We continue to live in a long, arguably golden age of retro-inspired games with modern twists. Death’s Door is an example of that, with clear homages to classic 2D Zelda titles mixed with its own extremely unique audiovisual flair. This results in a title with mostly familiar and simple gameplay mechanics repackaged in a way that makes it more memorable than most, though still falling short in some areas.
Death’s Door begins in the Reaping Commission Headquarters, which has a neat aesthetic that reminds me of Chrono Trigger’s End of Time. The player, a crow working as a reaper, is assigned the task of reaping a soul from a being that’s lived past its expiration date—which incidentally causes them to become a formidable monster. You begin what should be a routine mission; however, it quickly goes south when the soul from the vanquished beast is stolen by a haggard looking crow and secreted away to the Lost Cemetery, the game’s main hub. What’s worse, failure to retrieve the soul will lead to entrapment and eventual death for our hero.
The old crow reveals that the soul you seek is now beyond Death’s Door, and in order to retrieve it, open the Door, and save yourself, you’ll have to hunt down three souls of beings who are way past their expiration dates. Thus our hero tackles three main areas and slays the boss at the end to reap these giant souls. Along the way, more is revealed about the crows and the general system of this world, as well as about the reapers’ enigmatic boss, the Lord of Doors.
While this plot does afford a few revelations near the end, it wasn’t my primary driver for progressing through the game. Death’s Door is fairly light on story presentation. Most of it comes at the beginning and end of the game, or through more atmospheric means like journal entries and flavor text on various trinkets you find. Where most of the story comes alive is through the quirky characters you meet throughout your journey, one of the first favorable comparisons between Death’s Door and many Zelda titles. As one example, there’s Jefferson, a hint-giving cephalopod controlling the corpse of a sailor (though it doesn’t want you to know that) running a small seaside restaurant in the Lost Cemetery. I also enjoyed how some of the bosses appear throughout their dungeons to taunt you. For example, the Frog King, shown below, touts his improvements to the swamp since he took over, while the Urn Witch acts like a passive-aggressive grandmother. Moreover, in a somewhat eerie gesture, they often enter a room and simply watch you explore.
Combat is another area where the game takes strong cues from 2D Zelda titles. This isn’t a bad thing, but may make the game feel like it lacks innovation or is playing it safe. There is a fairly basic character upgrade system where you can increase your melee damage, speed, ranged damage, etc. It’s not much, but it’s simple and straightforward. Fights are in real time, with you primarily swinging your sword, rolling, and using ranged weapons to defeat groups of enemies and challenge bosses. There is a hint of Souls-like here, as you have a sort of unseen stamina when swinging your weapon and your crow pauses after a few swings.
Despite the Souls comparison, however, I would say Death’s Door has a fair level of difficulty and is approachable for everyone. The combat can be fast, but not outright frantic most of the time, and you’re rewarded for planning and positioning more than just having fast reflexes. While there are a few difficult battles (the penultimate boss battle in particular I found had an oddly large challenge spike), most enemy attacks are clearly telegraphed and even the most challenging bosses can be learned after a few tries. If I had to nitpick anything, I did find the ranged weapon controls a bit clunky at times, as the weapons fired on holding and releasing a trigger.
Where Death’s Door seems to put more emphasis isn’t in combat but in letting the player learn and explore its world. Though there are the aforementioned occasional moments of frenzied combat, much of the game is instead focused on wandering the overworld and dungeons. The fact that no map is provided for any of these areas may seem backwards, but I found it refreshing to learn this world slowly but surely as I traversed back and forth. Also, while there are secrets aplenty and lots of collectibles to find, I never found the world so cryptic that I was frustrated by the lack of a map. By the end of the game I had a better familiarity with Death’s Door‘s environments (supplemented by great visuals discussed more below) than with those in games I’d spent many more hours in.
That being said, one shortcoming of Death’s Door is its length. The main game is unlikely to take more than 10-12 hours, and while there is a fun post-game, mostly focused on some additional exploratory challenges, it only doubles the length at best. Combined with the $19.99 price tag, this could be off-putting to some. Another lesser issue was that during all this exploration, constantly rolling or dodging (a great ability in combat but a bit tedious in the overworld) would give me a little bit more speed, which led to most of my travels being somewhat button mash-y.
One of the best features of Death’s Door is its unique visuals, which helps the game stand out from the competition by putting a beautiful layer on top of its well-worn gameplay systems. It’s a bit difficult to describe the visual style but everything has a “solid” feel to it that almost reminds me of claymation, but much cleaner. The game also makes good use of shadows without feeling overly dark and making me turn up the gamma. The effective use of shadows is especially clear in the eerier parts of the game like the Urn Witch’s Mansion.
Death’s Door’s sound design forms a perfect parallel with its visual style. The music has a subdued charm to it, providing a backdrop more for exploration than combat. Despite the game’s moments of frantic fighting, the music contributes to a more contemplative air and complements the lush and varied environments. Death’s Door’s music mostly sticks to a single musical motif that you hear beginning from the title screen, but rather than being repetitive it’s a familiar touchstone to come back to as the theme is adapted in different ways. The game also features one standout combat track for me, “Avarice,” that plays when fighting for a new item, which I found myself listening to on YouTube long after finishing the game. Even the sound effects are spot-on, and some sections of the game have such muted music that you can really feel the ambience from background thunderclaps (again combined with powerful visuals and shadows).
Overall, Death’s Door is an enjoyable homage to 2D Zelda games with some additional quirky flair thrown in. It is a satisfying experience whose main drawback is its overall safeness, plus a lack of replayability. Some may also be turned off by the lack of extreme difficulty, which can be another source of replay value for many similar games. I would recommend Death’s Door to those looking for a nostalgia fix that won’t try your patience or just want to enjoy a memorable and contemplative audiovisual style.