It's never been a better time to be a bird in video games. From A Short Hike to The Falconeer, Untitled Goose Game and beyond, we've played as all manner of avian adventurers and winged warriors over the last few years, their stories endowing the feathery fellows with a level of infamy that Falco could have only dreamed of back in the days of Star Fox 64.
Death's Door is the next title to continue that trend, with developer Acid Nerve's follow-up to 2015 action-adventure hit Titan Souls placing you in the webbed feet of one of the most besmirched species in the bird family tree; the common crow. Jumping off their folkloric association with death and disease, Death's Door depicts its playable protagonist as a reaper of souls, yet one who sports the battle prowess and armoury of a true action hero.
"These crows are employed by an organisation to go and collect the souls of the dead," explains Acid Nerve's lead programmer Mark Foster. "You're in a world where people don't naturally die anymore. So you get assigned a soul to go and reap at the start of the game, but it goes wrong, and someone steals it from you. These crows are kind of immortal, that's their reward for employment, but if they don't finish that task, they lose that immortality. So you've got to go and get this soul back in order to carry on living."
Coming off of the back of Titan Souls, and that game's immensely positive reception, Acid Nerve knew that it had earned the opportunity to aim even higher with Death's Door, as Foster explains: "We wanted to try and do something a bit more fleshed out in the vein of Zelda, using that formula of sword based and melee combat with ranged stuff in and upgrades... the full kind of game package that we didn't get to really play around with in Titan Souls."
"We wanted to use that foundation to make something that was closer to what our dream game would be," concurs producer David Fenn, who points to Dark Souls and Studio Ghibli as two touchstones for the team as it began to conceptualise the foundations of Death's Door.
Anyone who's played Titan Souls will thus find familiar echoes in the rhythms and stylings of Death Door's top-down, action-RPG combat, but you should expect a much more sophisticated and customisable experience this time around. That's not to say that Death's Door won't be challenging, but that there will be a wider range of options available to you in battle, including magical powers, which makes for a more accessible experience.
"Titan Souls was really punishing and difficult," says Foster. "This is still a challenge, for sure, and I think the fans of Titan Souls will be really into this game, but it isn't as brutal or as black and white. It's certainly still an intense and fast paced game where you will have to be paying attention the whole time, but you've got health, you've got upgrades…. so people can have more flexibility to play their own way."
"If you hit a wall, then you have options," adds Fenn. "You can go and explore more and get more prepared for each fight, which I wouldn't say is something that we regretted not having in Titan Souls, but we wanted a different approach this time around. As much as we love that kind of refined approach to indie design – where you're very minimal and focused – there's just something about putting more into it; not trying to tell a story without words, but a proper story without the need for vague metaphors!"
In what also feels like a throwback to its predecessor, Death's Door will challenge your crow with a pantheon of colossal titans to track down and conquer over the course of their journey, with each boss wrapped up in its own story, setting, and character arc. The new trailer from today's ID@Xbox event revealed a few of these tyrants, from a living castle to a pogo-mounted frog, showcasing them as a highlight of the game's Escher-esque visuals and creative gameplay, not to mention the ultimate test of your skills in combat.
Speaking of Xbox, Death's Door will be a console exclusive to the Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S when it releases this Summer (it's also coming to PC), and while Acid Nerve isn't targeting the game to be a next-gen showcase, Fenn describes the new consoles' capacity to get it running in 4K at 60 frames-per-second as a "big advantage that we're most excited about".
"Microsoft has been hands off, but very supportive in that regard," he tells me. "They just expressed a really strong early interest when we showed them the game a year or so ago. As an indie, you want that kind of backing, so we ended up sending them a bunch more stuff and made it official from there."
It's easy to understand why Microsoft showed early interest. Fenn and Foster may not have consciously developed its latest project as a spiritual successor to Titan Souls, but the duo's clear commitment to evolve that game's foundations for something richer yet no less enchanting suggests Death's Door could be something very special indeed. If you're looking for your next Xbox indie to wind down the evenings this Summer, the studio's tale of a little crow recovering a stolen soul might just be it.