Would you extend your life, naturally or artificially, if given the opportunity? Assuming the answer is yes, then for how long? Would you like to live forever? What’s the price you’d be tempted to pay for acquiring such a blessed curse? Where do you draw the line?
Death’s Door tackles these questions head-on, and not only does it try to guide you towards answering them yourself, but it’s also making sure that these self-inquiries need to arise time and time again, lingering after the eerie epic concludes. Aided by a charismatic cast of characters, a visual style reminiscent of the stop-motion animations (and the yet unreleased Little Devil Inside), and a charming soundtrack composed by Moonlighter‘s David Fenn, Death’s Door manages to weave an otherwordly atmosphere like no other game out there.
Each witty remark in a dreary world, plagued by immortality, lends a whimsical tone to the grim fable Death’s Door entails. The level of detail is also astounding! From the subtle clanking of a furnace’s pistons syncing in with the background music to the sheer brilliance of being able to read only the bottom text inscribed on a wooden sign after cutting in in half, this brief incursion into a fledgling reaper of souls’ job is filled to the brim with, ironically, creative soul. Never before was I so incentivized to explore every nook ‘n cranny of a level, not in the hopes of finding some hidden shiny thing, but to discover how the developers managed to hide it away in plain sight.
Story – The conspiracy of an (after)lifetime
Death is a sentiment that permeates every autumn leaf scattered melancholically around bark-armoured sages, each gothic tower crumbled stoically along hollow chasms, and any (still) living being. But there is hope in this damned, stagnating realm — one in which death itself came to a halt.
From the very start, there is a foreboding sense that there’s more than meets the eye to this perfunctory acceptance of the bureaucratization of eternal rest. You take control of a restless crow, inexperienced and curious by nature. What at first appears to be a facile task of reaping an assigned soul soon turns into an all-out denouncement of the current status quo. There’s an intricate mystery at the heart of Death’s Door plot, filled with mischief, greed, vanity, vulnerability, and, most of all, the toxic desire to prolong one’s expiration date.
On top of that, the slight supporting cast makes each act feel like it took a detailed page from Over the Garden Wall. A granny (reminiscent of Spirited Away‘s Yubaba) went mad with turning her subjects’ heads to pots, a frog king boasted so hard that its title card filled up my entire screen, and a dead captain has been puppeteered by an octopus for god knows how long. These characters are too easy to empathize with because, at times, we likewise feel at a crossroads while asking the same essential questions they had, leading us towards similar paths of damnation. Truth is, we are all scared of death, and that’s precisely the disease that Death’s Door aims to cure us of.
One positive way to alleviate the existential anguish is by sporadically dropping snarky comments in gloomy scenarios. The few bitter-sweet quips at the bosses’ funerals especially tugged at my heartstrings. And that, in a nutshell, is the engrossing sentiment of Death’s Door; a bleak yet beautiful atmosphere, a mysterious sequence of preordained domino pieces just waiting to be set in motion from that blighted, maddening everlastingness. Even the most confident and unbridled individuals eventually succumb to the world’s absurdity and attempt to cope with it. Whether it’s an all-powerful lord, an undefeated mountain beast or a meek but passionate bard, we all must come to grips with the eternal bargain of life and death.
Gameplay – A dungeon crowler blitz
Journeying through the copious levels, you slice and dice your way forward while unravelling branches full of lore, history and, of course, tragedy. The starting arsenal consists of nothing more than a sword coupled with a bow & arrow, but worry not! In typical Metroidvania tradition, the crow acquires weapons that aid both combat and exploration. Take the Hookshot, which lets the fledgeling pull itself towards enemies dealing a swift blow while also opening up a new traversal method of grappling onto solitary pillars.
While the combat is straightforward and frantic, that’s not the only area where the cold meat of Death’s Door lies. Being a team formed by two main people, Acid Nerve neatly masked the reused mobs by adorning them in different skins and mixing them up, building encounters more like puzzles rather than introducing new enemy types. Moreover, enemies can also interact with each other, meaning that you can devise ingenious tactics to lure mobs in crucial positions and obliterate them just by dodging a well-placed mortar attack.
