The Crow's fate hinges on Death's Door. Can you handle it?
Devolver Digital have certainly garnered a reputation for being one of the best indie videogame publishers in the business. With an eccentric approach to advertising incorporating comedy and satire, coupled with handpicked creative and often unusual games, Devolver have captured the attention of gamers from around the globe since their inception in 2009. And, like a fine wine or a delicious block of parmesan shaped into a game controller, they only seem to get better with age.
To add to their already vast library of published titles, launching today on PC/Steam is a brand new game by the name of Death's Door, an intriguing hack & slash following the tale of a soul-collecting crow set in a stylish yet gloomy world. Created by Acid Nerve, the small indie team responsible for Titan Souls, this immediately grabbed my attention thanks to its unique visual style and its avian cast of characters. Earlier this month I wrote an insight into the preview build (which some of this article will draw upon), but over the last couple days I sat down and completed the game in its entirety.
So what mysteries await behind Death's Door? Let me open the door a crack and dive into this full review...
It's no surprise that office work is often monotonous, and that's no exception for the Crow, who lives life by the clock, punching in on a daily basis and delivering the harvested souls of the deceased. Every day is much the same in the bleak and monochrome Department of Souls, where a murder of crows work tirelessly to harvest and transport the deceased souls of the world. This odd office operates under the power of a mysterious being known only as the Lord of Doors, the latest in a lineage of powerful lords who have harnessed the ability to create interdimensional doors and transport the souls of the dead.
But a bird has to make a living, and so he sets off on his usual daily task to collect the next assigned soul on the roster. However, this routine task doesn't quite go according to plan... Upon collecting the next assigned soul, the Crow is ambushed and the soul that required delivery is nowhere to be found. Returning to the office empty-handed (winged?), it's made apparent that the Crow's own soul may be in danger unless actions are taken to recover the lost soul. Venturing back into the bleak landscape to seek a solution, he just so happens to stumble upon...
Though inconveniently, the door is locked, and the key to opening it and retrieving the lost soul lies in the three Colossal Souls belonging to the Tyrants of the kingdom: a cursed witch, a mad king, and a vicious beast. Only by opening Death's Door may the Crow retrieve his lost soul and solve the mystery that lies beyond. So the Crow's journey begins...
The game takes place across a sprawling Kingdom that is accessed through doors departing the office-like hub world. By entering these doors, the Crow enters new locations full of souls ripe for the harvest. In design akin to Dark Souls, maps are vast and intertwined in clever ways, with shortcuts aplenty, clever use of vertical space, and secret locations that seamlessly link back to one another. The interconnectedness of each map is thrilling, and on numerous occasions left me wondering how exactly I ended up back where I began. Each of the 5 main areas is further divided into several smaller distinct locales and dungeons; each are fascinating and worth exploring every single corner.
Environmental puzzles will hinder the Crow's progress throughout these areas, and while most are simple, they are rewarding and offer more of a challenge when simultaneously trying to fend off hordes of enemies. Secrets also litter every location, which are cleverly hidden in plain sight. For example, navigating around a corner will consequently turn the entire world around you, and reveal objects that previously could not be seen. Exploration truly rewards curiosity, and observant players will have the chance to obtain unique collectibles, new weapons, and upgrades to help the Crow along the journey.
After exploring each main area, the map eventually branches off into smaller, more intricate locations that have the feeling of a "dungeon" reminiscent of earlier Zelda titles. Three main dungeons feature throughout the game, each themed around the overarching tyrants. The gameplay here is quite traditional: collect several keys, solve small puzzles in each room, fight challenging enemies, and collect the souls of four deceased crows to unlock a door and progress further. After unlocking these doors, the Crow will gain a unique ability, allowing access to deeper areas of the dungeon and then to the boss that awaits menacingly at the end. I couldn't help but be reminded of A Link to the Past or Minish Cap in this design, which is truly a compliment to the gameplay.
Once a new ability has been obtained, previous areas of the world will become accessible, which is a clever way to promote backtracking and replayability without making it seem tedious or forced upon the player. Exploration too is key! By returning and further exploring a location, the Crow may become more powerful, particularly through collecting bundles of souls or health/magic expansions that are hidden in bird-shaped shrines.
Harvesting souls is not without its dangers, and as such the Crow is equipped with weaponry to help on this treacherous quest. Five melee weapons in total can be unlocked, from swift daggers that suit those who prefer fast combat, to towering greatswords that swing slowly but with considerable range. Several subweapons too can be unlocked, starting with a bow and progressing towards more powerful options - these can eventually be enhanced to further devastate unsuspecting enemies.
