Death's Door Review
It's always a treat when a game that you had no real expectations for comes out of nowhere and leaves you with a strong impression. Though, looking back, it's more than a little odd I never had any real hype for Death's Door. I played the studio's previous work - Titan Souls - a few years back in a single sitting, and I immensely enjoyed what I played. Yet, for whatever reason, I never really kept up with what they were working on next. I guess I'll just blame the absolute avalanche of July releases this year for keeping me occupied with other games, like NEO: The World Ends With You, The Great Ace Attorney: Chronicles, and Fuga: Melodies of Steel. Even if in the end, I just was never paying attention to Death's Door until the early reviews came in.
Death's Door is an isometric action RPG, taking a healthy dose of inspiration from other titles- the most obvious of which being The Legend of Zelda. Games like that feel like they're a dime a dozen these days, but developer Acid Nerve has helped differentiate Death’s Door with its tight and engaging gameplay, solid level design, and an absolutely stunning aesthetic. The first thing that will inevitably stand out to players is both the gorgeous artstyle, as well as the captivating soundtrack by composer David Fenn. Really, if any singular part of Death's Door steals the show, it's the music. Fenn's compositions punctuate the game’s best moments, add a sense of urgency to the game's engagements, and offer the perfect haunting tone to compliment the game's myriad of locations.
Death's Door's gameplay, like previously stated, takes a lot of inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, but the way that its magic system works is more similar to Hollow Knight. Players have access to a relatively restricted moveset - a regular attack that can be chained together, a strong attack that must be charged up, and a dash attack that retains some of the strong attack’s strength without the need of a charge, albeit with the caveat that these can only be chained at the end of a dash. Across the world, and by solving puzzles, players can find a variety of alternate weapons for the main character - the Foretold Crow - to use, ranging from a joke Umbrella that acts akin to the game's "hard mode", to a hammer that can chain lightning to nearby enemies, daggers that offer a faster - yet weaker - means of attack, and one more in addition to the Crow's default sword. In addition to the Crow's melee weapon, players have access to 4 different "ranged" weapons that will require magic charges.
You'll initially only have access to a basic bow, but as you progress through the story you'll continue to unlock new ranged abilities for use in both combat and puzzle scenarios - a bomb, a hookshot, and a fireball. You gain access to a magic charge every time you land a hit on an opponent, giving players a healthy supply of ranged attacks while not allowing you to simply bombard every enemy in the game from range with impunity. Players will have to get up close and personal with enemies now and again if they want access to any of those additional abilities when they might need them most. It's a good thing this limitation exists, too, as I feel the combat might not have been enough to carry the game through its 8 to 10 hour runtime otherwise.
All in all, Death's Door never gives the player too much to deal with. Yet the way that the level design encompasses the Crow's abilities, whether it be on the critical path or when returning to an area you'd already completed, helps give the game's exploration a feeling of depth. Rarely does the game directly tell you where to go, or what to do - both to its benefit, as well as its detriment. I spent a healthy portion of the game wondering what power-up I'd acquire that would let me deal with the grates I'd seen dotted around the game's environment, before realizing that attacking while in mid-air would let me slam into them Super Mario Sunshine style, to explore a hidden path. That's something you can do from the moment you start the game, no power-ups required - but the game never tells you that it's possible to do so, and it's never really telegraphed in a way I'd say was particularly forgiving. I'm far from the only person I've seen running into this problem, either.
That small quibble aside, Death's Door's level design is almost always a high mark of the journey as a whole. You never feel like you're ever spending too long at any given area, rather you're given just enough time to get a feel for things and the new mechanics that it brings to the table before you're ferried off to somewhere new. Mechanics, whether they're tied to your abilities or come standard as part of an area's landmarks, never overstay their welcome. For the most part, secrets are hidden well - nothing where you'd need a definitive clue to discover them, but a friendly squid masquerading as a man might be willing to offer you a helping hand over a bowl of stew if you really need just that extra shove in the right direction.
When Death's Door is firing on all cylinders, it really all comes together in the way a great game should. Level design, visuals, music, and gameplay all coincide to grip you in a way that most games would kill for. Even the story, with its kitschy true ending, manages to stick the landing well enough - despite my own misgivings with the way things all wrap up. It's one of those games where I can't really point to anything specific about how I'd improve it, even if there are numerous small issues abound. Enemy designs are re-used quite a bit, but the game goes out of its way to theme enemies for the area in which you find them, even if they're fundamentally the same. Bosses are great, and I'd absolutely have loved more of them - but for the runtime the game offers, and the price the game asks, it's hard to really complain too much.
Death's Door is filled with charm, and the overall package is much more than the sum of its parts. July might've been a crowded month for game releases, but do yourself a favor - and don't skip on Death's Door