Death’s Door is a charming, whimsical examination of death itself, purpose, and all things fantastical. In the game’s world, crows experience a hard graft by reaping souls and pushing pencils in a bleak, dreary office. It’s Always Sunny byline reference aside, I’ve been long excited to go hands-on with Death’s Door since getting to chat with Acid Nerve about it a few months ago.
The game opens on another workday for our hero crow as he punches the time clock on his nine-to-five, only to let a prized soul slip through his grasp. With his mark in the wild, he’s forced to venture out beyond the Hall of Doors, where his office work is often confined to, into a truly quaint world that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Studio Ghibli production. The demo’s generous three-hour build let me explore a few sizable areas, including the Ceramic Palace, home to the Witch of Urns. From her bulbous nose to her peevish disposition, she almost feels like a homage to Howl’s Moving Castle’s sympathetic antagonist The Witch of the Wastes.
There are hints of it throughout the build, but I expect Death’s Door’s world to unspool itself in a modular fashion, impacted in part by the player’s progression and learned skills. It’s a linear adventure that encourages straying from the main path in search of secrets and oddities, of which this demo served up plenty. From tucked-away nooks cleverly obscured by the game’s isometric geometry to environmental puzzles that put into practice all of the tricks you’ve picked up.
Though there are hints at its predecessor in there, Death’s Door is a bit of a departure from Acid Nerve’s first title, Titan Souls. It has the fast, punishing combat of a Hades with a Legend of Zelda overworld, the world-building of a Soulslike, and the dry humour found in something like Fable. It’s clever, wildly imaginative and, although I’ve only made it through the aforementioned Ceramic Palace, which is absurd and engrossing on its own, I can’t wait to see what other weird peculiarities await. Based on this build’s length and the team’s confirmation from our chat that Death’s Door is roughly ten hours long, I expect I’ve seen about a third of the game.
I’m sure our crow’s powers extend far and beyond what’s on offer in Death’s Door’s trial, the tools we do get to use are varied and amusing. His base weapon, the hero’s sword, might be a cliched staple of adventure gaming but it definitely gets the job done here and acts as a brutish foil to the crow’s magical aptitude, the earliest form of which is fireballs. The emergence of these abilities paves the way for plenty of new opportunities, in both combat and exploration as the fireballs can burn away cobwebs that once obscured ladders, as well as light pyres that often trigger once-unpassable gates. With doors and the use of them being a written-in part of the game’s world and the crow’s line of work, I like that they’re used as milestones and checkpoints. Their frequency near tougher spots act as a counter-balance for the game’s trickier combat, it’s still something to overcome but it remains accessible.
Death’s Door also has lite-roleplaying aspects such as limited stat boosts you’re able to buy with the souls collected throughout the world. It’s probably the one facet of the game that feels undercooked and a little tacked on. I feel the game could easily succeed on combat and setting alone, so to pad it out with the stat-grind feels at odds with everything the game’s doing right.
For those who are keen on an extra challenge, there’s a discarded umbrella in the Hall of Doors that you’re able to carry as a weapon. When we spoke, the team confirmed that there’ll be an achievement for scrapping through the entirety of Death’s Door killing only with the parasol like a crazed Mary Poppins. Superkillerfragilisticexpialidocious, indeed.
While Death’s Door is certainly engaging from a mechanics standpoint, the real star of the title is its tremendous, surreal art direction. I particularly love how the crow’s monotonous and monochrome office space is juxtaposed against the vivid overworld that awaits through the doors. One particular area that looks great is inside the Ceramic Palace, home to the Witch of Urns and a winding, sprawling labyrinth of marble surfaces that all reflect with arresting detail. An enormous furnace full of pistons lies beneath the furnace and signals a great commitment from the developer to keep mixing up the world’s districts, I definitely hope that keeps up throughout the entirety of Death’s Door.
Similarly, the game’s music is magnificent. Although it’s often rather subdued and has a reserved sadness that reminded me a lot of Gareth Coker’s work in the Ori games, it can really get going during the bigger-scale fights, both boss and otherwise. There’s a particular theme which I suspect will be called ‘Avarice’ to match the title-card of the level, it’s a bop that I was pleased to hear on repeat after each failure. Unlike a lot of scores in recent years that have turned to synth and electronica, Death’s Door seems to rely largely on the piano which comes as a refreshing change of pace.
So far, and I say that after three glorious hours with Death’s Door, I’m really excited at where this game’s headed. There’s a really rich and original world to soak up here and it’s not at all the follow-up to Titan Souls anyone would expect as this charming tale of a soul-reaping crow is sure to win hearts come launch.
Death’s Door releases for PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S on July 20.