Death's Door has immaculate vibes. You play as an adorable crow steadfastly disposing of stagnant souls in a strangely beautiful universe full of Gothic architecture and bizarre enemies. There's a melancholic piano that solemnly scores the corvid's adventures as he fights possessed castles and befriends an NPC with a soup pot for a head. At the end of one section, a boss calls you a little shit before tossing urns filled with angry souls at your head. Like I said, immaculate.
Death's Door somehow makes death feel both bleak and supremely chill, an impressive feat considering the combat can get chaotic. It's equal parts Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, and Metroidvania, pulling mechanics and systems from these sources and mixing them together in a lovely cauldron of death draught. Oddly enough, Death's Door is a Microsoft exclusive, even though it feels like a love letter to The Legend of Zelda sealed with blood-red wax.
The World of Doors
Death's Door begins like many of our days do: the protagonist heads into the office to work another day as a cog in the wheel of capitalism. But this is no ordinary office. This is the World of Doors, headquarters of the Reaping Commission, and it's far more dreary than any place you've ever worked. The World of Doors is cast entirely in grey scale, with a few undecorated workspaces neatly lined up in front of a larger supervisor's desk. The place is like a bleak library, except it's full of crows waiting to collect souls instead of librarians shushing patrons.
Your unnamed crow protagonist is sent on a job that should garner him some much-needed vacation time, and so you're dropped into combat before you have a chance to consider your own mortality. Your crow, however, always has death on his mind – not only because the job demands it, but because every moment spent outside the World of Doors will age this fletchling and bring him one step closer to his own demise.
A boss battle takes place less than ten minutes in, tasking you with defeating the Demonic Forest Spirit and returning its soul to the World of Doors. A massive plant swirls and slaps its tendrils down and your crow must roll and run to avoid it. Combat is all about doing damage fast, whether it's quick swats, charged-up wallops with your sword, or arrows fired from afar. There's not much variety (yet, as you'll obtain new ranged attacks as the game goes on), but somehow it never gets boring. I dispense of the Demonic Forest Spirit, but just as my crow heads to pick up the soul, he's whacked on the head by a much larger crow, who disappears into another dimensional door.
Death around the corner
Following the mysterious crow sends you to the Lost Cemetery, the first major area you'll encounter in the game. As you'd expect, it's not the cheeriest place in the world: it's littered with green-grey tombstones, freshly dug graves of worryingly large sizes, and sharp metal gates discouraging entrance. Here's where Death's Door opens up into more of a Metroidvania – as you traverse the Lost Cemetery, you'll encounter locked gates, ladders leading to areas you can't yet reach, and glowing green rock walls that look desperate for a well-placed spell. You can return here when your crow has collected enough souls to level up back at The World of Doors.
But the problem at hand is the soul thief, and you'll have to fight your way through several different enemy types to get to the old bird. Once you do, he's somewhat apologetic – although he could be a lot more sincere about it, considering he's trapped you in a world that will eventually kill you. You learn that the soul the old crow was meant to fetch fled beyond Death's Door, and he's been stuck in this world unable to get beyond it. As a result, he's aged quite a bit, and keeps – somewhat condescendingly – referring to you as "fletchling".
The crow explains that his problem is now your problem, as you'll continue to age unless you can collect the souls needed to get past Death's Door... and if you don't comply, you'll eventually die. The situation is both humorous and sombre – two themes that developer Acid Nerve deftly weaves throughout Death's Door. In this world, death is wryly persistent and is coming for everyone, even the people in charge of meting out mortal justice. But it's those pesky beings trying to flee death who have created this problem, and it's those avoiders that the old crow tasks you with finding. Death's Door needs souls in order to open, and you need to go fetch them. It's a solemn task, but I dare you to embark on it without laughing at least once.
Death is not the end
Despite how eerily relaxing this game can be, it's clear that death is no joke in this world – hence why everyone keeps trying to avoid it. The first major boss, the Witch of Urns, shoves people's heads into urns so that they can avoid death's ledger, but her attempts at making people immortal condemns them to a lengthy existence in horrible limbo. You've got to traverse what was clearly once a beautiful mansion to rectify this wrong, but as I walk through the once lively halls of the stately manor, I only feel pity for the Witch, who subjected her family to her horrible (but well-meant) magic.
Should you die, well, it isn't pretty. Upon dying, your crow lies prone on the ground and the screen goes black before the word DEATH appears in huge letters, transparent so that you can still see your dead crow and whatever caused its demise. A brief, intense score plays as the screen vibrates with an anxiety-inducing shake, evoking a rather unpleasant feeling. You don't want to see this screen, perhaps as much as your crow doesn't want to die of old age.
But you will see the dreaded death screen, quite often, in fact. Death's Door may not be as brutally punishing as Dark Souls, but it can be pretty taxing, especially during the boss battles that require you to avoid melee damage from one enemy and projectile damage from several others. At one point, I died enough that a new expletive would burst forth from my lips every time that giant 'DEATH' shook anxiously on-screen. Eventually, my upstairs neighbor banged on his floor to wordlessly tell me to shut up.
Despite the aggravation Death's Door caused me, I never quit, which is a testament to how well the game strikes a balance between relaxing, fun, and frustrating. It's easy to compare it to Hades, as both are isometric action indies that turn doling death into mundane office jobs, and both feature strong themes and memorable characters. But Death's Door isn't a roguelike, so it's a helluva lot more forgiving. Expect it on quite a few 2021 top indie lists.
Death's Door will release July 20 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC.
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