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Death's Door

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Acid Nerve
Release Date: July 20, 2021

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PC Review - 'Death's Door'

by Andreas Salmen on July 20, 2021 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Death's Door is an offbeat fantasy action-adventure that thrusts players into a quirky and curious world where Crows are in charge of collecting the souls of the dead.

The ID@XBOX program has produced several interesting exclusives for Microsoft's platform in recent years, and we're about to get hit by yet another. The follow-up project to Titan Souls by developer Acid Nerve, Death's Door mixes a gothic-style Zelda with fine sprinkles of a Souls-like. When I previewed the title a few weeks ago, I was quite keen on what I'd seen and experienced. Combat, story, and level design looked remarkable given the small development team, and a lot of what I admired in the preview build is still true in the full version of the game. We reviewed Death's Door on the PC, where it releases on July 20, 2021, alongside the full Xbox One product family.

In Death's Door, we control a little crow that, like its brethren in this world, is responsible for reaping the souls of the living. Armed with a glowing red sword, we start in the Hall of Doors, the bureaucratic haven of soul-reaping. Once we get our newest assignment, we drop through the correct door and start collecting souls. However, our designated soul is snatched away from us, and we need to find another way to make up for the loss. Thankfully, the strange world that we landed in is inhabited by three powerful beings that have unnaturally prolonged their lives. Our mission is to collect all three souls to make up for the one lost soul. It's a tall order for a tiny crow, but in the absence of alternatives, we are off to slay a few larger-than-life foes.

Death's Door is an action-adventure that feels close to classic 2D Zelda games, with an isometric view, dungeons that demand specific items (spells, in this case) to progress, and, eventually, several big boss fights. It also captures a similar charm with its simplistic but memorable character models, although you won't encounter many distinctive NPCs. The game is linear, and you must collect souls in a certain order. You can return to previous areas, which is encouraged since new abilities can uncover previously inaccessible goodies. Death's Door is similar in structure to a Soulsborne game, with a critical path and a handful of checkpoints that you'll eventually loop back on by uncovering shortcuts. Each checkpoint leads back to your employer for handy upgrades and unlocked doors, so you can freely move between completed levels.

Our feathered protagonist initially has a potent sword, one of six weapons that you can find in the world, all with slightly varying stats on damage output and swing speed, but all equally viable. I eventually found and settled on a two-handed hammer charged with lightning damage for slower but more powerful attacks.

If you remember the developer's previous game, Titan Souls, you might worry that Death's Door might be equally difficult. That is not the case, as Death's Door is much more accessible — but it's also not a pushover by any means. Combat can quickly become difficult, especially when the game spawns several waves of enemies or during boss fights. I had a relatively good run game, with occasional hitches where encounters had to be redone, but it wasn't frustrating. The difficulty can feel uneven, though. Early boss encounters were rather easy compared to some regular encounters between bosses. The last two bosses saw a sharp rise in difficulty and tested my patience to a degree. New skills are locked behind combat challenges that test your skills before you can progress, so combat is the key to progression throughout the title.

The combat in Death's Door is relatively simple. You either attack with your sword using light or strong attacks, use one of four spells (arrows, fire, bombs, or a grappling hook), or dodge the attack. Enemies cannot be interrupted in their attacks, so it's important to learn their patterns and get into a good rhythm of avoiding damage and finding an opening to get in a few stabs. The game sports a decent variety of enemy types that increasingly test your abilities, with some leaving little room to dodge and attack, so timing is vitally important.

At the same time, death is rarely a punishment. You get to keep everything when you die, but you'll likely need to backtrack through a level with respawning enemies every time you do. With some unlocked shortcuts, this isn't too bad, and if you're familiar with Soulsborne games, you're probably familiar with storming past all enemies in a level, hoping you can return to where you had died in one piece. The controls are tight and responsive, making combat encounters satisfying and even the toughest boss manageable. The only thing that was slightly annoying was that bosses do not have a visible health bar but take visible damage. You know that you're dishing out damage, but if you die, there is little indication of how much further you have to go.

Since there are no health items that can be consumed, you can only take as many hits as you have health bars in any encounter, making things extra tense. There are upgrade shrines hidden in the world to improve your health and increase the number of spells you can cast. We only found about five (of 16) across spells and health in our first playthrough and essentially finished the game with our base stats. If you'd like a more difficult experience, skipping those upgrades altogether is a viable tactic. Our little crow can also be upgraded in its abilities across several areas, like strength and dexterity, with noticeable improvements during combat. Since enemies respawn and yield souls when defeated, you even have the option to grind souls for upgrades. We did not buy all available upgrades, so there is some room to make things easier here, too.

Spells are available in combat, but they're mostly useful for puzzles and traversal. Each dungeon eventually grants access to a new spell to progress. You start with an arrow that can activate buttons from afar, a fire spell to activate braziers, a bomb spell to break crumbling walls, and a chain hook to sling yourself across gaps. They all work well and provide some variety in gameplay.

At the same time, I found the puzzles and spells in Death's Door to be a touch bland. I would've liked more creativity, since the selection would've felt at home in any Zelda game or clone. You'll mostly chase down the one lever, brazier, or wall that hinderes your progress and then shoot that thing with your spell. Most traversal and puzzles feel basic, although there are notable exceptions, like a very early and intense chase scene where objects had to be lit to traverse the level in a tight timing window. Most of the exceptions to that rule led to collectibles or upgrades and weren't required for progression. For that reason, Death's Door's pacing suffered from the lack of breathing room between combat encounters. Given its shorter length of about 8-9 hours for a straight playthrough, that isn't a big complaint, but it feels like it had a lot of untapped potential, which is likely due to its limited scope and dev team.

When it does work, Death's Door works very well. Environments and characters are colorful, and the different stages (a castle, a forest, and a mountain peak) looked and played great. The experience felt fresh due to the introduction of new environments, enemies, and hurdles. I enjoyed the characters and story full of humor, paired with some dark undertones and memorable boss encounters. I definitely would've played more of the game if there were more. After the story concludes, you are free to explore and find all collectibles, which will probably add another hour or two. Most crucially, you can even remove enemies from the stages after your first playthrough to explore uninterrupted. Sadly, though, there is no New Game+ option.

Death's Door's colorful, low-poly art style looks great and runs even better, and the Xbox consoles and PCs shouldn't have trouble offering smooth frame rates. We did not encounter any bugs except a few rare visual glitches in a later encounter that didn't impact the gameplay. Sound and music are on par, providing a fitting soundtrack for both its quieter and action-heavy moments. It creates a high-quality indie game experience in conjunction with its solid gameplay and visuals; again, this feat is quite astonishing given the small size of the dev team.

Overall, Death's Door is a success. It's a short but entertaining and combat-heavy Zelda-like action-adventure that is only limited by scope. It might not have the most memorable puzzles or dungeons, but it has enough heart and skill to make up for its few, minor missteps.

Score: 8.2/10

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