" Now arriving at Reaping Commission Headquarters. End of the line..." - Sharon the Bus Driver
Death's Door is a title that grabs the concept of death by the feathers and carefully unpicks it with witty black humour, nuanced character work, and a deceptively complex hack-and-slash combat system that is as rewarding as it is punishing.
Acid Nerve's latest game has been described as "Zelda-like" by some and it is clear to see why. However, after playing, you have to wonder whether Death's Door has set a new benchmark for the sub-genre.
We wouldn't be surprised to see other indie games in the future being referred to as "Death's Door-like", even though it is a bit of a mouthful, since it's hard to think of another title quite like this one. Here are our thoughts...
Death is work and you're on the clock...
When you first start Death's Door, you are met with a bleak world. You play as an unnamed crow-employee of the Reaping Commission. Acid Nerve has turned death into a bureaucracy in Death's Door and this is, perhaps, the most accurate representation of a dead-end government job we've ever seen.
The Reaping Commission Headquarters is decaying, devoid of colour, and utterly dull. It is spread across a number of floating islands in a void of nothingness and the bus you arrived on seems to be the only way in or out of this nightmarish experience. If you've ever worked in an office job you don't enjoy, it sums it up quite well.
There are a few other crow-employees (your colleagues) scattered about the Hall of Doors and you can exchange a few words with them. Right from the start, you realise Death's Door is something special. If nothing else, the character work is truly fantastic.
As an employee of the Reaping Commission Headquarters, you're tasked with collecting souls from the world of the living and bringing them back to the Reaping Commission Headquarters. If a soul is a little overdue, you have a sword to tackle that problem.
As Chandler the Handler explains, you need souls to power the doors you use to travel to the world of the living and you can only get the souls you need by using them to power the doors. It's an endless cycle reminiscent of Monsters Inc. They scare because they care, and you reap because... Well, you can't have everyone living forever, can you?
As much as this would be a fun game in itself, Acid Nerve decides to throw your unnamed crow-employee a curveball and take your first Giant Soul away from you. Everything about the job seemed run-of-the-mill and the soul that gets stolen is from a Demonic Forest Spirit, so it hardly seems too special. However, it does get stolen and that leaves you stranded - or as the Chandler likes to describe it... Mortal.
As long as you're out in the world of the living, you're mortal and that's bad... Isn't it?
In an effort to find out where your Giant Soul has gone, you head into the Forbidden Region. This is a place the Reaping Commission doesn't operate in and, from here, is where you spend the most of the game.
After fighting your way through a maze of goblins, ghouls, and other unnatural creatures... You find the person who stole your Giant Soul and condemned you to mortal life - Grey Crow.
Grey Crow is standing before Death's Door, a location of whisper and legend in the world created by Acid Nerve. It is the endpoint to all life and you are staring your own mortality in the face.
Grey Crow lost a soul to the door and he is trying to open it again. What starts off as a mundane day at the office becomes a desperate fight for survival in the face of your own immortality and it hits home a lot harder than you expect it to. You become attached to your unnamed crow-employee and you don't want to see him wither and age like Grey Crow.
In an effort to power Death's Door, Grey Crow tasks you with collecting three more Giant Souls. These are bloated and swollen, their owners having unnaturally long lives.
" The creatures here have the potential to live vastly beyond their years, growing ever larger and more powerful." - Grey Crow
Death's Door grabs the concept of death by the feathers and unpicks it throughout. As you travel to retrieve these souls, you meet characters who are ready to die and who cling desperately to life.
You meet characters who are being tormented by these bloated souls and those that pity the very same beings cursed with unnatural life. Acid Nerve explore what mortality means to people in a way few video games have and you can't help but muse on your own inevitable death in the process.
Even though your little crow-employee is painfully out of place in the world of the living, you are still a part of life and every character in Death's Door knows that - even if they don't want to admit it to themselves.
Trying to summarise the narrative of a game like Death's Door feels impossible. It is about the very nature of living and being alive. However, the Lord of Doors asks your crow-employee a question in the final stages of the story which is worth reflecting on...
" How would your life play out, if you knew the exact day you were going to die?"
Death's Door teaches you to take time with life...
In Death's Door, you might not know the exact day you are going to die... But, you know how your life is going to play out. The gameplay and combat in Acid Nerve's hack-and-slash Zelda-like are almost cathartic. Every confrontation has a process, stages, a unique timing to it that you have to follow in order to succeed.
We admit, though, that this can be a little bit of a shock at the start. Throughout, you find yourself so drawn into the narrative that you're almost too eager to continue. All it takes is attempting a three-hit combo over a two-hit combo to lose a section of your life.
In some cases, there's hardly a second between taking a hit and living to fight another day. Death's Door is rarely a one-on-one fight, even while facing off against a boss, and you can find yourself being punished for overly aggressive gameplay all too often.
Albeit a long learning process for someone who isn't used to Souls-like games with such punishing combat, Death's Door offers a lesson in patience and caution through its combat. This, when you look at the wider context of why you're fighting, is a revelation.
You need to take your time with Death's Door. There isn't always an easy way to speed through a boss battle and, much like real life, sometimes things take as long as they take.
The attacking options in Death's Door aren't as expansive as you might imagine, but your crow-employee doesn't need a wide variety of weapons to get the job done. There's a handful of melee weapons to unlock, a few ranged options, and dodging. It takes the isometric hack-and-slash gameplay made famous by series like The Legend of Zelda and Diablo and almost perfects it with a simplistic rendition of something that feels familiar, yet fresh.
It perfectly balances the complicated and the simplistic...
Acid Nerve's Death's Door is one of the best games I've played over the last year, if not longer. Its combat might seem on the simpler side for an isometric hack-and-slash, but this is married with a number of pretty unique systems that make for a wonderfully complex title on the whole.
Sparsely spread checkpoints and fixed healing locations aren't anything new, but they are placed to perfection in Death's Door. The journey back to a boss battle after defeat can easily be more deadly than the boss battle itself if you're not quick to learn the lessons in patience that combat teaches you.
One wrong step on your way back and you're at a disadvantage. It's easy to drop your guard when you're focused on getting back to the bigger bad and you need to make sure you're not straying into the path of a loose arrow or a swinging club.
In addition to this, the maze-like environments you find yourself fighting in offer exploration and puzzles that are both rewarding and deadly.
There's almost always a locked door to the edge of your screen, a collectable on a higher platform that you can't quite reach... You are driven by the hope of improvement to seek out the secrets these levels hold, but they can prove detrimental to your progress if you slip up.
Death's Door doesn't offer your little crow-employee a map, though, and a lot of the time you'll find yourself returning to already-explored locations with a new ability that allows you to progress. It's far from innovative and the abilities themselves aren't mindblowing, but it contributes to a whole that is far from lacklustre. You can use bombs to blow up cracked walls, a fireball to burn through thick cobwebs, and a grappling hook to pull yourself across impassable voids. You've seen them all before, but you don't once think "blowing up cracked walls with a bomb? How original..."
Everything about this game draws you into the mystery being unravelled and you can't help but become enamoured with the world Acid Nerve has crafted. You don't want to put Death's Door down and that, if anything, is all that needs to be said.
Death's Door is a game full of surprises; It offers rewarding exploration with punishing combat to create a lighter Souls-like experience. The narrative crafted throughout, however, is the real reason you should play Death's Door.
There are lessons to be learnt during your stint as a crow-employee of the Reaping Commission and it offers more than one opportunity to reflect on your own life and mortality.
RealSport Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)
We played Death's Door on Xbox One and our code was provided by Acid Nerve.