Every year, an indie game enters the discussion as one of the best games of the year even when put up against AAA releases. They can be nostalgia trips that take just enough of a modern step, such as our 2015 Game of the Year Axiom Verge, or they can be incredibly simple such as 2019’s Untitled Goose Game.
This year, Death’s Door will likely get plenty of comparisons to Supergiant’s instant hit of 2020, Hades, but its only similarity is in its isometric look and tight combat. However way you look at it, Death’s Door is easily one of the biggest surprises of the year.
What Is It?
Developed by Acid Nerve and published by Devolver Digital, Death’s Door is a top-down, third-person action game mostly played from an isometric perspective.
You play as a speechless crow working as a soul reaper in a bleak business office surrounded by doors to different worlds. The crow is tasked with bringing in a giant soul, with the promise of immortality if he does it successfully. Unfortunately he fails to bring the giant soul in, all while opening doors to worlds containing souls that other reapers have failed to bring in, threatening to ruin the work-life balance that these busy crows live by.
It’s a pretty bizarre story. Think Monsters, Inc., but replace the monsters scaring kids with reaper crows bringing in souls they of people they kill. As dank as all this sounds, it’s actually pretty charming.
Why Should I Care?
The story is interesting, but it takes a back seat to both the world and gameplay of Death’s Door.
The game’s environments are simply a sight to behold. As stated, it has a bleak vibe to it, with lots of gray and black shades. The main hub, the Hall of Doors, is actually entirely black and white until items you find add accents of color to it. Then when you visit the game’s various locales and dungeons including a mansion filled with urns, a swamp home to a nasty bull frog, and a dangerous icy mountain, you can really feel Death’s Door start to flex its art style–especially once you get to the main story’s final moments.
As for how it plays, while it’ll draw comparisons to countless roguelites including Hades, it’s honestly closer to a modern take on the original Legend of Zelda with a hint of Dark Souls. For the most part, your crow will be equipped with a sword, a dodge roll, and a bow (and will eventually gain access to magic and other projectiles later). In addition to your three-strike sword combo, you can do a more powerful sword attack by holding on the right trigger, and you can make the aforementioned three-strike combo be a tad stronger if using it immediately after a roll. Since there’s no way to block enemy attacks, dodging is essential, much like you’ll find with any Souls-like, so don’t be surprised to see the little black bird rolling all the time.
With the Souls comparison, plan to die a lot in Death’s Door thanks to punishing enemies and limited opportunities to heal. Thankfully, the game doesn’t go full rogue, since the game’s dungeons aren’t randomly designed and the enemies don’t change locations–it’s a little more manageable to prepare for what’s coming. You’ll still die a lot, and it’ll still be your fault, but you’ll eventually get over it.
It’s worth noting that one thing that really took some getting used to was how to use your projectiles. For example, in order to use the bow (and any other item mapped to this method after) you have to hold the left trigger to stand and aim, and use the right face button (B on Xbox) to charge and fire. This led to some awkwardness and rough squeezing on the controller, especially in the slippery snow-based levels, and the inability to remap the controls caused some frustration. Like everything in the game, it takes some practice to find comfort, but I feel like this could’ve been addressed with better button mapping.
Part of the reason why it’s easy to get over dying all the time is because of the game’s clever take on level design. The places to explore in Death’s Door are a testament to expertly crafted levels. The aforementioned doors in the game act both as checkpoints and as a way to get back to the Hall of Doors, which is essential for both healing or upgrading the crow’s strength, dexterity, speed, and magic. Each level in the game has a door that leads back to the Hall of Doors, and they’re always situated in places easily accessible to areas where you might’ve met an ill fate. Much of what you’ll be doing when first entering a new area is opening shortcuts to make getting from point A to point B faster, and when you die, it’s never more than a few seconds from the door you used as a checkpoint.
Also thoughtfully placed in each level are pots that you can grow flowers in to completely replenish your health. Each area in the game has a number of seeds you’ll find that you can use to plant in each pot to turn it into a healing flower, but the pots also easily outnumber the seeds you’ll have, so another element of strategy in this game is figuring out whether you really want to to grow a healing flower each time you pass one. Does it make sense to put a healing flower next to the checkpoint seeing as how dying replenishes your health anyway? Or would it be better to place it right before a closed off section to use before or after an arena battle? This type of internal conflict happens frequently, and pondering those catch-22s gives the game some welcome mental depth.
Speaking of mental depth, another conflict you’ll have is whether or not you want to plow through every enemy in your path. Enemies in the game cough up orbs that you can use to upgrade a few of your abilities, but they’re also very minimal amounts. The tougher the enemy, the more orbs you get, and beating bosses net you over 100 orbs, making them far more useful. So seeing as how it can be difficult to get from one point to the next in each level, especially when you’re conserving healing seeds, it could pay to just avoid enemies entirely–even if they do follow you around.
Going back to the game’s design philosophy, what makes it even more impressive is the fact that there’s so much stuff to do that has no real connection to the overarching plot. Throughout your adventure, aside from finding those seeds to plant healing flowers as well as more hidden areas that’ll allow you to upgrade your gear, you’ll come across even more paths and puzzles that reward you with various trinkets that seem of little to no consequence, but it’s far from that. There was a point in the game where I really just sought some of these out for no reason, and then one of the NPCs noticed I was carrying something, and it resulted in one of the hardest boss fights in the game (one I still haven’t cleared). Not a single part of every level is wasted, and the Metroidvania philosophy of going back to previous areas to uncover secrets in otherwise unreachable areas early in the game is beyond rewarding. The game does a good job telling you just enough–like shooting an arrow through a fire to light a torch, but not telling you that you can drop from a high level into the ground to go into a pipe system to pop up somewhere else. Curiosity leading to discovery is a fascinating feeling that Death’s Door gets right.
This brings me to my main gripe with Death’s Door–the game doesn’t have a map system. This is undoubtedly a design choice, as I understand the value of having the player’s own curiosity lead them to various uncharted places. It’s a nitpick, but I personally have a pathetic sense of direction, and as amazing as the game looks with its visual details and its art style — it’s easy to walk around in circles not knowing where to go. I spent well over an hour looking for the general area of the third dungeon–even when I was advised in the game that it was to the west, and I found a bunch of other secrets before actually figuring out where to go–and I had no idea where I was going either because everything looked the same, so the lack of a map is definitely a frustrating design choice.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
The fact that Death’s Door is an Xbox (and PC) exclusive (for now) and not on Xbox Game Pass will garner some unwarranted attention about whether or not the game is worth the price, but make no mistake about it–Death’s Door is easily one of the best games of the year, and out of the 17 games I’ve beaten in 2021, Death’s Door is the one that I felt most accomplished finishing. There isn’t a single wasted pixel or moment in this 12-or-so-hour story that could easily be expanded depending on your interest in actually 100%ing this game.
Everything from its overall look, the amazing orchestral soundtrack, its mostly tight combat, and exquisite level design makes the fact that Acid Nerve is primarily made up of four people simply astounding. Devolver Digital has published no shortage of fantastic games, and Death’s Door just might be the new crown jewel. This is a game that’ll put Acid Nerve over as one of the top indie teams out there, and I simply can’t wait to see what they have next.