Developer: Acid Nerve
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Isometric Action-Adventure
Platform: PlayStation 5
I have a special fondness for Crows, dear reader. They’re one of the smartest members of the animal kingdom, capable not only of using tools but also of forming social structures with other crows and developing recognition of and fondness for individual humans in the same way humans develop fondness for individual animals. That sense of inter-species kinship is probably why I found it so grimly humorous and relatable to see the corvid protagonist of Death’s Door caught up in the soulless (pun intended) bureaucracy of the Reaping Commission, stuck working a 9-to-5 grind for something that couldn’t care less about them.
In other words, Death’s Door is in some ways about crow capitalism, because if any species other than humans was going to get caught in that trap it would be crows.
The Basics: Death’s Door is an isometric action-adventure game in which you play as a crow working for the Reaping Commission and tasked with hunting down creatures whose souls have grown swollen and corrupted as a result of their living long past their natural lifespan. In many ways, it is similar to a smaller-scale classic Zelda title, with an overworld riddled with caves and other secrets to explore, three dungeons full of traps and puzzles, and boss fights in which the item you got from their dungeon is extremely useful for defeating them (though thanks to the particular nature of the game’s combat, not strictly necessary). As the player unlocks shortcuts and completes dungeons (or at least gets the items from them, as leaving them before actually fighting the boss is easy) more and more of the overworld opens up as you can remove the obstacles hindering your progression. Exploring is an absolute joy due to the simple-but-elegant design of the game world and varied visuals of the game’s different areas, and especially thanks to how easy it is to be on your way to one thing you do remember as being an obstacle you’d be able to remove now only to notice something else that makes you go “oh yeah, I forgot about that!” Sometimes finding a hidden spot will just give you souls for upgrading your crow, but just as often you’ll find a collectible (humorously referred to as “shiny things” by the game itself) which all have little text blurbs serving as extra lore, which made tracking them down a reward in and of itself.
The combat is also a lot of fun, especially once you get the hang of it and/or start getting more upgrade points in your various skills. It’s fairly standard hack-and-slash stuff, complete with an i-frame-having dodge roll, but the controls and general feel of it are delectably smooth. In addition to your crow’s melee weapon, they have access to a small variety of ranged spell attacks (which also happen to be the key “dungeon items”) that get recharged by landing melee hits. It creates a wonderful flow to the combat while still giving some freedom to the player to decide whether they want to focus on being up-close and personal, fighting from (relatively) afar, or taking a more balanced approach. No matter what ends up being right for you, I can guarantee it’ll still be a lot of fun.
With all that said, the gameplay of Death’s Door isn’t actually what makes it special. No, dear reader, that would be the atmosphere, story, tone, mood, visual design, dialogue… in short, Death’s Door’s personality is what elevates a game that is solid mechanically into something truly memorable. When you first start the game, it opens with the protagonist stepping off the bus on their way to work, and one of the first things I noticed was how their walk cycle has a bit of that little hopping thing birds do in it. It’s absolutely delightful. The second thing I noticed was the score, which is this really cool kind of… dark-fantasy jazz all throughout the game. That, along with elements such as the protagonist riding a bus to work where they use a sword to fight things like giant frogs, helps to create this sense of anachronism, and in turn all of it contributes to the game being at once melancholic and whimsical in equal measure. One moment you’ll be hopping along through a withering garden, overwhelmed by the sense that it was far more beautiful, once, before the world started to die and fall apart at the seams as a result of its stagnation in the cycle of life and death, and then the next moment you’ll be talking to a character named Pothead who has a pot for a head.
Not only does this contrast between melancholy and whimsy not create any tonal whiplash – which in itself is quite the feat, so kudos for that – it also helps contribute to the game’s overall themes. There are many instances besides this general tonal duality of the game juxtaposing the familiar with the strange, the known with the unknown. The atmosphere, the anachronism, the game’s fascination with putting a face and a name and an amicability to the unknown, all helps to build to the game’s final conclusion: that the cycle of life and death is not something to fear, it is simply a fact of nature to be accepted, as much as gravity or sunlight. It’s all very cathartic and beautiful, and I could probably write an entire analytical essay on what the team at Acid Never put together here.
But this is just a review! So, in closing, I’ll say this: Death’s Door is one of the loveliest pieces of media about death I’ve ever read, played, or watched. Though it’s true that it won’t actually bring you any closer to understanding what happens to us when we shed our mortal coils, I find that the kind of approach it takes to death as something that simply is can provide some comfort when considering it. And hey, even aside from its artistic merits, it’s just plain fun to play, so there’s a little something here for all kinds of gamers.
With Death's Door, Acid Nerve has made an impactful game backed by a strong mechanical and technical base.