If Death’s Door were applying for the role of an essential top-down action adventure, it would have quite an impressive resume; with its Zelda-like exploration and dungeon puzzles, engaging fast-paced combat, and levels that’re brimming with irresistible secrets. All of this is wrapped up in a world that deftly walks the line between somber and charming, with its varied yet muted areas full of quiet melancholy, creating a sense of wonder and mystery that proves hard to resist the lure to uncover every last hidden path on your way to reap some souls.
The premise for Death’s Door is straightforward yet intriguing: Get to work for the Reaping Commission by harvesting the soul of a particularly strong monster unwilling to submit to the mortal coil. However, when the soul you are commissioned to retrieve is unexpectedly stolen from you, your path leads to a hauntingly beautiful undying realm that holds the titular Death’s Door. To open it, you’ll need to search the lands for three powerful souls in need of a good reaping — by way of some entertaining and challenging boss fights.
Exploring these forgotten lands is a treat: I tracked my quarry through forbidden graveyards, old flooded ruins, and creepy mansions. The slightly dulled color palette gives the impression of exploring locales long past their prime, aided by slow subdued music and faint, unnerving whispers on the wind. Puzzles are plentiful, and while most play on familiar themes of hitting switches, collecting keys, and opening gates, they were all slightly varied and progressively challenging enough to never overstay their welcome. Even the more open regions have you navigating near-labyrinthian twists and turns until you unlock connecting shortcuts, with clever pathways that had me zig-zagging around to reach a dungeon instead of a straight shot, making each place feel more vast than they actually are. Death’s Door also makes smart use of heights – whether requiring you to navigate layered walkways to find the right path to light a torch, or showcasing slightly blurred areas far below my current path of both places I’ve been or had yet to discover.
And plenty of mysteries there are, because Death’s Door crams secret pathways into every region. There might not be an overwhelming variety of rewards to find beyond collectible shiny things or health and magic shrines, but the lure of exploration is so omnipresent it was hard for me not to stray from the main path to see where that one ladder leads to, or agonizing over how to reach a health upgrade shrine looming just beyond a seemingly impassible cliff face. While some secrets are locked behind magic tool upgrades and I had to make a mental note to backtrack to grab them later (in true Zelda-like fashion,) there were always plenty of secrets to expose. Curiosity is always rewarded in these places, and I really enjoyed how the normally static camera would smoothly shift and rotate slightly when I got near something, rewarding my efforts with a view of treasures to be gained.
The lure of exploration is so omnipresent it was hard for me not to stray from the main path.
So prevalent are its mysteries, in fact, that even after my relatively brief 10-hour adventure ended and the final boss was defeated I was still drawn to uncovering every last secret – and I was extremely happy to find an even bigger enigma waiting to be solved during the post-game that proved impossible to ignore. I don’t want to spoil anything, but uncovering everything to get a 100% clear rating for Death’s Door was easily worth the few extra hours it took.
Living On a Wing and a Blade
When not lighting torches and activating platforms, my little reaper crow was up to his beak in enemies to slice and dice through. Combat in Death’s Door is decisive and quick; I learned to strike fast and hard before dodge-rolling out of the way of incoming attacks. Perhaps it's due to my avian protagonist's hollow bones, but I found opponents are rarely slowed or stunned by most of my attacks, nor could I block their attacks, which means combat is a delicate dance of figuring out how aggressive you can be before things get painful. The more I progressed, the more thrilling enemy encounters became as I found myself alternating between rolling between melee attackers, quickly sniping exploding pot creatures, and reflecting ranged magic back at evil mages with well-timed sword swings - all in the same fight. Death’s Door may rely a lot on throwing waves of enemies to slow you down, but it’s thanks to the aggressive and rapid pace of these fights that I never got tired of looking forward to the next one.
Added to the mix are a few magic abilities you unlock in each of the dungeons, and like in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, most are part puzzle-solving tool and part weapon. Several segments weren’t afraid to challenge me to use these abilities for both purposes at once, and it was fun to see how quickly I could pivot from activating a platform with ranged magic, to returning fire on archers trying to pin me down. Death’s Door takes a very simple yet effective approach to these abilities in that it only gives you a few limited uses in either application, but recharging your magic is as simple as whacking anyone or any destructible object nearby. That meant I couldn’t rely on sniping all my foes with my magic bow, but I could intersperse quick shots between melee strikes if I timed things well. I especially enjoyed the fire spell’s ability to rip a straight line through multiple opponents, and once I uncovered a secret mini-boss challenge I was rewarded with an upgrade to the fire spell that made it deal damage over time.
