Review: Death’s Door

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By Josh Nichols on July 20th, 2021

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Death’s Door blends gameplay mechanics we’ve come to associate with video game franchises The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls but in an inviting and unassuming package. The moment-to-moment gameplay and gameplay loop feel similar to the Zelda series while still feeling original and unique. The game’s framing and structure however feel much more similar to the Dark Souls series. Death’s Door is the culmination of what we’ve come to love about some of gaming’s most influential franchises and it works because the small indie studio understands not only what makes the franchises work but also what makes them special.

Hey-Dese combat manuevers look familiar

You play as a Crow in a Monster’s Inc-style situation where you’re harvesting people’s stuff for energy. It’s less creepy than Pixar’s fear-fueled power grid though. In Death’s Door, you’re a reaper of souls. Everyone dies eventually and these crows come and collect. It works kind of like Monster’s Inc too. You go through these little energy doors, which can magically take you anywhere, and collect the souls when it’s time. See, it’s a little less creepy than making children scream for electricity.

Crows are basically immortal but at a cost. The souls of those who have passed give them life and fuel their world. The doors themselves operate off the power of souls. It cost souls when you upgrade your lil crow too. As you roll to dodge and slash through enemies, you’ll fill up a soul currency that can be used for upgrades. When you return to headquarters and upgrade your lil crow’s attributes, enemies reset in levels.

Doors are carefully placed throughout worlds and they all lead back to the main hub. This means you move to different areas if you want to grind for souls to level up attributes to make the journey ahead a little easier. There’s some looseness to the flow. The story is linear but the journey itself is carved out by your struggles and successes.

Topdown 2D is perfect

The camera angle and combat feel similar to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past but it’s sewn into a Soulsborne-esque fabric with checkpoints and heal stations. You choose when you take a minute to collect your thoughts, upgrade attributes, etc and this decision also comes coupled with the world’s enemies respawning as well. Everything gets a refresh. There are also these little flower pots that you can plant seeds in that completely refresh your health and magic. These regrow every time you come back from the hub world. They’re little checkpoints chosen by you. They can be strategically placed in certain locations, like before a powerful boss, or haphazardly and in a panic. You pick where to plant them and then they replenish with you when you return from the hub world.

This is where the difficulty and story both naturally appear and intertwine. Typically crows are going for more standard enemies when they go out to reap a soul. That’s what the player character went out to do. It was just a regular job. Things go wrong though and the player character’s bounty is stolen, with someone else instead able to leave the land of the living. The regular world. The place where everyone ages, including the soul-reaping crows. Anyone that doesn’t return after collecting a bounty is condemned to the land of the living and they age the entire time they’re away.

Another character steals the player character’s bounty though so they can leave after someone else trapped them for likely similar reasons. This is when it’s revealed that a few specific characters have lived an incredibly long time due to the exploitation and hoarding of souls. The shortage of souls being unnecessary with no soul needing to be condemned to this life. That’s not only the player character’s ticket out of this realm but also a way to take down the whole system for something better.

I know I’m being vague on details. It’s intentional. I don’t want to pull back the curtain on anything in Death’s Door because of how special it is. I attempted to relay the vague story structure to explain the gameplay cycle more accurately. The setting, story, characters, and world are all absolutely fantastic. The art style is stunning. There are colors everywhere. The world feels like something out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away with how death is both creepy but also captivating with a boring real-world system powering the whole system from within. No matter how interesting the afterlife may be in Spirited Away and Death’s Door, there’s still paperwork that needs to be filed. It’s delightful. I love it. I think you will too.

so anyway, I started slashing

The gameplay loop has you exploring, solving mostly interesting puzzles, and engaging in fast-paced bouncy combat that isn’t too much different than Hades. The combat itself is different but the intense rhythm of the explosive combat is very similar to Hades. You’ll need to roll, dodge, and bounce around the screen. Varied attacks lay at your disposal, short and long-range included, but you still need to keep moving. It’s like a rhythm game except you’re choosing the notes. The enemies are smart but if you pay attention you can weave in between their notes. Then you can respond back with a roll, slash, and arrow-pierced barrel explosion blast, ending the group of enemies in your path.

Death’s Door is either hard or I’m not good at it. Or maybe something in between the two? Regardless, I struggled with it. I think you’re supposed to struggle but I also think that will vary from person to person. It may be easy for you but hard for me and someone else. I don’t know. There’s only one difficulty mode and I absolutely would have changed it to Easy if given the choice.

The difficulty is FAIR but we also all play games for different reasons. Even outside of conversations of accessibility, we all appreciate art from different perspectives and sometimes for different reasons. I love the world of Death’s Door. I think it’s one of the coolest worlds I’ve ever seen in a game. I love it. The characters are the best. The dialogue is fun and full of life. The camera angle and genre are two of my favorites, especially when combined. I love this game. But I’m absolutely terrible at it. I’d much take less damage or be given a LOT more health so I could get through the game with less resistance. It’s still a great game and I eventually always found my way to the other side of battles, but I wish I could have had an easier time.

Some people will love the tough climb through Death’s Door, finding enjoyment in its incredible but also difficult combat sections, but others may groan at the struggles, instead preferring their journey through the story and world. I was the latter. I love the gameplay. It’s super fun. It’s got the bouncy movement I love from Hades but the Link to the Past feeling attack mechanics. It was super fun. I also died non-stop and had to constantly re-do battles. I know that’s part of it for some people and maybe even most people. I just wish I could have rode up more of the mountain instead of climbing most of the way. I still enjoyed my time and the view and sights were more than worth it.

Familiar flavors remixed

While reading about the game and researching it while I played it, I learned about the influences and that’s when I also saw the lines drawn between Death’s Door and the Souls line of games. I haven’t really played a Souls title but I’ve always planned on playing them. I know I will like them and understand the appeal. I was just always waiting for the right time. The developers of Death’s Door clearly understand what makes classic Zelda games so fun. They didn’t emulate it exactly. They instead answered the same development questions that the Zelda teams are always answering. I love the responses that Death’s Door had to those same questions for both genres and it only increases interest in playing Dark Souls. Death’s Door is the Dark Souls of classic 2D Zelda games and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t played a Souls game but is now going to because it’s shown me how truly special the genre is.

Death’s Door may do similar things to other games but it’s still a unique, meaningful, and worthwhile experience. The story and characters are interesting and the graphics bring everything to life in the warmest way. This is a special game that I don’t think I’ll ever truly want to stop playing. It evokes some of the same feelings from some of my favorite genres but with weird and wonderful noise that’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. Death’s Door is a special experience that should be experienced by all fans of the action-adventure genres but fans of RPGs and Souls-like should consider giving it a shot too. It’s a weird trip and you need to take it.

9
Great
Death’s Door wraps a meaningful world and setting around an addictive gameplay loop while also sprinkling in seasoning from the Soulsborne series. Play this game as soon as possible.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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