The indie hack-and-slash action-adventure game Death’s Door is an experience about which I have a very mixed opinion. And in general, when I have a mixed opinion of a game and the bits I like are cleanly separable from the bits I don’t, I like to organize my review of it into a dedicated pro and con list.
Now, each of the previous three games I’ve covered with one of these ‘pro and con’ lists is a game I ended up recommending, for which I concluded that the good outweighs the bad (whether by a lot, like with Sekiro, or by a little, like with Crypt of the NecroDancer). This is the first time where that’s not quite the case. It is a close call, but I do think the bad slightly outweighs the good this time around. Nevertheless, I think you’ll initially be confused about me saying that, as I’ve got a lot of very nice things to say about Death’s Door.
Death’s Door Pro – The Visual Design:
The primary thing most people will notice when first encountering Death’s Door is its striking artstyle. The game sports an attractive combination of soft pastel colors; objects and environments with clean lines and edges; an aggressive depth of field effect blurring areas outside the immediate focus of the camera; and a mostly fixed isometric perspective.
The result of this mixture is a game whose levels look like lovingly assembled dioramas or playsets, in which the action of each fight or room plays out like a cartoon featurette. Splashes of bright color in the environments, and in the spells and weapons of your crow player-character, add satisfying contrast throughout.
And the devs were not afraid to make bold decisions which deviate from the diorama effect for added impact at times, as the interstitial offices in which death is suspended (yet adjudicated) are cast almost exclusively in grayscale—and some key arena or boss fights take place in spaces that are doused in darkness or even entirely blank.
The only uneven element of the visuals is the design of the characters. While the looks of the enemies and especially the bosses are great, with plenty of personality and clearly legible animations, the NPCs are less impressive. With just a couple exceptions, the various crows and door lords at the center of the game’s story are only minimally differentiated, and the designs of most more unique denizens, like the gravekeeper and the bard, are fairly forgettable. The obvious outlier among the NPCs, a design just as brilliant as the rest of the game’s visuals, is Jefferson—a fisherman’s corpse clumsily puppeteered by a culinarily gifted cephalopod.
Overall, it’s a gorgeous game. And its virtues don’t end there.
Death’s Door Pro – The Level Design:
In the prior section, I said that the levels of Death’s Door feel like lovingly assembled dioramas or playsets. Part of the reason they feel that way, however, has nothing to do the graphics—and everything to do with the intricate layouts of the individual zones.
Each area and dungeon loops back on itself repeatedly, using every inch of space and continually opening paths to or from its health refill spots and door-based checkpoints. There’s a really commendable density to most of the layouts, which makes its storybook world feel alive and practical.
It’s maybe a little too obsessive about having you open shortcut paths every couple of minutes, but with how assiduously Acid Nerve has layered their small dungeon maps over themselves, and how stingy they are with granting the player faster methods of ordinary traversal, backtracking would probably be frustrating and messy otherwise.
And the game’s three main dungeons have, in general, the vague structure of a Zelda dungeon. That is, partway through each of them, the player-character gains an ability which opens up previously closed paths. The actual puzzles leading up to and utilizing those spells will be covered a little later on with a different tone, but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. This section is just about the physical structure of the individual regions of the world, and I have very few complaints about that.
Death’s Door Pro – The Worldbuilding:
A group of sentient crows work for a lineage of portal makers in a cyclical extra-dimensional bureaucracy, collecting the souls of the living by assignment and accepting mortality for the duration of their tasks. You play as a crow who has lost one of their assigned souls, becoming trapped as a mortal being unless they can open a particularly stubborn door-portal with other souls.
If that sounds like a unique scenario, that’s because it is. The whole concept of the gameworld is a fun new take on a mythos of reapers, and it’s suited perfectly by the story conceit of the game’s primary bosses being beings that have evaded death (or operated outside of the purview of the avian warrior-bureaucrats) for an unnaturally long period of time.
Atmospherically, the game is at its best when it’s weird and somber. Unfortunately, there are some stupid jokes now and then that undercut the game’s atmosphere, like the security guard of the commission being a reference to the critically panned 2009 comedy film Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Comic relief is fine, but in a dark fantasy world comedy requires a light touch—and the game is undoubtedly a better experience when it’s taking itself seriously. On the plus side, the flat unfunny jokes and references like that are fairly rare and easy enough to ignore.
Alright, it’s a game that looks great, that has great levels, and that pulls you into some great worldbuilding. Sounds . . . great! So what’s the problem?
