Death. It’s the universal constant that unites us all. Even more so in the world of video games where ending life is generally our main interaction with the virtual worlds that we inhabit.
In Death’s Door, our role as bringer of death is made literal. In this world, the task of introducing souls to their maker is carried out by crows, known as reapers. You play as one of these reapers, exploring lands as you hunt down a soul that got away.
Developers Acid Nerve, follow up there 2015 game Titan Souls, with a game that can be said to also be heavily inspired by Dark Souls. These comparisons only really feel particularly surface level deep. For the former, your character does collect souls as part of their job and we have doors for returning to a hub world that act like the bonfires of Lothric, but the comparison can really end there. Instead, Acid Nerve have created a game that should be talked about in its own rights and celebrated for its excellent, unique systems.
Played from an isometric-like angle, Death’s Door has you controlling your crow around this unusual world. Exploration of this world is key to progression, but lets first take a look at the combat. The elements here are quite simple. You have your standard attack button for your melee weapon, which can be tapped a couple of times to have a chain attack. There is also a heavy attack that you can charge up for a second or two. This can also be mixed in with a roll. There are only 5 different weapons to be found around the place (and one of those is a bit of meme weapon that is only there to give the most masochists of players an extra bit of a challenge).
As well as your melee weapons, you also collect ranged spells as you progress through the game. These add a little bit of spice to the combat, allowing you to back off and throw a few fireballs after your pursing foes. In a twist as elegant as the health regen from quickly counter attacking in Bloodborne, your ammo for these spells can be regained from attacking enemies and destructible environment pieces, such as pots. This gives a nice dynamic feel to the battling, as it forces you to confront enemies up close rather than always relying on your ranged abilities. Dashing in for a couple of hits as you are dangerously low on health is a thrill that comes unexpectedly from the outwardly simple combat mechanics that you might first assume. That dash (or, more accurately, roll) also comes in handy as you dodge out of the way of the enemy attacks. All of this combines into a surprisingly hectic combat system that is constantly exciting to play with.
Helping to keep this system fresh, Acid Nerve have done an excellent job of creating a variety of enemies for you to battle against, each requiring quite a different approach to fighting. Some enemies might have a long noticeable tell for a big leap attack that will come seemingly out of nowhere if you aren’t paying attention; others might fire a projectile at you that you can slash at to reflect back at them or other enemies.
Although not a hugely long game, there is a big amount of variety in the different encounters that you will be running into, making each new area a moment of anticipation as you wait to see what new threats you will be encountering. That is before you even have to deal with the great souls that you are needing to reap. These are the bosses for each of the areas and are excellently designed battles. Such as your first real boss fight, with a grannie that is obsessed with pots, who at one stage will jump into a pot and spin round shooting out projectiles at you, almost as if you have slipped into a bullet hell fight. I won’t go into details of the other fights to avoid spoiling any more, but these boss encounters are the highlight of the game. In what is often a rarity in gaming, even the final boss feels special, challenging and engaging.
It is with the exploration though that you will find yourself spending most of your time. The world that is presented in Death’s Door is tightly packed interweaved collection of paths, creating a sense of scope through its excellent design. You will venture out along a path traveling quite some distance, only to find a new opening that brings you right back to the checkpoint you started at. As well as giving you that satisfying relief of reaching safety again, it also removes much of the frustration that death will bring you, as the checkpoint distance ends up being not too far. On occasion, you may find that you have to repeat a section, but it is rare for this to be any more extensive than a couple of minutes.
There is also plenty of secrets to unearth as you go on your quests. These can offer up some shrines that will give extra life or spell power, new weapons and upgrades to your spells or just simply some Shiny Things to add to your collection, rather aptly for a crow. It is a joy to unearth the little puzzles that make up these moments, although they are mostly quite straightforward. Sometimes these might rely on your spells that you unlock, often needing you to return to areas, in a classic Metroidvania style. This is where the game stumbles somewhat in its final moments, as there is no map and little indication as to how many secrets you might have missed in each area. As the final spell unlock is often the most important for reaching hard to get to places, the sense of aimlessness that accompanies having to go back to some of these areas that you went to right at the start of the game is disappointing. However, it is a testament to the game and the world that I was encouraged to do that, eager to find each of the hidden secrets. In the end, I didn’t actually achieve that, with my save file saying I had completed almost 90% of the game. I was still missing a few Shiny Things, 1 shrine, a couple of upgrades, a whole weapon and plant pots.
Oh yes, plant pots, something I have yet to mention and might seem to some like quite divisive bit of design. As you travel around the world, you will find seeds to collect. You will also find empty plant pots for you to place these seeds into, where they will quickly transform into a shining plant. These become your means of healing. Your only means, in fact. Using the fully bloomed plant will turn it into a shrivelled-up thing that will only comeback when you either die or return to the hub world.
This is one of the quite few design choices that lends credence to the idea that this is very much a Souls-like and that it will also offer up the brutal challenge that puts many people of that series and the ones that look to ape it. Do not fear though. You will find that you have an abundance of these seeds, particularly if you put some thought into whether you really need to plant one at every pot you come across.
The difficulty in general is actually very nicely balanced and is quite a far cry from the ones you will find in From Software’s games. That isn’t to say that it is a cakewalk of a game, but I found it was just tricky enough to require concentration, but not so difficult that I was required to repeat areas over and over again. A couple of the later bosses did take a few attempts, but checkpoints were located very nearby and the animations for the bosses was so good that I didn’t mind getting a chance to see them a few times. Plus, death is greeted with a gigantic “DEATH” splashed across the screen that comes across more whimsical than frustrating (that gag also has a great pay off towards the end of the game). For those that are looking at screenshots, thinking that they want to see the world, but worried by the continual comparisons with the Dark Souls series, really should not be concerned and I would urge you to give it a try. Equally, I would say to those that are missing their dom and in need of a gruelling slog through pain and misery, tamper those expectations somewhat and enjoy the game and its world for what it is.
And it is a very enjoyable world to just soak in. Acid Nerve have created a place that is beautiful to look and has quite a selection of characters to meet, often crossing into either the humorous or surreal. Take the chap that has a pot for a head. What else are you going to call him but Pothead? Then there is a barman that for some reason has an octopus strapped to him that he seems to think is a backpack. It is perhaps a shame that most of these characters aren’t expanded upon a little more, although some do have further quests to find if you explore around enough. This slight lack of time with characters is particularly true for the other crows and it would be nice if they could have had a bit more involvement, as well as more details on the work that they all do. Again though, some of this is most likely explored in secrets and you may get more out of the game on those accounts than I did.
That is a minor quibble though and the focus here is a worthwhile consolation for not trying to expand these areas and ending up with something that outstays its welcome. At around about 8-10 hours, Death’s Door is just the right length, in that it left me wanting more but not to the extent that I felt short changed. In a time when everything seems to feel the need to pad itself out with dozens upon dozens of hours, this feels tightly made. Perhaps I could have done with another great soul to collect, but if that would have been at the expense of polish elsewhere than it is best left out. Acid Nerve have done an incredible job with their second game. Although there are certainly some similarities between this and their previous game, Titan Souls, Death’s Door shows a level of craft that far outweighs that game, exceling in all areas and not just showing some smart design. This is a cracking achievement and I hope that it gets the attention that it deserves.