I didn’t know much about Death’s Door before playing it. Reading that it drew comparison to Zelda and From Software’s catalogue intrigued me and once I watched its moody and beautiful reveal trailer, I was hooked. Now, with 15 hours played and over a 90% completion rate, I have to say, Death’s Door is easily one of my favorite games of 2021.
Death’s Door has a simple premise: You play as a crow who reaps souls for the soul reaping commission. While out collecting one, the crow gets knocked out and his assigned soul stolen. He then travels to a land hidden from the reaping commission and untouched by death. He ventures through dungeons, mountains, and abandoned castles on his quest to collect three large souls needed to open the titular Death’s Door.
The art design of Death’s Door is great. Each area you visit has its own unique hues, architecture, and atmosphere. The offices of the soul reaping commission are as dour and lifeless as any 9-5 office could be. Color mostly doesn’t exist in this space, except for the shiny objects piled on your desk once discovered out in the world. The estate of Urn Witch is lush and vibrant. There’s a bit of irony to her Garden of Life as once you plow through some enemies it’ll be lined with blood and dead bodies. There’s a lush forest to explore before the Frog King, and many more locations throughout the world.
The dungeons are fun to explore, and often contain goodies for the crow to find. There are two dozen shiny objects to collect, four additional weapons to find, and many orbs full of souls scattered about. I gleefully back tracked through previously explored areas once I acquired new means of opening up levels (for example, acquiring a bomb spell to destroy a previously unbreakable wall). I wanted to cover every nook and cranny in the levels to leave no shiny object unfound (I ended my playthrough having found 19/24, but who’s counting?). Leave no box unbroken or pot unsmashed as you never know what you’ll find in Death’s Door.
Gameplay is where Death’s Door really shines as it is incredibly fun, fast-paced, and addicting. The crow has five weapons at his disposal (although it might be a bit of a stretch to call the umbrella a weapon), each with their own strengths and drawbacks. For example, I was a fan of the lightning hammer’s reach and ability to chain damage between enemies, but its combo being only two swings meant I couldn’t get many hits in before having to dodge away from the fray.
The crow moves incredibly quickly, and dodging is the name of the game. There’s no way to block melee attacks (you can delightfully hit away some ranged attacks, however), meaning you have to get your timing down on dodges to avoid taking damage. All enemy damage hurts the same — one hit from a magician’s projectile is the same from the Frog King’s butt. You start the game only able to take four hits before death, and can increase that number by collecting vitality crystals from shrines. I liked the system and it created a healthy amount of challenge. Knowing I could only sustain a miniscule amount of hits in a boss fight amped up the pressure and really sweetened the joy of winning an encounter with only one hit point left.
Magic is also a large part of combat, and perhaps my favorite way to take down enemies. You get four spells — a magic bow and arrow, a fireball, a bomb, and a grappling hook — and can upgrade them via some tough fights (the battle to upgrade your fire spell is one of the hardest fights in the game). Magic adds a healthy dose of ranged combat to Death’s Door and I found it especially useful, but never overpowered, in the late game. The fireball was my favorite, and once I upgraded it to do damage over time, I never felt out of any fight. I can’t describe the satisfaction of lingering flames defeating a boss while I dodged their quick and deadly attacks.
Like blocking, your crow can’t heal much in combat either. You’re only able to heal at pots in which you’ve planted a life seed in (never hesitate to plant a life seed — they’re abundant and planting seeds in all the pots earns you a trophy). Sometimes these pots are located in sectioned off areas where you have to defeat waves of enemies — meaning you could heal during the fight, take six or more hits total, and still survive — but they’re never found in boss rooms. If you walk into a boss fight with just five hit points, that’s all you’ll be able to take for the duration of the battle. Once I got the hang of dodging and learned how the levels were designed, I never wished for a different healing mechanic. A life seed was alway just around the corner, and the bosses were never too punishing that I wished I were able to take more than the allotted 3-5 hits. Plus, the little forest spirits who pop up around life seeds are simply too adorable to be replaced by another healing mechanic as banal as a potion or spell.