Once accustomed to the combat, attacks can be chained together in swift movements, and when coupled with ranged attacks and well-timed dodges, become a fluid barrage that at times made me feel as if I was playing Hades again. Enemies are plentiful and pose quite a threat, especially when waves upon waves of foes begin spawning in enclosed spaces. Restoring health during combat is not an option either, as the only way to do so is by planting seeds at particular pots and then consuming the flower that sprouts from them. This means you're going to need to learn how to dodge; every enemy encounter must be done with caution to avoid losing health unnecessarily.
While there's no level system, the Crow may spend souls to upgrade the strength of attacks, the speed at which they can be performed, or other stat boosts that assist the Crow during combat. This is most pertinent when facing off against the formidable bosses that stand between the Crow and Death's Door. These boss fights are challenging, fast-paced, and will likely result in numerous retries and deaths. However, this is when the combat truly shines! All the techniques previously learned can be added together in these encounters to exploit each enemy's weakness. The satisfaction of collecting a Colossal Soul after an intense fight is unmatched.
Interestingly, the game's design and visual style seem somehow both charming and unnerving. The isometric view and intricate details create an illusion that allow the environments to appear like miniatures or scale models. The design and animations of the Crow are cute and cartoonish, often juxtaposing with the bleak surroundings. Enemies feature exaggerated grotesque appearances, and the design of some characters are just straight up hilarious, including a cast of characters whose heads have been replaced with pots, or a "human chef" who is basically just a corpse controlled by giant squid on his back.
It's a truly gorgeous game; eye-catching environments like detailed dioramas definitely had me pausing to appreciate the Crow's surroundings on numerous occasions. Every single location has a clever use of vertical space and uses this to its advantage with an emphasis on depth-of-field. There's a lot of attention to detail, and at times this is even incorporated into some puzzles, which will require you to closely analyse for hidden clues.
I'm a sucker for a good soundtrack. So how does Death's Door hold up? Well, the world of Death's Door is bleak, so too should be its music. Most of the early tracks have a certain sadness to them, with the majority featuring piano with light orchestration and ambient background effects. This obviously intensifies during enemy encounters or boss fights, becoming more frantic and fast-paced, but never seems to stray from an overall feeling of melancholy.
Music gains more depth with progression through the game, featuring more detailed tracks, orchestration, and on occasion even some jaunty tunes. Overall, the soundtrack is exceptional from what caressed my eardrums during the journey. I'm very much looking forward to the official release! My favourite track from the game plays during an isolated encampment, which is quietly contemplative through its use of soft flute and cello.
What surprised me most about Death's Door is its inclusion of comedy throughout the journey. For a topic as dark and macabre as death and reaping souls, there's an impressive amount of legitimately amusing humour. This is portrayed through its cast of colourful characters, most of whom are incredibly quirky and feature hilariously well-written dialogue. Arguably my favourite moments from the game are cameos from the bosses, who pop up during the dungeons to monitor the Crow's progress and crack some witty one-liners. Here are a few examples of the game's wonderful humour:
Outside of the main linear story, there are a few additional aspects of the game to keep completionists satisfied. Small trinkets can be collected and require the player to navigate obscure areas, solve optional puzzles, or complete combat trials to obtain these. Amusingly, the trinkets accumulate at the Crow's desk back in the office and these begin to pile up excessively to the point of becoming clutter. Though they serve no other significant purpose than a neat visual touch, many of the tasks required to collect them are reward enough, as they offer an added element of challenge to the rest of the game.
There is also some post-game content which I won't go into any detail on, but can be accessed once the main story has been completed fully. This is a nice touch for those wanting more from Death's Door, especially as many more locations can be explored completely with all items/abilities unlocked.
Few games can achieve world-building and gripping gameplay in an 8 - 10 hour experience quite like Death's Door. Through its unique story and characters, stunning presentation, clever exploration and thrilling intuitive combat, this is yet another superb indie game to add to Devolver's arsenal. The sheer quality of game produced by a small team like Acid Nerve is incredibly impressive and has me eager to see what they will create in the future. Fans of action/adventure RPGs would be foolish to pass by Death's Door, which is quite honestly one of the most polished games I've played so far this year. It's a game to die for.
So, why should you play it?
Entrancing world and story with an amusing cast of characters.
Fluid, responsive and enjoyable combat that never feels unfair.
Gorgeous visual style, particularly the design of environments.
Clever interlinking maps and dungeons.
Backtracking and exploration never feels forced.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Can be challenging at times, so may not suit all players.
Only available on PC and Xbox. Sorry Nintendo and Sony fans!
A review code on PC was provided for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com