Death’s Door on PC
At the beginning of 2021, I didn’t think a game about a sentient crow earning its wings as a reaper of souls would be one of my Game of the Year contenders, and yet, lo and behold here we are. Death’s Door has dropped in, delivered dollops of fast-paced, frenetic action, and left me hungry for more. Like the Outer Wilds in 2019, or the Hades in 2020, it’s this year’s indie underdog with its sights set on the big prize, and I’ll be backing it the whole way.
But let’s rewind a little bit. Death’s Door comes courtesy of the talented folk over at Acid Nerve, the team behind 2015’s boss gauntlet game, Titan Souls. This time, the developer has opted to broaden its scope, creating a sprawling hub world to explore with different bosses lying in wait in each direction. It feels more ambitious from the offset and it’s all the better for it, with its world oozing with a dark-humored charm all wrapped up in a cel-shaded art style that makes each scene appear as though it has been torn from a children’s storybook.
In all of its dry-humored dialogue and rather bleak source material, Death’s Door does manage to engage in some interesting commentary on mortality. Generally speaking, humankind’s reluctance to accept our time is finite and our desperation to leave our mark on the world before death’s call beckons us. The messaging is here but massaged under layers of dark humor, enchanted worlds, and a magical soundtrack of woodwind instruments, strings, and booming drums that perfectly capture the atmosphere of the world, complimenting the fairytale art style.
Our protagonist, a crow that works for the ‘Reaping Commission’ finds its job gets a whole lot more interesting once a soul it’s assigned to reap is stolen. The adventure unfolds as said crow dives into different doors searching for the thief, leading to new areas such as the Lost Cemetery, a sprawling open-world area teeming with Metroidvania-style unreachable areas you’ll need to come back to later once you’ve filled out your arsenal and/or abilities.
Within the Lost Cemetery is a door that requires the souls of three formidable creatures way past their expiry in order to open.
As a result, our little crow pal must find, fight and defeat each of these bosses, all located in their own uniquely designed areas branching off the main hub world. It’s in exploring these areas and the hub world itself that makes Death’s Door such a joy to play. There are so many intricacies and hidden paths in each level that it’s easy to lose yourself in the enchanting world.
Navigating winding paths, figuring out how to unblock a route so you can plant a seed to recover your health before pressing on, or covering old ground with new abilities to reach new, previously inaccessible areas is just as enjoyable as the combat, and that says a lot about just how exceptional the world design is.
I mentioned in my preview that the ‘soul-reaping commission’ world that you enter the doors to the various worlds from felt a little under-utilized. While there were little tidbits of lore to be found in books in areas that can only be accessed with the use of the abilities you unlock along the way, I did still find myself wanting a little more. I’m absolutely nitpicking here, but that gives you an idea of just how much I enjoyed the experience on the whole.
Alas, in order to accommodate the captivating world, developer Acid Nerve has had to reduce the number of boss battles in comparison to its previous title Titan Souls. It’s possible to beat the game only by taking on seven boss fights, with a few other optional ones being tucked away off the beaten path which grant upgrades to the abilities you unlock along the way.
This may come as a little disappointing to some, but rest assured that each boss in Death’s Door has been meticulously designed to make for a challenging, heart-racing battle to the death. In my preview, I was eager to see how the other areas in the game (and their bosses) would mix up the gameplay and the combat mechanics, and I’m glad to be able to confirm that the boss fights themselves manage to do exactly that.
In one instance, I went toe-to-toe with a frog king in a boss battle that really mixed things up, adding an additional puzzle element to the mix. In its second phase, the big bad would suck up the floor tiles, limiting my maneuverability, forcing me to figure out how to restore them before he removed them all and sent me plummeting to an untimely death. It felt distinctly different from the pottery-loving nana I’d first taken down, and its design and tells provided ample challenge without ever feeling unfair.
What was a little disappointing was the manner in which reaching these boss battles remained the same in each area. You had to recover the souls of previous soul-reapers that had met their fates while trying to complete their assignments in order to open a door, unlocking the new ability, which could then be used to reach the final boss itself.
It’s certainly serviceable, but there were times I wished there was a little more variety in the gameplay to reach each boss. Perhaps more challenging minor boss battles could have replaced rooms of minor enemies that needed to be cleared before reaching the aforementioned soul-reapers’ souls, or environmental puzzles could have freshened things up a little. Fortunately, the combat’s so satisfying that despite the rather formulaic steps to reach each boss, it never outstayed its welcome or worked to the game’s detriment.
For all the challenges that Death’s Door offers upon its way to the final boss, this final fight can feel a little too punishing. I only managed to beat it after multiple attempts and upon discovering a bit of a cheese to significantly shorten one of its most devastating attacks. Its moves, just like every other boss’, are telegraphed, but it takes a while to crack the code, and sometimes those moves can feel a little cheap.
Even when you’re not battling one of the screen-filling bosses, Death’s Door throws tons of standard enemies at you, patrolling hidden paths, or occupying small platforms you need to navigate to progress, creating claustrophobic battles to the death. I did find that some enemies would accidentally swing for an attack and fall off the platform to their demise, which significantly reduced the challenge in some instances, but this was fairly uncommon and wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment all the same.
All of these fantastic set-pieces and boss battles would be for nothing if the game didn’t handle great, and that’s possibly Death’s Door biggest strength. Whether you’re platforming your way to a hidden collectible or battling one of the formidable bosses, the controls feel tight and responsive, and having to hit an enemy (or item) with a melee attack in order to recover one segment of your ranged attack gauge means you’re forced to get up-close-and-personal with enemies.
It encourages you to play more aggressively than you — or your limited health gauge — may perhaps want. You need to get in, deal a few quick swipes, and then dodge your way to safety, all the while reading its moves and processing how to evade each one. Every battle felt like a deadly dance with my crow closing in, swiping and slashing, dodging away and hopping its way around the battlefield with a spring in its step only a lil’ soul-reaping crow could.
Having slain the final boss, the game returned me to the Reaping Commission and dropped a key right in the center. Picking this up and figuring out where to use it opened up the endgame content in Death’s Door, which involves a lot of exploring the world in search of different collectibles to open up doors.
While I snatched up the opportunity to spend longer in the world, the endgame content is a little too vague in what you’re supposed to be doing, and it was only by mistake I actually figured out what I was supposed to do. Still, if you’re not ready to end your reaping adventure just yet, the endgame content will give you ample reason to spend a few more hours with it.
Even with its grueling final boss fight, I absolutely adored every second of Death’s Door. The world developer Acid Nerve has created still feels rife with secrets I’m still yet to uncover after 10 hours with the game. Outside of a minor technical blip and a significant difficulty spike towards the end, Death’s Door is simply sensational. It may not have that AAA budget or cutting-edge super realistic graphics, but it’s jam-packed with charm, style, and challenging, rewarding action that it’s an absolute must-play this year.
- An enchanting world teeming with secrets and hidden paths to uncover
- Boss battles are fantastically designed, providing heart-racing combat and challenges
- Combat is satisfying whether it’s in a boss battle or against standard enemies
- A serviceable story, enhanced by its dark-humored dialog
- You’re a soul-reaping crow!
- The final boss felt like a pretty massive difficulty spike
- Reaching each boss felt a little too similar throughout
- End game content is a bit open-ended and unclear on what you’re supposed to be doing
PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S