Death’s Door contained just the right amount of challenge while still being fun and not demoralizing. While I did mention earlier that the game was described as soulslike, I found it to be nowhere near as challenging as From Software games or their imitators. The entirety of Death’s Door stayed at the right level of challenge. The game is always difficult, and enemies can kill you if you let your focus wander (I probably died against every enemy type at some point). But the deaths never felt cheap. I miss timed my dodge there, got greedy with attacks and left myself exposed here. No challenge was ever insurmountable and no boss fight was ever too difficult, though some certainly tried to be!
Boss fights are glorious and fun as hell throughout the game. The main fights to collect the large souls are against the Urn Witch, the Frog King, and the monster of the mountain. You sometimes have dialogue with the bosses in the lead up to the fight as you traverse levels (the Frog King likes to poke his head through much too small windows to warn you of going any further) or hear tales of them. Getting to know the bosses before taking them on added a personal touch to the confrontations, and each of them ended with a eulogy from gravedigger Steadhone once defeated. The fights themselves were challenging and greatly enjoyable. The “soulslike” comparison really shone through here as learning a boss’s attack animations and when/how to dodge were crucial to achieving victory.
You’ll encounter avarice challenges after clearing the first dungeon on your way to each boss (there are two levels to complete in between each boss fight). Avarice challenges pit you against four brutal waves of enemies. Once defeated you’ll gain a new magical spell. I really enjoyed these challenges — they felt like a test of my skill at each point in the game. I almost wish an arena-type mode was added to the post-game content so I could replay these avarice challenges — the game is just too fun!
The only combat encounter I didn’t absolutely love was the final boss fight. Without spoiling too much, the final fight is divided into two parts, with a platforming challenge a heavy part of the first part. I found the platforming during this section to grow stale on successive attempts (and I died quite a bit) and once I realized how easy it was to cheese it became a nuisance on my path to the real fight. Once the second half of the battle commenced, however, I was back to having a blast with the challenge.
Death’s Door has a unique levelling mechanic. You collect souls from fallen enemies, but only bosses really drop enough souls for you to invest in your skill tree. Most enemies drop just one, two, or four souls, and in the late game you’ll need 1,000 and 1,500 to max out your stats. Between bosses you’ll mostly be relying on finding soul orbs to level up as they usually contain 100 or 200 souls (don’t worry, you keep all of your souls/exp. upon death). I didn’t mind this mechanic throughout much of the game until I realized I wouldn’t be able to grind my way to levelling up a stat between boss fights. (I suppose you can grind if you have hours upon hours to kill adding up one or two souls an enemy).
Another unique element to Death’s Door is the way it uses enemy health bars. Or, more specifically, the way it doesn’t use health bars. Instead of a health bar at the bottom of your screen taking up the width of it, the damage enemies take is displayed upon their bodies. Glowing pink cracks will form as you whittle away opponents’ health until you eventually land the finishing blow and the enemy is defeated. I enjoyed this mechanic, for the most part. There were some intense moments where I had little health myself and knew I was getting close to defeating a boss — their body would shine with pink light. But I can also see how this health mechanic might frustrate some players. Am I one hit away from victory, or five? I, at least, never got to that point of frustration.
Once the final boss is vanquished and the main game is completed, a bit of optional post-game content unlocks. The player can change the setting to nighttime and open up previously unexplorable paths. An additional boss fight opens up at night and with it brings a satisfying end to an NPC. Overall, Death’s Door clocks in at around ten hours with the post-game content adding a couple more. I leisurely and thoroughly explored the world, extending my time with the game even more. For only $19.99, I don’t think you could ask for more of a bargain.
I’d be remiss if I left this review without mentioning my favorite thing about the game — it’s music. The soundtrack to Death’s Door is fantastic. It’s eerie at times, energetic when it needs to be, and all-around catchy as hell. I found myself humming its main theme for days after finishing the game. Give it a listen even if you don’t end up buying the game — you’ll thank me later.
Death’s Door was a joy to play and it is very much in contention to be my pick for 2021’s game of the year. It kept me up at night for the best reason possible — I never wanted to set the controller down.
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