Death’s Door Review
Developer: Acid Nerve | Publisher: Devolver Digital | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platforms: Xbox, PC | Reviewed on: PC
Every now and then, an indie comes out with such a high level of technical and mechanical prowess that it can’t be ignored. Disco Elysium accomplished it in 2019, Hades in 2020, and Death’s Door hits those same highs (albeit in different ways). It’s a top-down action-adventure that takes players on a journey through realms dripping with history and fantasy, and though more casual players may struggle with late-game difficulty, the incredible level of polish here on all fronts deserves to be experienced by everyone.
Players hop into the shoes of a little Crow reaper coming into work on its first day. The job? Collect souls to keep the lights on at the agency. Shortly after the Crow is sent out on its first assignment and learns the ropes, it discovers that its target got stolen, and the perpetrator escaped through the titular Death’s Door, a realm full of old and powerful creatures completely untouched by death. With the guidance of a retired reaper and the bleak world as its oyster, the young Crow sets out to take down enough giant souls to open Death’s Door and retrieve its target before the higher-ups find out.
The beauty of Death’s Door—at least, in the beginning—is in its gradual, empowering learning curve. Players start with the basics: a sword for close-range attacks, magical arrows for long-range, and a dodge roll for evasion. Since the arrows are magic, there’s no need to find ammo pickups; instead, every melee hit grants another arrow. This creates a natural risk/reward system that makes every encounter a bit of a puzzle, especially when low on health and in need of a pot (which are never too far away but not around every corner) to plant a life seed in and heal. Enemy variety is quite well done since new types, and variations get introduced with every area, and most require different approaches to tackle. Some are more engaging than others (immobile enemy types are always tough to pull off), but they’re always grouped in such a cohesive way that every encounter feels satisfying regardless.
What’s more likely to be a point of contention is Death’s Door’s difficulty. On the one hand, it starts just challenging enough to where wins feel earned, but frustration is kept at a minimum. Early encounters are far from punishing, but since players are only allowed four hits to start—with no invincibility frames in-between, mind you—there’s an inherent tenseness built into every fight. On the other hand, however, Death’s Door gets absolutely brutal towards its back half. The gradual learning curve is eventually abandoned in favor of trusting players to push through with the sheer skill and combat savvy they’ve gained up to that point. Main campaign battles never come off as unfair since the challenge is in learning enemy tells and reacting in kind, but a couple requires such focus and precision (particularly the Giant Soul in the mountains) that they may scare off a fair number of players from ever seeing the journey through to its conclusion. The trade-off for this, of course, is the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that comes with finally breaking through that immovable brick wall of a boss.
None of this would matter much if Death’s Door handled poorly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The impact felt with every slice of the blade is glorious, and the sheer tightness of the controls means that every last-second dodge roll away from danger is executed the way it should be. If anything does feel too sluggish or weak starting out, there’s a handy upgrade system where players can exchange souls collected (fallen enemies drop two, mini-bosses, and bosses significantly more) for upgrades to speed, ranged damage, melee damage, and dexterity. What’s brilliant about this system is that since every one of these upgrades are valuable, killing grunt-tier enemies in dungeons or when traveling across the map never feels like busywork; there’s a natural incentive to go out of your way to kill any foes you see. It’s also a more hands-on way for players to adjust the difficulty.
For as much as the combat is central to the appeal of Death’s Door, exploring its solemn worlds and learning their secrets is just as enjoyable. From the monochromatic tints of the agency to the vibrant grounds surrounding the Urn Witch’s abode to the cozy caves underneath the forest, each location is dripping in atmosphere and personality. The architecture and ruins scattered about radiate a sense of history and the feeling of eras long past their prime. The art direction, in general, is sublime, bringing environments to life with a colorful clarity typically reserved for the most polished Nintendo titles.
And shockingly, the score is every bit as pristine as the visuals. Every area’s music interweaves with its respective environment to tell a story. Be it the dreamily nostalgic tunes surrounding the Stranded Sailor or the triumphant call to battle whenever an “AVARICE” segment hit, each perfectly set the tone and kept my attention. Then there’s the masterful transformation of the main theme to fit every situation and the murky fade-in of various boss themes whenever they appear before the final showdown. The level of orchestration and attention to detail here in terms of sound design is immediately reminiscent of the masterful work Gareth Coker did on Ori and the Will of the Wisps last year; it’s just that fantastic.
Indie or AAA, there aren’t many games that can hold a candle to what Acid Nerve has managed to accomplish with Death’s Door. They’ve created a gorgeous world full of secrets to discover and imposing bosses to conquer, and the fact that the difficulty ramp-up is so finely tuned at the start means that everyone can get a taste of that sense of accomplishment typically only reserved for those heavily invested in the genre. And yet, for as brilliant and memorable as the fights in Death’s Door are, the quieter moments with the world’s lovable characters will stick with me for just as long. Be it the incredibly tight and weighty combat, gorgeous world design, or soundtrack-of-the-year-caliber OST, the level of polish here is immaculate and should be championed.