Context for Cons – The Genre:
I open this section with a question: what do all Metroid games, all Legend of Zelda games, and all Dark Souls games have in common? I’d argue that they are actually all members of a single genre of games.
As these franchises have risen to prominence, different groups of people have tried to name this genre after each of them. So, when games release that seem to mechanically resemble Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, folks call them Metroidvanias. When games release that seem to mechanically resemble A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time, folks call them Zelda clones. And when games release that seem to mechanically resemble Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, folks call them soulslikes. This genre isn’t exclusive, of course; all Metroid games are also platformers, and all Souls games are also RPGs.
Obviously the genre they share is more loosely defined than, say, first-person shooters or platformers—but with a little effort I think it could be described at least as coherently as what people call immersive sims or roguelites.
The defining feature of games in this genre is that they incorporate a mix of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving. They tend to take place in intricate, internally consistent, hand-crafted fantasy worlds; they tend to have challenging boss fights; they tend to use immersive environmental storytelling rather than extensive cutscenes or exchanges of dialogue; they tend to gate areas with unique combat scenarios or abilities rather than through generic collectibles, currency, or character levels; and they tend to incorporate nonlinear progression.
I’m not sure what I’d call this genre. Maybe something generic like ‘action-adventure games’ is workable? I’m open to suggestions. But at least for now, I think we can just keep using the phrases ‘metroidvania,’ ‘soulslike,’ and ‘Zelda clone’ . . . not because I really accept that those are three distinct genres—but rather because I think they point to different promising emphases such a game can have.
Each of those three types has exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving—but with a different focus. Metroidvanias prioritize the exploration, then the combat, then the puzzle-solving. Zelda clones, like every Zelda game apart from the first two and the last two, let puzzle-solving take the reigns, followed by exploration, and finally combat. And while the earliest Souls games had exploration and combat in almost equal measure, over time the term ‘soulslike’ has come to mean those that favor combat, followed by exploration, and with puzzle-solving bringing up the rear.
Now, obviously (given the timing of this tangent) I believe that Death’s Door is an entry in this genre. But which flavor? Metroidvania, Zelda clone, or soulslike? In other words, in which of the game’s three main mechanical attributes does it shine: exploration, puzzle-solving, or combat? Well, that’s the problem. I think I’d have to answer ‘D: None of the Above.’
Death’s Door Con – The Gameplay:
Death’s Door has exploration. It has puzzles. It has combat. But considering each mechanic in isolation reveals that attribute to be superficial or ill-considered.
Its exploration is minimal because the game is very linear. Each major section is gated by the ability unlocked in the prior section, and most of the substantial hidden segments require more than one of the unlockable abilities—effectively meaning that they too are gated into linearity, slotting in between the last unlock and the end of the game. Searching around the map for the next avenue of progress is a primary source of players of metroidvanias making discoveries big and small as their suite of abilities grows, so Death’s Door being locked down into such discrete chunks with such obvious signposting means that kind of exploration is absent. It’s made into an optional chore that is divorced from progress.
The feeling that it’s a chore is not helped by the fact that nearly the entire inventory of collectibles is divided between generic upgrade currency and one of a set of 24 shiny objects, roughly 80% of which serve no mechanical purpose whatsoever. And the exploratory aspect of the game is made all the worse by one particularly annoying choice the devs made, which was to lock a significant portion of the solutions to plainly visible puzzles behind beating the final boss of the game; time spent attempting to access any of the many salient elements gated by nightfall prior to beating the game is time purely wasted by the player.
So, what about combat then? Combat is theoretically where its emphasis lies—given that arena fights are plentiful, bosses are ‘dodge and punish’ challenges rather than puzzle challenges, and most of the abilities and usable items you find are improvements to combat prowess. Well, ‘improvements’ is a generous word: the five available weapons are extremely similar to each other; even the hammer still just does quick horizontal slashes as its normal attack. And as for the spells, three out of four are almost functionally interchangeable sources of ranged damage. More troublesome are the facts that, unfortunately, repetitive arena fights are overused, and, with the exception of a couple of late-game bosses, enemies are universally both too low in speed and too high in health. The foes attack in slow-motion when compared to the zippy movement and actions of the protagonist, and yet even relatively weak enemies being hit by late-game spell and weapon damage take several hits to fall.
