In videogames, “less is more” is an interesting concept. Ours is a medium where you can fill interactive spaces with just about anything. And with an obvious design goal being to keep us glued to activities for as long as possible, the temptation to overindulge in collectibles and activities; areas to discover and explore, and introduce new characters and carrot progression and… well, everything damn else
, can all be overwhelming for designer and player alike, if not handled properly.
Of course, the type of game you create and hand over to a player has a large say in the aforementioned. Which brings me to Death’s Door
-- an adventure-action outing (deliberately in that order) that could have gone down a path of over encumbering the player given its narrative setup, which sees a crow (first and foremost one of nature’s great
collectors) on a journey to gather souls. In fact, it’s their job within the context of Death’s Door to just collect
, and the game presents us with many gated areas in a surprisingly open game-world to explore and uncover myriad mysteries within. And in ideation of that, the opportunities for shiny things and the like are terrifically rife.
It’s interesting then that UK
-based developer, Acid Nerve
, with all of the above, has served up a game that is as lite-on as needed where collectibles and ‘things’ are concerned. In fact, what’s delivered here is about as perfect a balance as you’ll ever find for a game of this nature. It’s one of its shining lights, to kickstart the crow OCD shiny things theme, and holds you in good stead as the player -- or potential player -- in understanding just what you’re in store for. That is a measured game of exploration and combat, lite character progression and a narrative pacing for the ages.
In my hands-on video preview
of Death’s Door I referred to it as a “Zelda
-like” experience, and that description remains true. There are also very, very, very small “Souls
-like” attributes that exist here, largely where combat and your evade and timed actions while fighting mobs, sub bosses and bosses is concerned, but in name-dropping like this, I’m doing Acid Nerve a disservice. Death’s Door takes elements from other titles and genres, as many games and developers do, but largely what’s borrowed is entirely rewritten. It’s also never glaring (aside from a few very obvious Nintendo
design nods), and so the end result is an experience that feels whole and homogenous, and entirely new in the lit videogame pantheon.
"Which causes you to follow the thief into a different world where you learn other souls have been living past their time. It’s unnatural, you see, and that has manifested them grotesque and menacing...”
So what’s the what? Well, you play as a little crow -- a Reaper reaping souls for the Reaping Commission. A bureaucratic faction of the afterlife that is headed up by a Bezos
-type boss rarely seen, and certainly out of touch with his workers. In this world, which is nosingly black and white, you gain a door to travel through to collect your allotted soul or souls. However, in the instance that kicks things off proper for Death’s Door, your soul is stolen, which causes you to follow the thief into a different world where you learn other souls have been living past their time. It’s unnatural, you see, and that has manifested them grotesque and menacing. And so an entirely new mystery unfolds where you learn your place of work and the Bezos you never see alongside other forces, have conspired in some fashion, causing potentially irreparable damage to the balance of life and death itself.
This is, for all intents and purposes, above your pay grade.
Like many games -- Zelda adventures included -- story here isn’t the fore of things (though what’s there is still very cool). Rather, it’s a contextual beast aligned to prompt and prod you in the direction of artfully-designed worlds with puzzles and map construction that is, honestly, surprisingly
good. The game is presented in an isometric diorama way, which has allowed Acid Nerve to play with the game’s seemingly ‘fixed’ camera position, hiding numerous paths and secrets. Often these hidden spaces are tied to character progression, the thing here, however, is that progression isn’t wholly needed. You’ll want it, absolutely, but you can onebro(ish) the game if you like. There’s even a 100G Achievement tied to playing through the whole thing with the umbrella found in the Reaping Commission Headquarters at the start, as your
soul weapon (a feat I intend to attempt next).
"Once you have all of these (valued at about 50% of completion), the full game opens up and there’s basically no gating the player lest you’re blocked or stumped by puzzles...”
Like the oft-mentioned Zelda series, Death’s Door requires you collect four main progression tools -- Your Bow, Fire Magic, Bombs and lastly, the Hookshot. Once you have all of these (valued at about 50% of completion), the full game opens up and there’s basically no gating the player lest you’re blocked or stumped by puzzles. Enemies obviously scale in challenge the more kitted out you are, but you have the option to upgrade four stats in Strength, Dexterity, Haste and Magic with five slots in each, and all costing at a sliding scale in the game’s collection economy -- souls. And the thing with this side of the game is that while you *could* farm them, doing so would take forever, but the game’s gradual climb to challenge is one that keeps your feather wallet full enough to always be considering your next upgrade.
That being said, one of the things with Death’s Door is that it’s not particularly difficult. At certain dungeon points, and in numerous parts of the world, you’ll face swarms of enemies, and all of varying types, that you need to navigate with your accrued abilities, basic guile and some tenacity. Among these you’ll find frustrating bottlenecks, and often far away from your respawn point, which makes the trek back to finish them all the more annoying. In fact, if I had to throw any negatives at Death’s Door it would be in the checkpoint setup and in the game’s lack of a map. I get the design decision behind not using a map, but it’s the sort of game you can leave for a bit and come back to, only to feel lost in terms of where to head next.
"An optional map would have been a good addition, if only to know where you’ve already been versus where you’re going next...”
That too is an issue. You might beat a boss after a lengthy battle and feel like you’ve really gotten somewhere, even earning a progression item, but to no fanfare. There’s no direct call to head to somewhere else next, and while that’s refreshing, I can also see it tripping up some players. An optional map would have been a good addition, if only to know where you’ve already been versus where you’re going next, and a bit more of a marker on progression when you’ve bested one of the game’s key beats.
But those are not overly glaring and even come down to personal preference, everything else is absolutely spot-on. And the game’s amazing enemy design, its art and its wonderful cast of characters, from your fellow Reapers fighting the good work fight right through to Jefferson, the totally functioning and alive cadaver that is not at all being controlled by the squid-shaped (and very animated) backpack he’s wearing. (His strange soup is delicious though.) All of them are just warming and a joy to engage. And while the Nintendo and Zelda stuff is very real, there’s a maturity in tone to Death’s Door that belies its influence. You could definitely still play this with your kids, but I wouldn’t say it’s a kids game.
And as the door closes on the full Death’s Door experience, I’m not at all shy to say this is one of the best games I’ve not only played this year, but in the past number of years. It is stylish and polished to a fault, paced to utter perfection and just oozes confidence from the upstart two-person team at Acid Nerve. I sincerely hope this is a franchise in waiting, because if it’s not, I’m coming for you, Devolver Digital.
One of the year’s best.