When Devolver Digital and Acid Nerve announced a little top-down, action-adventure game called Death’s Door earlier this year in March, I was immediately won over.
In all honesty it doesn’t take much, I’d barely started watching the trailer and I was predictably lured in by the adorable crow figures. Then there’s the monochromatic world where the crows live, with its contrasting pops of neon and colour that’s both simple but other-worldly. And the twinkly piano score which builds up to orchestral proportions as the gameplay and combat is revealed was both beautiful and epic.
I rarely buy games on launch, but not only did Death’s Door launch at a discounted price, it was also an absolute joy to play from start to finish.
A Link to the Present
Practically every review out there has mentioned early era Legend of Zelda games, specifically Link to the Past, in conjunction with this game. While I can absolutely see why this comparison has been made, it does feel a little reductive to Death’s Door’s moving, melancholic and masterfully sassy character.
At the risk of adding some more money to the “This is like Zelda” jar, yes there are mechanics that feel very similar. The isometric worlds, puzzle dungeons and bosses are hugely reminiscent of early 90s LoZ adventures, and your little crow’s arsenal of weapons grows from swinging a sword around to shooting a bow, firing up a flame spell, hurling bombs and yeeting yourself about with the ubiquitous hookshot.
This for me is where the similarities end and I do feel that a game is often, or should be, more than its mechanics.
I do enjoy a Zelda game occasionally, but they have always had an earnest, wholesome vibe about them that can border on the twee and be overly sentimental. The exception of course being the nightmare fuelled hellscape that is Majora’s Mask. Death’s Door does not entirely avoid sentiment, and the conversations that you do have with some of the characters can be poignant and profound in their own way. However Death’s Door’s real charm lies in its often acerbic and occasionally dark humour, littered with pop culture references and parody.
I’ll also warn you, do not be fooled by its unusual beauty and irreverent banter, Death’s Door is a tough game.
As someone used to third-person games with the ability to lock on to targets, it does always take me a couple of amusing deaths and sacrifices to gravity before I get used to the idiosyncrasies of isometric combat and navigation. The problem is, health is very much a thing you don’t want to play fast and loose with.
You begin the game with 4 health and 4 “mana” blobs, which fundamentally equates to 4 hit-points and 4 blasts of magic. Mana is significantly easier to replenish and can be gained by melee attacks on enemies, boxes, mushrooms and classic urn smashing. Getting your health back is a bit trickier. Unlike our beloved green-tunic wearing hero (another pound in the LoZ jar) health refills cannot be gained by beating tiny hearts out of enemies, spin-slashing grassy areas or annihilating people’s cherished pottery.
Your only method of healing is provided by plant pots, which can be activated by planting a seed and growing a luscious restorative herb. These will refill your health meter and warm your cold dead heart as each of these urns, once a plant is present, is host to a trio of adorable Kodama that follow you around in a gloriously green conga line.
Sadly, these plant pots can only be harvested once per run, but they are tactically positioned around levels and dungeons and seeds are scattered quite generously around areas. It can be worth stockpiling a few seeds to plant later on however instead of reaping your harvest straight away.
You can upgrade your health and mana stats by hunting down shrines that hold crystals used to extend your life or magic pools. You do however need to collect four of each crystal to increase your stats by one point and there is a finite resource of 16 crystals. This means that you can only ever increase your health and mana stats to the dizzying heights of six points!
Perhaps due to the difficulty of this game and because reaping the souls of the dead earns you… well souls, the inevitable comparisons to Dark Souls games have also been drawn. But this is where the similarities end. Yes, Death’s Door is tough and your in-game currency to level up are the souls you collect from downed enemies but that’s about it.
Unlike Dark Souls and similarly inspired games, you do thankfully retain your hoard of souls on death. However, there is a disconcerting difference when it comes to boss fights.
For those of us used to the intimidating red line that stretches the full width of our TV screen and marks out the health of our dreaded foes, I have bad news. The bosses and mini-bosses of Death’s Door are a nostalgic call-back to the multi-stage, rule-of-three fights of old, and once you learn their patterns and quirks they aren’t too tough to take down. The only way you can tell how much damage you are doing, is by taking a close look at your enemy.
The now familiar boss health bar is gone and instead you look out for small glowing fractures appearing across their form. As soon as your enemies start to look like a much-repaired, crackle-glazed vase you know you’ve got them close to being on the ropes.
The amount of time it can take to get bosses down to this stage differs. Some give you ample opportunity and moments of pause to get a decent amount of swipes in. Others pinball and pogo around the area with terrifying speed and accuracy and have attacks with a range that can feel sometimes unfair. These bosses however pale into insignificance when you face the penultimate and final bosses.
After the typical boss arenas at the end of each dungeon, the penultimate boss was an astoundingly stylish and surprising affair that left me momentarily gobsmacked and stunned before getting absolutely owned. Then, just when you’ve finished celebrating that victory you get to go claw-to-toe with the final boss, a multi-multi-multi-stage cheating, dirty, scoundrel who is absolutely not going down without a fight.
A streamlined, uncomplicated process
Then there are the Avarice sections where you are bestowed with magical gifts after fighting through a veritable smorgasbord of foes. The opening animation to get into the Avarice arenas feel like a nice little nod to Dark Souls, especially if you found the similarly named headgear, and no matter how many times I saw my dear little crow ignominiously splat to the ground I always let out a little chuckle.
Levelling up to increase your strength, dexterity, haste, and magic is a very streamlined, uncomplicated process and you can either grind your way to maximum stats or level up as you progress. Even with a full complement of stats you never feel overpowered. It’s easy to see your increases in strength when you return to earlier zones and take down enemies in one to two hits, although I never noticed much difference in haste or an obvious improvement to my little crow’s base speed.
Gameplay and comparisons aside there is so much to love about this game. The art direction and the score are beautiful, there is a tremendous cast of antagonists, allies and ambiguities all with their own motivations and mysteries to uncover. Keep your eyes on Jefferson and his delightful soup!
Then there are the little details that make me absolutely adore my corvid avatar. The way its head cocks and twitches when in conversations, and the pitter-patter of its claws as it runs across the ground makes my heart sing. Death’s Door might be an unassuming indie game, but with a solid and meaningful plot, gorgeous landscapes, and fast-paced combat, it’s easily one of the best 11 hours of gameplay I’ve had in a long time.
Forget your triple-A titles and throw your Master Sword back into Lake Hylia, Death’s Door is just as brilliant and magnificent as any Hyrulian saga. There wasn’t really anything I didn’t love about this game apart from my own inadequacies with a hookshot. Like any good modern game these days there’s also a “True” ending to hunt out should you be hungry for a little more, and if this still all sounds a little pedestrian, you can totally beat the hell out of enemies with an umbrella…
A CROW WITH AN UMBRELLA COME ON!!!
Platform: PC, Xbox
Release Date: 20/07/2021
No. of Players: 1
Developer: Acid Nerve
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Download link: Microsoft Store