Dead bodies also lounge right there where you deal the final blow, making you feel like a morbid criminal by the end of the game — which I guess is in line with how real life crows behave sometimes. However, the only way of knowing how much elbow grease you have to put in until the bells ring for a disheartened mob — or boss — is by noticing how their bodies pile up red cracks in their form to indicate damage status.
Speaking of, the bosses serve as the icing on this minimalist but dismal cake. Waiting at the chapters’ finale, they put your recently learned skills to the test in impressive arenas filled with their personality and creative attacks. In my opinion, they are far from being the best stages of Death’s Door because I can’t put my finger on one particular element. This alluring painting of a fairytale, packed with grandiose but straightforward ideas, is a culmination of lessons learned by Acid Nerve from their first astonishing game, Titan Souls, and the peak of hasty top-down combat.
At every turn, Death’s Door wants to impress the player by making them feel clever. That conveniently leads me to shine a light upon exploration, which is just brilliantly designed. Every room in this game has a purpose; if the road leads you on an adjacent path, that means there’s a secret there to uncover — and most certainly not just limited to one. It’s fascinating to sink in some bushes through a small but noticeable opening or search behind a tower only to find the whole isometric point of view doing a 180° to reveal a secret.
It is of utmost importance to follow every clue you come across and wholeheartedly delve into the rabbit hole opening up in front of you. In the same vein, scribbling mental notes of where unearthed secrets might lie also pumps some blood in the keen observer’s beak. The post-game content scratches exactly that itch to seek and solve even more enigmas, rewarding these players with reaping fundamental aspects of the main plot’s background. By completing these trials dispersed throughout every principal area, the true ending reveals itself.
A homage to Fumito Ueda’s design by subtraction, not one ingredient of this meticulously planned abode of the undead overstays its welcome, nor is it inserted as filler. Everything in Death’s Door works together like a meticulously crafted Swiss watch; collectibles even have specific uses in uncovering secrets or solving puzzles (playing quite a significant role in the post-game content).
Being able to unlock shortcuts after overcoming challenges is also a testament to how interconnected the game’s dioramas are and how important it is to rummage every new inch of a level. Taking influence from Dark Souls’ game design, Death’s Door can’t help showcasing sprawling lands only to take advantage of the first playthrough’s sentiment of wonder. That’s the whole point, to stray in these magical lands shrouded in obscurity and marvels just like Hansel & Gretel underwent the fear of getting lost into the woods.
Graphics & Audio – Rest your voice, but sing your soul into the Aether
Taking full advantage of the isometric perspective, Death’s Door aims for that picturesque art style of characters seemingly made up of dough inhabiting a cartoonish yet realistic decaying world. The artists working alongside Mark Foster and David Fenn struck a perfect balance between a breathing table-top adventure and a late-night reading of fantasy books.
Visually, each frame is worthy of stripping down the HUD and hanging it up in a museum; these pastel worlds come across as both veracious and forever inaccessible to us earthlings. Castles, manors, warm and gentle gardens, slimy sewers and, of course, graveyards, all co-exist in an intricate romantic deconstruction of the concept of death. These lighthearted areas of deadlocked life bloom on the screen, conveying awe along each step of our Corvus.
The most undeniable standout of Death’s Door is the OST, with its gentle piano, sumptuous violin spectacle, sometimes violent guitar strings, and unyielding orchestra of feelings. The recurring themes never cease to surprise my eardrums, soothing stressful days and just opening one more out of place door for me to journey into an untold reverie. David Fenn is responsible for one serious contender of the best video game soundtrack of 2021, maybe the decade. Musical notes speak in unison with the game’s essence, exhibiting even a more intense sense of harmony; the dread, the whimsical tone, the mystery, even the occasional quips are somehow carried on by the OST to my dumbfounded brain.
Death’s Door was reviewed on PC.