Death’s Door

The mixture of its cauldron is pretty original and worth a try, but in the end the best word to describe Death’s Door is competent: it absolutely thrives in graphics, music, and theme; elsewhere, however, it is solid but never truly brilliant

Workdays, especially to those who have an office job, can be very mundane. As strange as it may sound, when it comes to the crows who toil away for The Comission, the outlook is not any different. Sure, the fact they are responsible for reaping the souls of beings whose living time has expired may make it sound like it is a pretty special and sometimes adventurous labor, but the truth is far duller than that. Every day, when arriving at the company’s headquarters, they have a soul assigned to them. With a sword on their back, they then take one of the building’s practical teleportation doors, which will drop them right in the zone where their victim is. After doing the deed, it is straight back to one’s desk for the filling up of some good-old paperwork. Finally, all that is left for a reaper to do is punch the clock, take the bus back home, and get ready for another day that will feel much like the one before it.

For the crow who stars Death’s Door, however, that routine is about to be broken when the cogs of fate begin to turn. He gets to the office and is assigned a giant soul, which is in itself a big oddity; plus, as he is told by his coworker, the creature whose life he is meant to take away has been extremely adamant on not going quietly into that good night. Against all odds, he succeeds, but just as he is about to collect his bounty, a much larger and older crow materializes behind him, knocks the protagonist to the floor, and runs off with the goods. As he gives chase, a grand adventure starts to unfold.

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The premise of Death’s Door is undeniably intriguing. Having a crow that is not anthropomorphized in any significant way as the game’s hero is somewhat humorous, and the title capitalizes on it by giving him very bird-like animations. Furthermore, the whole idea of having a society of crows overseeing the cycle of life and death paves the way for a very original setting, which should be – on its own – enough to draw the attention of many. At last, there is a good opportunity for storytelling on the table once it becomes clear there is something fishy going on in the inner workings of The Comission.

On the first two points, Death’s Door is a tremendous success. The darkness that exists in its morbid core is used to create a world with Gothic touches, which flourish under a cartoonish yet somber art direction that makes heavy use of muted colors as well as thanks to a spectacular soundtrack that skillfully alternates between haunting, atmospheric, and thrilling. Every once in a while, though, those ominous clouds are pierced by wacky undertones, which begin with an office in noir style that is run by a bunch of actual crows and end up branching out to various areas of the journey, from strange characters to quirky lore and amusing dialogues. It is no surprise, then, that Death’s Door has attracted plenty of comparisons to the work of Tim Burton.

Given all of those qualities and that mountain of potential, it is a bit of a shame Death’s Door falters a bit regarding the presentation of a solid storyline, especially because even if it is not a plot-driven affair, the game does devote some attention to that front. What is sad is there are intriguing hooks on the table: whispers of corruption, sinister diary entries left by other reapers, crows who abandoned the rat race, and more. But when Death’s Door pulls the veil on what it is hiding, the script reveals itself to be a hit-or-miss. Its ideas are good, its characters are memorable, its world-building is nice, and some plot elements do land; yet, as a whole, the mystery that sets the quest in motion is too convoluted for its own good, giving the impression that the game tried to embrace more than it could actually handle.

Ultimately, the goal in Death’s Door is tracking down three giant souls – in addition to the one obtained in the opening mission – in order to unlock the titular artifact. Although the office of The Comission serves as a sort of hub since all fast-travel doors that are activated can be accessed through it, the game’s world geographically gravitates around The Lost Cemetery, which – much like a traditional The Legend of Zelda overworld – will hold the entry points to the areas where the three large creatures whose souls must be reaped roam. Differently from the recent nonlinear entries of Nintendo’s franchise, however, the clearing of those main objectives must respect a specific order.

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On the topic of that comparison, the setup of its world, the framework of its story, part of its gameplay loop, and the simple fact it is an action-adventure title have caused Death’s Door to often be linked to The Legend of Zelda. To a point, it makes sense: every overworld branch that leads to a giant soul will gift the heroic crow with a new ability, which will then be used not only in an assortment of puzzles, but also at The Lost Cemetery to open the way to the next portion of the quest. Nevertheless, differences between the two properties abound, sometimes to the detriment of Death’s Door and sometimes to its benefit.

