The strains of melancholic piano and a black and white vista certainly set Death’s Door off in an emphatically atmospheric manner. This is a visually arresting action-adventure by way of classic Zelda with a dash of Dark Souls. It’s also a masterclass in modern indie game design.
You’re a Reaper: a crow that collects the souls of spirits and creatures alike. Employed by the Reaping Commission, who reside in an eerie film-noir headquarters, you’re immediately sent off on a mission by Chandler the Handler. However, as you complete the job of taking down a demonic forest spirit, you’re suddenly attacked by an unknown assailant who makes off with the soul, leaving a door open to a forbidden area. Of course, you follow them through it.
Soon enough you encounter Grey Crow – an elderly ex-Reaper – and find the titular Death’s Door, which he was hoping to find a way through by using the stolen soul. Since that hasn’t worked, he proposes that if you find enough souls then you might be able to open Death’s Door instead. Since you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be, you’ve got very little choice either way.
From here, the world and its story open up bit by bit. There’s some Zelda-esque light puzzling action, with beacons to light and urns to smash, while the combat that intersperses the exploration and storytelling is taut and justly punishing.
You’re initially equipped with a glowing red sword – I spent far too long trying to work out how a crow might hold a sword. You also have a magic bow that you can replenish through chopping mushrooms or smashing vases so I quickly gave up on making head nor tail of the game’s loogic.
Your equipment expands in a tried and tested, hookshot-finding manner, but it’s your dodge that’s your most important tool. If you play games like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter or Strength of the Sword then you’ll appreciate the tightrope between smashing your opponents and avoiding incoming damage. This isn’t a game where you can just mash the buttons. You have to have a healthy respect for your opponents or they’ll dismantle you in seconds.
It’s not insurmountable though, and there’s fairness here that I personally find lacking in Dark Souls, even in some of its characterful bosses. It’s closer to the Zelda series in terms of difficulty and feel, and if you have younger children in your household they might be taken in by Death’s Door’s charms.
Death’s Door looks and sounds beautiful. The gentle soundtrack belies the heated moments of combat, and the diorama-esque landscape is begging for exploration. You’ll find little secrets in clever corners, and the discovery and subsequent solving of their puzzles will leave a broad smile on your face.
There’s some lovely character design at work here too, from your beak-face Reaper through a menagerie of amusing fantastical folk. My favourite remained Pothead, a man whose head has been turned into a fire pit with a pot of soup in it. The soup leaks out when he bows.
He’s been cursed by the Urn Witch, an imposingly proportioned woman with a propensity for porcelain. She appears every so often to stare at you as you wreck her mansion, and she’s creepier than most of the characters we’ve seen in the recent Resident Evil games. Genuinely.
Flow is so important in gaming, and Death’s Door flows really beautifully. The incremental expansion of areas you can access sits perfectly with the timely increase in challenge. That’s reflected in the steady improvement of your abilities as you become stronger, faster and more powerful. You’ll find yourself playing just that little bit more, staying up just that little bit later. It’s a resounding win for a small indie team.
It may owe a great debt to the Zelda series, but then few action-adventures can escape from Link’s indomitable influence. If you’ve recently played the remake of Link’s Awakening then it’s easier to see the older strain of the series at work. That said, Death’s Door brings a thoroughly different, and modern, vision to these genre tropes.