Death’s Door is something special. Every year there are dozens of games that release, with many quite blatantly inspired by Zelda, or Dark Souls, or any number of classics. More often than not, while you could tell what the developers were going for, those games come across as pale imitations. In fact, if you would squint hard enough these games would have everything that made their inspirations so great… theoretically.
But Death’s Door is different. It doesn’t just list and include components from the greatest action/adventure games ever made – it truly understands what made them tick. A sense of discovery that didn’t just come from hiding loot down a corridor and calling it a day. The freedom to explore and peel back a world’s secrets. The feeling of going on an actual adventure through uncharted, magical, dangerous territory.
Death’s Door manages this by demonstrating full restraint alongside wild ambition in every aspect of its design.
The game begins with a bus ride to work: a monochrome world, full of broken platforms, floating doors and crows, sitting at desks typing away their lives. You, another crow, are there as an assigned reaper. Your job is to travel through these doors and retrieve the souls of those who are approaching their… ahem, expiry date.
On your very first commission – after a massive boss battle – your assigned soul gets stolen and this kickstarts your entire adventure. The hunt for this soul takes you to a land that has defied death. Creatures have lived well past their natural lifespan and have subsequently morphed into formidable foes.
The setup is good enough but Death’s Door continues to layer on its lore in interesting and subtle ways. The world isn’t as obscure as something like Souls – you won’t have to read through item descriptions to know what’s going on. But Death’s Door still leaves some of its most interesting world-building up for discovery.
There’s still a linear narrative to be experienced here. Your journey will introduce you to different biomes, communities and characters to flesh out the world. The writing is humorous when it’s appropriate, sensitive with its depictions of death, insightful when it comes to high-fantasy concepts and has all-round great characterisation. You won’t care about any of these characters like you would in a film, but that’s really not what Death’s Door is aiming for.
Death’s Door is more than just great world-building though. The nuts and bolts of the game’s design are just as impressive.
On the outside, Death’s Door seems like an average, top-down action game. And to a certain extent this is the case. You have your traditional roles, three sword slashes, health bar and mana. But there’s a lot of subtle details that elevate the combat.
Firstly, almost all of your abilities take up one bar of mana that can only be recovered when you attack an enemy, leading to a risk/reward tug of war. This encourages aggressive play, meaning you’ll never be able to cheese a boss or a tough encounter by shooting arrows at a distance. Not that there’s much option to since the creatures in this game don’t hold back. They attack on sight and never wait for your turn. Duelling with them is like a frantic, violent dance of claws, swords and boomerangs.
While Death’s Door is definitely challenging, it’s by no means very punishing. After death you’ll be taken back to the last door that’s been activated – doors will take you back to the hub and act as fast travel points. In my experience, I never noticed the game penalise by taking away currency or anything of the sort. Most enemies would respawn and fighting through them again is your only punishment for dying.
The approach to difficulty is refreshing, however. The challenge comes from learning your enemies’ attack patterns and responding to them appropriately, not dealing with a hindrance that the game has given you. It doesn’t waste your time, it’s not unfair, and yet Death’s Door can still be tough as nails.
Boss fights in particular turn up the heat. These towering enemies have some larger than life abilities for you to learn and respond to and are definitely the highlight of the game. They’re helped by the fact that the Death’s Door gives all of them their own area beforehand, leading up to their fight. This sets the tone, introduces you to a new ability, and is an opportunity for the game to give them their own stories, fleshing out their motivations and place in the world.
The abilities in Death’s Door bring the whole experience together. All four of them are multi-purpose tools used in combat, traversal and puzzle solving. For example, the hookshot will allow you to get to previously inaccessible areas in the world, but it’ll also allow you to yank yourself to an enemy, getting up close and personal.
The abilities play a large part in Death’s Door’s end-game as well. Previous areas are open for you to explore at any time, but after acquiring an ability, whole new exploration opportunities open up, as long as you take the time to explore. This stops the backtracking from becoming a chore and makes it immensely satisfying to put your brand-new skills to good use to reach hidden areas.
And it is such a joy to discover the game’s many secrets. Death’s Door is packed with secrets and all of them are meaningful. There are the generic souls which can buy you stat upgrades, four different weapons to find (in addition to the default sword), gems to improve your health and mana and many more. It is seriously impressive, to the point where I was compelled to continue Death’s Door for hours after the credits had rolled.
A massive part of the game’s continued appeal is that there’s still a reason to improve your character. Secret bosses and tough dungeons are tucked away throughout the environment and require you to be at your best.
None of it is recycled content, though; hours after the end of the game Death’s Door genuinely shocked me, multiple times. There’s even one secret that changes the entire map, not just aesthetically: enemy placements, enemy types, NPC dialogue and gameplay possibilities are all shuffled. I’m still so intrigued by what the game has left to show and I cannot wait to continue chasing its crumbs.
Secrets are partly so satisfying to find because I know this is all amazing content that would have been lost otherwise. Just like the real world, Death’s Door doesn’t hold your hand for most of its end-game content. The onus is on the player to explore and these places would exist with or without hunting for them.
The only criticism I have of Death’s Door is found in some of its underbaked puzzles. None of them are bad and some of them are actually pretty engaging, however there have been times I felt like the game had stumbled upon an amazing idea, only for Death’s Door to abandon it rather than keep it in the oven. Some of its puzzle ideas could have led to incredible puzzles if the developers had chosen to iterate on them over the course of a level.
However, Death’s Door isn’t a puzzle game, it’s an action/adventure game with puzzles thrown in and from that perspective it’s pretty successful. The puzzles are accessible enough that anyone could tackle them and feel competent after, and the way they use perspective in this top-down world is great.
Ultimately, Death’s Door on Xbox is fantastic. Its mysteries are alluring, its world is uniquely sensitive and funny, its combat is harsh and fast. It feels like stepping into a dream space with all of its fantastical designs, elevated by one of the best soundtracks of the year. From almost every perspective, Death’s Door is a game that compels you to keep playing. You’ll be powerless to say no.
Open Death’s Door on Xbox Series X|S or Xbox One by visiting the Xbox Store