The detriment emerges in how the dungeons and puzzles of Death’s Door are pretty basic when put beside those of The Legend of Zelda series. Structurally, the mazes that precede the large creatures that must have death delivered to them are rather unique: instead of being a linear chain of puzzles, they are nonlinear buildings – that even include some locked doors and keys – which must be combed thoroughly so that the protagonist can gather four small souls that will allow him to advance. Naturally, blocking his path to find those assets there will be scattered enemies and a handful of rooms housing puzzling scenarios. Unfortunately, these riddles are not exactly remarkable. It is not that they are neither fun nor satisfying to complete: they are. The problem is that most of them feel slightly undercooked, leading one to think that after coming up with the basic puzzle ideas, designers did not walk the extra mile to develop them to utter greatness.

Meanwhile, the difference between Death’s Door and The Legend of Zelda that works to the former’s benefit is what players will face when they are not inside the adventure’s dungeons: a sort of gameplay so distinct from what Nintendo’s classic property offers that it makes superficial comparisons between the two franchises look silly, hence allowing Death’s Door to create some much needed separation between what it offers and what is out there in the market. To be more specific, when not solving puzzles inside enclosed buildings, the protagonist will be out in the wild dealing with challenges structured in a way blatantly inspired by rogue-like efforts.

Death’s Door is not very stiff when it comes to how it assembles the path to the bosses, so be it before the dungeons or even after them, there will be locations where the reaper will have to fight through hordes of enemies. Even though some foes can be ignored, mostly what will occur is that the game will lock players in an area and force them to clear all bad guys so the way forward opens up. It is certainly not a new concept: it has been around in beat ‘em ups ever since the dawn of time. But Death’s Door puts a rogue-like spin on the proceedings because falling in battle will kick the hero back to the very beginning of the area, and since enemies are far from being a joke, that is something that will likely happen to most players a handful of times before they can master the hordes well enough to make it out of the zone alive.

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It sounds grueling, but Death’s Door almost succeeds in eliminating frustration in two ways. Firstly, there is how, punctually, after going through a few hordes players will unlock shortcuts (smartly embedded in the level design) to the entrance of the areas, meaning that dying usually does not mean having to overcome all battles again. Secondly, like in most rogue-likes, bad guys drop loot – in the case of Death’s Door, souls – which can be exchanged at The Comission to upgrade stats like speed and attack power; as such, engaging in combat repeatedly results in more resources to spend, superior skills, and a better chance to mow down foes. All in all, the only factor that holds Death’s Door back from completely ridding itself of frustration is that the shortcuts, as useful and welcome as they may be, still entail some walking; because of that, the process of repeatedly dying and having to make one’s way to the next horde that must be defeated is a bit dull, especially due to how the crow does not move very fast.

The bottom line, though, is that battles are pretty fun, even if not perfect. Enemy variety is not big, but in the way they are mixed and positioned developer Acid Nerve squeezes good value and interesting situations out of the cast they have. The crow does not have a large moveset, but finding the right timing between delivering melee attacks and dodging is an engaging exercise. Boss battles are not plentiful, but the ones that do exist are dynamic and filled with different phases that ramp up the challenge. To top it all off, the game has a very smart limitation on the protagonist’s ranged attacks. These four moves, which are the abilities the crow acquires as the adventure progresses and that are employed in puzzles, cannot be activated endlessly because of how they consume magic; with maximum upgrades, six uses of the weakest attack are enough to deplete the bar completely. Therefore, players are forced to constantly recharge their magic energy, and therein lies the twist.

Rather than filling up automatically, the bar is recharged whenever a melee attack is delivered; with one hit giving the crow one unit of magical power. It might sound annoying, but it really is not. When it comes to puzzles, recharging is simply a matter of hitting the hundreds of pots or plants that are spread around the world. When it comes to battles, the mechanic pays off greatly because it effectively forces players to engage directly with the enemies if they want to throw a fireball, a bomb, or an arrow at them, completely negating strategies that involve running in circles to avoid enemies while hitting them from a safe distance.

The other very interesting quirk that Death’s Door throws into the mix is its healing system, which adds a rather unique touch to its rogue-like progression. Instead of having foes drop health-recovery items, the game makes use of seeds and pots. In total, there are fifty of each, and collected seeds (which may be either cleverly hidden or in plain sight) can be thrown into any pot. Once that is done, the resulting plant can be consumed to totally replenish the character’s health; the herb, though, will wilt and only be restored to its full glory if the crow dies. The mechanic is doubly brilliant, because other than giving players a lot of agency over when and where they will heal (adding a drop of strategy to the process of going through enemy hordes), it also forces a degree of exploration, since the more the world is combed, the more likely it will be that when the next empty pot shows up, the crow will have a seed to plant.

