – good thing he attached some bells to the haft of his weapon to give you the head start.
While the worlds of Death’s Door are not extravagantly vast, they do feel large enough to warrant a minor gripe towards the checkpoints/door system. You quickly traverse between areas by jumping through Reaper Doors that sit in locations and are unlocked by interacting with them. They exist outside of normal space, seemingly going nowhere within the environment – but will always take you back to the familiar black and white of the Reaper Commission. You can then use this opportunity to spend souls, explore – or perhaps jump through a different door and return to a different location within the game’s world. They also serve as checkpoints for your (numerous) deaths, and while some doors are fantastically close to a difficult encounter, on the odd occasion there will be a bit of a run to where you may have been up to, with all enemies respawned and ready to rumble. This can become a little frustrating when you are still learning a particular enemy’s attack pattern, as your downtime is more than a minute or two before you can try again.
Strangely deep for a crow
Death’s Door may not have a cavernously deep combat system or a AAA blockbuster budget behind it, but it doesn’t need these things. It delivers a sharp and focused experience in an engaging world full of mystery – with memorable characters and a story that is concise and full of deeper meaning.
There is a thoughtful joy to come from the sadness at the centre of its narrative, with a deeper message of hope and appreciation for what little time we have in this life.
… which is not bad for a story about a rather ordinary crow.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Acid Nerve
- Devolver Digital
- Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- July 20, 2021