Death’s Door Review: ’til death do you fight
Hello, little crow. Looks like you’re here for a new assignment. Good — these souls don’t reap themselves, after all! Looks like it’s a special assignment for you today: a Giant Soul, perfectly ripe for the reaping! Take care of this one and you might be able to afford a little time off… hehe (don’t we all wish, amirite?). As you well know, you’ll be mortal while reaping, meaning you will age and you can die. So, get cracking, little crow — lest you perish before you can reap that soul!
So begins Death’s Door, an action adventure game with equal parts humor, existentialism, and solemnity. Initially released on PC and Xbox One/Series X|S on July 20, 2021, the small but mighty title has since made its way to PS4/PS5 and Switch before the end of 2021. With a variety of combat styles, atmospheric visuals, gorgeous music, and seriously fun boss fights, Death’s Door promises “a somber yet darkly comedic tale” that belongs on any respectable GOTY 2021 list.
Death’s Door opens up on the bleak and colorless corporate world of the Reapers, who spend their days taking souls from those reluctant to die and help them cross over — and by that, I mean beat them into submission since they didn’t want to go willingly. It was just another regular day at work as a clock-punching corvid when, suddenly, your commissioned soul was abruptly stolen from you. This is a huge problem, as you’re not only mortal while taking on an assignment, but you age as well — the only way to regain your Reaper immortality to bring the soul back to the office and complete the mission. With time not on your side, your new goal becomes clear: open Death’s Door to retrieve the soul and fulfill your commission.
When it comes to controls and combat, Death’s Door works fantastically. There are multiple fighting styles to try out, allowing players to get a handle on what they prefer while simultaneously being able to test out new things. I tend to just tank in every game I saunter into, and that’s just fine here, although long-range fighting by way of archery and magic is also possible. In my opinion? The most straightforward strategy was to get in a few hits, then dodge and roll around the place while the enemies attack before sneaking in a few more. Although I suspect the controls were perhaps a bit more responsive on PC, everything felt fluid enough on the Switch that I daresay it feels more at home on the handheld.
As for the environments, well… let’s just say there’s a reason why everyone keeps comparing Death’s Door to earlier Zelda titles. Each new area feels tremendously distinct from the last, their themes centered around the big boss lording over the place. From a palatial yet unsettling manor used as a laboratory by an urn witch to a watery dominion lorded over by a frog king, Death’s Door’s levels felt unique, interesting, and alive, the temptation to explore every single nook and cranny too strong to ignore.
In fact, that’s exactly why it deserves the high praise of the comparison to the classics — much like an earlier Zelda title, every world has a veritable maze of areas to explore, the puzzles to get through them relying on both brain and brawn. Enemies will certainly block your path forward, but so will puzzles that require the cunning use of tools at your disposal. Although there is some backtracking to find every tool, weapon, and power-up, it’s a genuine joy to do so; if you’re the type of person to comb an entire dungeon because you don’t want to miss unlocking a single chest or breaking a single pot, you’ll fall head over heels in love with Death’s Door.
I have two favorite parts to the game — the story/writing and the music. Story-wise, Death’s Door is a game with deep meaning, delving into existentialism and what it means to not only die, but live. The kind of questions that keep you awake at night are asked here: “what is my purpose?” and “what would you do if you knew when you’d die” are rather eloquently expressed by those who refuse to shed their mortal coil. What I enjoyed the most about their posited queries is that they were never truly answered, but their struggles were nonetheless poignantly concluded upon their death. It’s one thing to offer up an existential crisis, but it’s quite another to attempt to solve it — my compliments to the developers for tackling heavy matter in a deeply respectful way.
Juxtaposed to the solemn tones are humorous ones — after all, shadows cannot exist without light, right? This is often expressed in perfectly timed moments where you’ll meet a slew of colorful characters, running the gamut from interesting to downright insane. I think my favorite was Jefferson, head chef in The Stranded Sailor who was definitely an alive human and not a squid maneuvering a dead guy like Weekend at Bernie’s (why would you even think that, my fellow bipedal organism? Haha you’re crazy, have some soup!). Each character had their own distinct personality and speech pattern as well, and it was always a joy to see how certain people would react to a Reaper in their midst.
Finally, the sound design: Death’s Door has some of the best music and overall sound design in pretty much any video game, elevating the entire experience to match the often gloomy mood. There were times when I could hear tones reminiscent of Dark Cloud, followed by songs that stood out to me as Kingdom Hearts-worthy. It’s not just one or two tracks, either — literally right from the start the music immediately transports you into the Reapers’ world, a sobering song letting players know it’s time to get serious. Coupled with the fight music that has an unreasonably cool rewind sound effect and brief pause when you get hit, Death’s Door’s audio is a force to be reckoned with.
I don’t really have many complaints for Death’s Door. A 10 – 20 hour experience, it carries its in-game philosophy about lingering too long past its “best before date” through even in its own length. Although I do wish that the game’s character was perhaps a bit bigger or more zoomed in on screen (I’m old and blind, damnit), that’s easily rectified by playing on a bigger screen (or, you know, not being old and blind). I consider Death’s Door a must-play for any action-adventure game fan or those who wax nostalgic for the earlier Zelda titles, and if you want to play it on the go, the Switch is the best possible platform to play it on.
There’s a reason why Death’s Door won the 2021 Golden Joystick Award for Best Indie Game and was nominated for the Best Independent Game Award at The Game Awards this year — it’s damn good. Nothing is missing here, every component perfectly balanced against everything else to make for a near-spiritual gaming experience. With gorgeous visuals, a stunning soundtrack, multiple combat styles, a mixture of creative comedy and relatable existential crises, and sprawling environments that naturally invites players to explore every pixel, Death’s Door deserves all the praise it’s received and more.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4, PS5, XBox One, XBox Series X|S, PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Acid Nerve; Players: 1; Released: November 23, 2021; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Death’s Door provided by the publisher.