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Collecting the three giant souls that are pivotal to the script of Death’s Door should not take most players very long. In spite of its solid degree of challenge, the whole quest can be wrapped up within eight hours. Those looking to work a little longer for The Comission, though, will be glad to hear there is more to do than opening the titular door. For starters, sixteen shrines that will upgrade the protagonist’s health and magic bars are scattered around the world, and considering the quest’s solid difficulty, it is safe to say some players will be very motivated to find them. Moreover, showing that crows do have a love for objects that sparkle, twenty-four collectible Shiny Things are hidden in tricky corners of the land waiting for those who enjoy thorough exploration. When the healing seeds and soul orbs (worth 100 souls each) are added to the equation, the result is that the decently sized world of Death’s Door is densely packed with nice secrets.

To boot, the game steps beyond that common menu of collectibles to deliver a secret ending; better yet, it is one that includes extra missions – seven of them – and, therefore, a thick slice of additional gameplay. On one hand, it is great news and the whole optional quest even involves the ability to turn day into night, which is not available until the final boss is beaten. On the other hand, sadly, it has to be mentioned that many of the missions are not very engaging, as they border on being chores, and that finding the starting point of some of them is a process so obscure that having to resort to a guide is nearly inevitable. Nonetheless, it is a trip that might end up being worth it for those who truly fall in love with the game and, especially, the storyline, which has important details added to it in this ultimate conclusion.

The verdict is that the best word to describe Death’s Door is competent. It absolutely thrives in graphics, music, and theme; in fact, as far as those fronts are concerned, the game is up there with the best efforts the indie scene has ever produced. Elsewhere, however, it is solid but never truly brilliant or remarkable. Its dungeons have a clever nonlinear structure, but the puzzles that they house never go beyond decent. The rogue-like framework of its open environments has thrill, challenge, and even a couple of clever twists of its own, but it does not break expectations in any way. And its story, which gets off to a great start thanks to the setting it sits on, crumbles under its weight as the finish line approaches.

Yet, it is undeniable that in that mixture, Death’s Door builds a strong identity. After all, it is not every day that players get to experience a quest that throws dungeons filled with puzzles and rogue-like combat segments into a Gothic world that seems to have been built to contain a standard adventure game. The result may not always be awe-inspiring, but it certainly has enough muscle to entertain while it lasts.

FINAL SCORE: 7 – VERY GOOD

13 thoughts on “Death’s Door

  1. Need to give this a whirl. It’s had a lot of praise, some saying indie game of the year and all that. Not so sure myself yet, judging from trailers (possibly NOT the best way to judge a game).

    But the developer for the game, Acid Nerve, is actually here in Manchester. Which is groovy.

    1. That’s awesome! I had no idea they were from Manchester.

      I was pretty excited considering the “indie of the year” hype and the Zelda comparisons, and in a way the game did not live up to those expectations. But it’s a nice and polished indie effort, that’s for sure.

        1. Especially considering the good people who worked on this game are from Manchester. Then that 0/10 becomes pretty much personal to you.

    1. I’d say that if you like rogue-like combat structure (keeping in mind there is no permanent death) and dungeons with puzzles, it might be a good purchase.

      1. Permadeath is my biggest gripe about the genre, not so much the challenge. Some games just don’t balance things well enough and that gets in the way – like Dark Devotion’s entire boss structure focused on dodging attacks frequently but giving you terrible stamina management. If Death’s Door is just a challenging Zelda-style game, though, I’m all in.

        1. I am not a big fan of permadeath either and I will also admit to having a bit of a prejudice in relation to procedurally generated levels. I prefer my games to be tightly designed by human hands. Those reasons have kept me away from the genre.

            1. Yeah… I will try to get over that prejudice one day to play some rogue classics like Hades and Dead Cells, though. Maybe I won’t enjoy them that much, but I feel they are at least worth a try. Yet, whenever I think about buying them, I end up buying other games. =P

              1. Rogue Legacy was one that was easier to swallow since you’re always finding new blueprints to craft permanent weapons and armor to bring on the next run, but it was still hard for me to stick with. Risk of Rain is the one that I really got into on my Vita because there’s an easy mode toggle lol. The music rules too, but the 2D shooter class-based gameplay is superb.

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