The Little Engine That Could.
Leave it to Devolver Digital to publish a gem like Death’s Door with minimal marketing behind it even though they knew it was going to be a classic. The almost stealth release of Death’s Door was on brand for a publisher that just gets the gaming community, the easiest examples (besides their games of course) being their E3 presentations consistently being singled out for praise in 2017, 2018, 2019 & 2020, the E3 presentations are so good, they’ve become a Saga that people are anticipating on an annual basis. So yes, it seems apropos that they be the ones to bring us a game that is unexpectedly special to reflect Devolver Digital itself.
Ever wanted to be the Grim Reaper? Literally reaping souls into the hereafter? Then Death’s Door is the game for you. Except you’re a crow and not a humanoid skeleton. The basic premise for Deaths Door is that you’re a crow harvesting souls for the Reaping Commission, you’re given an assignment to reap a strong monster that’s refusing to accept that it’s time is up in the living world. Things don’t go as planned and an interesting tale revolving around exceptional battle mechanics and the cycle of life unfolds.
Death’s Door is a top sown action adventure game, but that’s not all it brings to the table. There are togue-like dungeons with puzzles and secrets galore to be discovered. Combat is as fast as the player is willing to make it, this is due to the choice of weaponry at the players’ disposal. One can mainly be a melee focused crow which requires fast reflexes to dodge incoming projectiles and attacks or the player could opt for a safer and methodical approach with the ranged weapon (Crossbow, Fireball etc.). But there is a clever catch to the ranged attacks, they deplete after use and the only way to refill the ranged attack bar is to do damage to enemies (destructible objects) nearby so it’s a clever way to keep the player in the thick of the action instead of just chucking arrows from long range.
The upgrade system is typical of what is seen in games similar to Death’s Door, increased range, higher damage for melee attacks, higher damage for ranged attacks etc. Unfortunately, the way these upgrades are dished out is not near good enough, first off it has to be said that each upgrade has little impact on gameplay so most of the early upgrading feels like investing in futures, you can’t feel the upgrade immediately after purchase but the description of the upgrade in the shop makes it so you imagine how good it will be when it’s maxed out. It also doesn’t help that the upgrades get progressively more expensive the more you upgrade and the amount of souls (currency used to upgrade) available in the remains scarce in each dungeon. Truth is, when any one of the four abilities is maxed out, that’s when the player gets the bang for their buck, until then, patience and grinding are the key words.
“There was zero hype for this game, the marketing was almost non-existent but here it stands, a testament to simplicity and precision.”
The boss fights scream quantity over quality, even though from my experience, the first boss fight (The Guardian of the Door) was the toughest in the entire game, probably because I was learning the main tactic to defeating every single boss in this game: patience, patience and more patience. The reason patience is such an important skill in Death’s Door is because of the health system, instead of having a regular bar like most games, you have a hit counter in Death’s Door, meaning you may only take 4 hits total (the number may be upgraded during your play through) in a fight and there is nothing resembling an Estus Flask so mid-battle refills are unavailable. This is a refreshing change to the tried and tested hit bar and mid-battle refills, it forces the player to consider every attack they make and how much they are willing to risk just to get a hit in instead of waiting for the next opening.
Map and level design are one of the glaring weaknesses of Death’s Door. First off, there is no map, this might seem like a small gripe considering the apparent scale of the game but given the fact that backtracking is a necessity for proper progression in the game (as the player earns new powers, they gain access to new areas for example the bomb spell blows though walls revealing new areas) the lack of a map makes backtracking a tedious affair of trial and error exploration instead of movement with purpose. As for the level design, it’s not the variety of objects or enemies that is lacking, it’s the samey look of the dungeons. I’m sure that all dungeons have to look similar to fulfil the stereotypical look of a dungeon, but in Death’s Door it seems that all that was done to differentiate the dungeons in the different realms was to give them a different colour palette.
The art style in Death’s Door is definitely stylised to look something similar to Zelda but with a touch of claymation instead of the anime and cartoon mix seen in most Zelda titles. And the way the characters move and coupled with the camera angle makes the player feel like they are playing with action figures, except these ones fight back.
Music as one would expect is very Zelda-like, in that it seems to follow the players activities instead of being level based. So if the player is having a relaxed stroll exploring a level then the music will slow down to fit the activity, and when in boss battles the more up tempo melodies are introduced. The main theme Death’s Door stood out for its obvious grandiose glute, horn and drums mixture, the player cannot help but feel like something big is happening when it starts crowing in the middle of a boss fight. Meanwhile Hall Of Doors with its solitary piano communicates the sombre, lonely and sad job a reaper has while also helping the player relax from all the fighting in the other realms. All in all, it’s a good Soundtrack and there a few gems that David Fen has cooked up for those who enjoy a good OST.
In Summary, if there was an annual award for a game that embodies the spirit of The Little Engine That Could, Death’s Door would win it in 2021. There was zero hype for this game, the marketing was almost non-existent but here it stands, a testament to simplicity and precision. It isn’t the first to implement the mechanics it has brought forth gameplay-wise but like Ghost of Tsushima, Spec Ops: The Line and others like it, Death’s Door has hit the bullseye on all the things that make a game in its genre great. And what a great game it is.