As a result, the combat occupies this strange space where, because of its pace, it’s likely to be too easy for most experienced players of games—but because of its duration and the inability to heal during it, it’s likely to be too difficult for most inexperienced players of games. In other words, players like myself will eventually be bored at the tedium of the slow, overly frequent arena combat encounters, whereas newer and younger players will eventually be frustrated at the inflexibility. And if combat is indeed the focus of the game, then its ‘true ending’ is a huge letdown, as all of its post-game content builds up to opening a door into what appears to be an arena—where you watch a cutscene and then get kicked out to the main menu.
Alright, so exploration is mostly relegated to using unlocks to access little resource caches between dungeons, and overworld combat slowly becomes more of an unlikable repetition than a pleasant challenge. But the same can be said about most Zelda games, so maybe it’s best viewed as a Zelda clone then? Sadly, no; the less said about the puzzle-solving in Death’s Door, the better. It’s hardly a puzzle to hit four objects to open a door, or to strike an armored boss in its unarmored back, or to throw a bomb at a wall with glowing cracks. And that’s really all there is in any of its main dungeons, both before and after gaining each dungeon’s unique ability. In other words, the most basic and least interesting types of puzzles that typically crop up in Zelda are the only puzzles here. There are a couple riddles tucked away to be solved, but the vast majority of the game avoids asking the player to think.
None of its mechanics feel like they were a singular priority or focus for the developers. If that feeling is wrong and there was such a focus during development, hopefully it was the combat since it dominates most of the game and it’s at least conceivable that there is some small subset of players (with both a lot of patience and only moderate experience in games) for whom it would be satisfactorily balanced. But none of the three are great.
At the end of the day, this is why I prefer the studio’s prior game, Titan Souls. Titan Souls isn’t really in this genre we’ve been discussing, of course. But it does feel like it has a hook, a great mechanical system that serves as its focus. Even though it’s a much smaller game with slightly worse worldbuilding, somewhat less attractive visuals, and far simpler combat than Death’s Door, the hyper focus of Titan Souls on taking its barebones combat and fine-tuning every encounter around it means that it’s able to excel at that one task.
Now, a couple clarifications:
First, don’t mistake me saying that it doesn’t succeed as one of these established subgenres (metroidvania, soulslike, or Zelda clone) as me saying that it could only succeed by being a good example of one of those. It’s really only the underlying emphasized mechanics of each of those subgenres that matters here.
And second, the issue isn’t that a game in this style can’t possibly succeed while having a balanced mix of all three elements. There does seem to be a minor tension between combat and puzzle-solving as the primary method of progress in such a game—but there are some games, like Darksiders and Iconoclasts, that have done a passable job of walking the line. And arguably some of the more open ‘collect-a-thon’ games, like the original Jak & Daxter, are examples of successfully balancing these three attributes as well. The issue is rather that none of the three primary attributes we’ve been discussing are used well here.
Death’s Door isn’t a jack of all trades. It’s a jack of three trades. And yet it’s still a master of none.
Until I started thinking about it seriously, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t having an excellent time in Death’s Door. On paper, it seems like a home run for me: a game in one of my favorite genres (whatever you want to call it), with a unique world, well-designed dungeons, and a beautiful aesthetic. And at its best, like during my first glimpses of each new area or during the last few boss encounters, my boredom did abate and for a few minutes I was really having a good time. But that’s the minority of my time with it.
There’s ultimately just one con in my list, yet it’s an important and complex con: that the mechanical design of Death’s Door feels unfocused. It’s like a metroidvania designed by committee, or a soulslike designed by someone whose favorite part of Dark Souls is the set of doors that only open from one side, or a Zelda clone designed by someone whose favorite part of A Link to the Past is the overworld combat. In short, it’s an entry in its genre that’s lacking in all of the attributes that cause people to love games in its genre. It’s odd to see a successful indie game that has this particular mix of incredible aesthetics and lacklustre mechanics, as that’s usually the mix for AAA releases; popular indies more frequently have the opposite. It’s worth reiterating, though, that I hold a mixed opinion here; I do feel the bad outweighs the good, but only by a thin margin. There are plenty of similarly structured games that I would rate lower, such as Headlander, Dust, and Beatbuddy.
Still, I had this growing sense as the game progressed that at no point during development did the team behind it step back and take a moment to ensure that their mechanical decisions made sense and fit together. There is no better emblem of that sense than the fact that they have you play the entirety of Death’s Door as a crow, in a game all about gaining character abilities, and yet with no explanation you never gain the in-game ability to fly, glide, or even hop.
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