Combat is a delicate dance of figuring out how aggressive you can be before things get painful.
There’s a smattering of different weapons to find and collect, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and combo attacks. I became very attached to a pair of twin daggers that strike in rapid succession and give you a huge lunging dash you can trigger after a dodge-roll, but despite its allure I eventually swapped it out for a giant hammer with a larger reach and a chain-lightning effect that I liked even better. While you can’t upgrade individual weapons, I was encouraged to return to “back to the office” through checkpoint doors to exchange harvested souls for increased strength, speed, dexterity, and magic across the board. I wasn’t a huge fan of this type of progression (as opposed to individual weapon upgrades) at first, but as I claimed the few weapons hidden among the isles I began to appreciate the ease of swapping between them for different encounters and not having to worry about being underpowered.
Death’s Door also has a refreshing take on health recovery. There are no health potions to hoard or life to siphon from enemies here; instead, there are collectible Seeds of Life scattered throughout the land – sometimes in the open, and other times hidden away. Planting them in pots you find along your route will immediately sprout a flower to fully heal your corvid warrior. The only catch is that particular flower can only heal you once, until you either die or travel back through one of the many doors to the office hub world (at which point all enemies respawn).
For the most part, I felt the pots and seeds were evenly spaced and allowed me to heal up when I needed to, although that may have been due to my exploratory nature (I rarely missed a seed the first time through). If you aren’t diligent, you may find yourself facing down a wave of enemies with no health-giving flowers in sight. Thankfully, the whole “Death overlooking these lands” thing seems to extend to the protagonist as well, because I’d always respawn at the nearest door with no soul currency lost. (Not everything has to be Dark Souls, you know!) Checkpoints are plentiful enough that I was never far from returning to the fray.
It's Dangerous to Crow Alone
When it comes to dungeon delving, developer Acid Nerve has created a very enjoyable sense of progression in Death’s Door. Each of the three main regions I explored followed similar rhythms: A large and open introductory zone leads to a confined dungeon where enemies take a backseat to puzzles. Uncovering lost and forgotten souls in these dungeons unveils a path to acquire a major magical upgrade, as you’d expect from a Zelda-like dungeon. These magical boons aren’t given freely though, and you have to tough it out through several enemy waves to be deemed worthy.
While the process of getting these magical tools made sense thematically, I always felt like the momentum was slightly thrown off whenever I was transported back to the hub world to get the new ability. That required me to then go find the door leading back to one of the dungeon’s checkpoints, get my bearings again, and search for whatever new path could now be opened with my new ability.
The bosses of Death’s Door themselves are a delight, and most would find themselves quite at home in a top-down Zelda game.
All of this leads up to a final inner sanctum moment in the run-up to the boss of the region, and that’s where you’ll have to quickly adapt to taking on greater numbers of enemies and even doing a bit of puzzle-solving at the same time. These sequences are always a blast, like having to manually power a floating platform down a hall, dodging moving pistons, and lighting furnaces, all while under fire from ranged attackers on a far platform. Much like the more somber initial areas, the tension in these segments is further accentuated by some excellent, faster-paced music that urged me onwards.
The bosses of Death’s Door themselves are a delight, and most would find themselves quite at home in a top-down Zelda game. They mix cartoonishly evil charm with some impressive attacks that often required me to put my knowledge of the dungeon’s mechanics to the test to come out on top. Noticing the similarity in one of the Frog King’s attacks to puzzles I had solved not too long before was a brilliant “a-ha!” moment in figuring out how to deal with his platform-destroying power. I only wish the third boss had as much of a lasting impact as the others, but even the final boss threw out some major curve-balls that made the whole experience a memorable one.
While friendly faces in these lands are few and far between, the comedic timing of the few allies I met were a mood-lightening counterpart to combat and the gloomy undertones of my soul-reaping task. I’m not exactly sure why there’s a seafood shop run by a giant squid strapped to the back of a dead guy, or why he’s trying so hard to convince me he’s just a normal living human with a cool backpack, but I appreciate his commitment. It’s equally amusing to have a friendly gravedigger give a short eulogy after I claimed the soul of each boss.
Death’s Door is keen to remind you that your task isn’t an easy one, and even if your targets became corrupted as they sought desperately to live forever for their own reasons, they’re still worth paying your last respects to. As I uncovered the mysteries behind this land of undeath, I began to appreciate what Death’s Door had to say about the hidden dangers of seeking immortality, and its quiet pride on accepting the inevitability of death.