If you’re like me and the very concept of death and nothingness terrifies you to your core, then video games have probably earned a special place in your life. Death in a video game is far from the permanent nonexistence we face in reality; the life counter goes down by one and you respawn, ready and raring to try again. While this concept is vital to video games, it’s rarely touched on in any meaningful way, something that “Death’s Door” developer Acid Nerve yearns to change.
“Death’s Door” places you in control of the Reaper — a cute little sword-wielding crow who works for a company of weapon-slinging reaper crows — as they explore a vast and dense land to recapture a lost soul and regain their immortality. Whether you kill enemies for their souls (a currency to upgrade the Reaper’s abilities) or view the cartoonishly large “DEATH” stamped on the screen with each death, you’ll constantly find yourself embroiled by our inevitable grim demise. Players are never made to feel bad for killing the various enemies and bosses, yet paired with each major victory is a reflection on the life just lost; Stonehead the Gravedigger provides a bittersweet meditation on the deceased’s life that humanizes the once monstrous and murderous beings. The enemies you fight are monstrous and bloated, crude and dangerous, but they still lived lives and had an effect on the lives of those around them. One question is constantly brought up but rarely answered: Would immortal life truly be better than living with an unknown expiration date?
Grounding the philosophical discussions of life and death are incredibly well-designed components of the game. Gloominess may overwhelm you at first, but eventually, both hope and humor permeate through the depressive fog thanks to sharp, well-written dialogue. The art style initially mimics noir aesthetics before combining them with lush colors of varied and memorable locations reminiscent of Studio Ghibli animation, ranging from sunken fortresses to haunted manors to medieval castles. Backing the stunning visuals is composer David Fenn’s radiant score, whose orchestras perfectly match whatever creepy or incredibly hype vibe the situation requires. In moments of respite, I would often put the controller down for a minute just to take in the sumptuous audio and visual pairing before adventuring again.
The adventure is one you will not want to miss. Sure, “Death’s Door” does little to hide its love for both the Zelda and Soulsborne franchises, cramming in dense lore to creepy dungeons filled with puzzles and enemies galore, but it manages to take the best part of these series and form something wholly unique. Each area of the game naturally flows from one into another to form a cohesive “just 10 more minutes” experience. While your destinations are planned, generally the areas are open enough and full of secrets to tempt you off the common path, adding to the feeling of being an avian explorer in an uncharted world.
Much like their debut game “Titan Souls,” the team at Acid Nerve put a large emphasis on combat. Not only does the Reaper get a sword, but they can also use a hammer, dual-wielded daggers and even an umbrella to reap souls. Each weapon has particular pros and cons that truly change the flow and timing of combat and I found myself shuffling between them often. You’ll want to use whatever upper hand you can find in combat because the enemy encounters get tougher and tougher as the game progresses. The combat may be a sticking point for some, as there are variations in how to damage the enemies — light attack, heavy attack, dodge attack, drop attack — but they all grow stale and samey over the eight-ish hours of the adventure. It certainly doesn’t help that the game locks one of the most enjoyable combat moves, the grapple attack, behind a secret boss you can only fight about 75% through the game. Spamming either the dodge or the attack will inevitably lead to the Reaper’s sure and quick demise, so enemy encounters quickly become a safe cycle of approaching the enemy, hitting them two to three times, dodging their attack, rinse and repeat.
The Reaper also has four ranged spells at their disposal that, when not used for puzzle solving/exploration, do slightly help vary up the melee combat and have saved my own feathers on many occasions. The combat truly shines in the boss fights, each one beautifully orchestrated chaos that forces you to rely on skills and problem solving to overcome the (often literally) massive challenge of taking down giant foes. Each victory is a cathartic eruption, dozens of failed attempts finally blooming into one successful endeavor that leads to the somber realization that with the challenge over, you cannot experience the thrills of the fight again. The boss has been killed and all you are left with are the memories — the anger, the cursing, the laughing, the final burst of joy — before moving on to the next challenge.
I know difficult games like this are not for everyone, and with no real accessibility settings to help newer or disadvantaged players, “Death’s Door” surely will not be something all players gravitate towards. The game relies on player skill and memory, rarely leading you along the main story and giving little to no hints on the secrets that abound in the world. There’s a particular post-game quest that quite literally tells you nothing and demands you figure out each complex challenge on your own. Not everyone will want to spend hours combing through areas of a game with no map and no clues as to what you may have left undiscovered; I do want to exist in this world for as long as I can and squeeze every drop of creativity and secrecy out of it.
While “Death’s Door” is an easy game to try and sell people on — with the brilliant soundtrack, stunning art design, tight puzzles and addictive combat — it also isn’t. The game demands a lot of the players, effort that some cannot or do not want to give and forces an investigation into the uncomfortable topic of death. Not everyone will have the emotional and mental bandwidth for that right now, but for me, it was something I needed. I needed to be reminded that death isn’t scary, it’s just a natural part of the cycle of life — that it affects the ones we left behind far more than our loved ones who pass on and how important it is to feel that pain and to grieve. It’s not easy to continue living with a hole in your life where someone important used to be, but it’s possible. Just as possible as beating a frog king or a yeti or a gigantic mechanical castle robot as a little crow. Improbable and difficult, but never impossible.
Daily Arts writer Mik Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.