by John Rogers
Death is a serious business for the reaper crows of Death’s Door. When a fledgling reaper loses its allotted soul, it leads to a very bird day at the office.
Death’s Door is a charming isometric adventure that begins when our protagonist – a delightfully animated sword-wielding crow – arrives to work one morning at the stuffy, grey offices of the Bureau of Death. But this day proves to be anything but normal when a humdrum spirit-reaping field mission goes awry. At the garden of spirits, your allotted soul is whisked away by a mysterious thief.
Back at the office, you’re ridiculed for this professional faux-pas, and tasked with tracking the stolen soul down. The trail leads to a mysterious sealed-off realm, where giant beings evade the inevitable through nefarious means, and an intriguing adventure begins.
This engaging premise kicks off a story that’s packed with fun dialogue, exploration, hack ‘n’ slash combat, and plenty of puzzles and secrets. You’ll pass through a series of evocative environments, from the creepy stillness of the Ceramic Manor, to the colourful painted walkways of the Sunken Fortress, to a cheery forest village, and the chilly halls of the bureau itself. They’re all painstakingly rendered in a clean and uncluttered visual style, but nevertheless packed with the kind of details that give a tangible and grounded sense of place.
Traversing this strange limbo entails regular battles. The game’s combat is solid, if unremarkable; a simplistic take on the strike-and-dodge wave-based fights of Hyper Light Drifter. There are several interesting weapons that feel too similar to weild, and the hard-earned power-ups are incremental stat buffs that do little to add variety.
The game is generally polished, but has other issues, stemming largely from design choices. There are some unwelcome difficulty spikes, including two frustrating late-game bosses that sour the experience towards its finale. Sometimes, the isometric perspective can fool the eye, and you’ll find yourself jumping for a platform that turns out to be in the background.
Most pressingly, the game is crying out for a map. It’s a mind-boggling omission that leads to lots of schlepping around mazey dungeons looking for the way forward. In the lengthy post-game, finding secrets could have been a real pleasure – but without the aid of a map for more focussed play, it amounts to a tedious retread of each area.
These flaws are unfortunate, but they don’t sink the game. The lovely visuals, symphonic score, and engaging story carry the game along nicely. You’ll uncover how this world ended up in such dire straits, and meet some delightful characters. An amateur explorer called Barb The Bard will comically serenade you whenever you cross paths. You’ll be fed by a chef called Jefferson – a giant squid cosplaying as a human, for some reason. And then there’s the unfortunate Pothead, whose head has been turned into a pot of soup by the spooky Urn Witch, aka “Grandma”. This wonderful ensemble cast evokes the surreal fairytale melancholia of grand adventures such as Alice in Wonderland and Spirited Away.
Death’s Door is a lovely little game that’s more than the sum of its parts, somehow. With a couple of design tweaks it could have entered the pantheon of indie greats, but it’s still an easy game to recommend, warts and all. I loved my time in this still, gloomy world – and like many of the game’s oddball characters, I wasn’t ready to let go when the end did arrive.
The visuals are crisp, atmospheric and uncluttered, and the art style is enticing.
The orchestral music is fantastic throughout, from sad refrains to wistful shanties, and battle music that gets the pulse racing.
There’s a sense of pleasingly logical progression as you move through each area.
The setting, dialogue, and cast of memorable characters carry the story along.
The strike-and-dash combat is a little basic, with barely perceptible stat boosts and similar-feeling weapons that feel like a missed opportunity.
Where’s the map? This game desperately needs one. A jarring oversight.
The restart points are patchy, leading to some repetitive hikes back to the tougher mini-bosses and arena battles.
A handful of difficulty spikes feels out of tune with the main thrust of the game.
Final score: 7.5/10 Death’s Door is an accomplished, high-quality game that’s loaded with enough heart and charm to overcome a couple of unfortunate flaws. A firm recommendation.