One of the games I picked up as a result of skimming “Top Games of 2021” lists is a small game called “Death’s Door.” It’s a cute, delightful adventure game featuring a Crow playing the part of a reaper of souls who travels through doors to various places to collect said souls. At the start of the game, you get sent to collect a cartain soul, defeat the monster whose soul it is, and then go off on a crazy adventure in order to finally collect this soul so your assigned door can be properly closed and you can return to being immortal. Armed with a dodge roll, a magic bow, and a sword (also an umbrella you can find pretty early and few other weapons you find throughout), you battle the various monstrous creatures that inhabit the worlds you pass through and use their soul energy to make yourself stronger for the challenges ahead.
Perhaps the best feature of this game is that death is very low-stakes. You don’t lose progress, soul energy, or upgrades when you die. Just a little bit of time as the game reloads and you return to the last place you stepped out of the world of the crow reapers and into the world of living souls. Combat can be very punishing, as can the hazards you encounter as you traverse the world, so losing nothing when you die encourages risk-taking and repetition. Why play conservatively when you just have to make your way through a few rooms (whose puzzles remain completed) should you die? And the game is challenging enough that while certain bosses can be incredibly difficult to get through, a particularly long stretch between healing plants and check points can be just as deadly.
To counter the challenge posed by the many enemies, puzzles, and traps you encounter, the mechanics underlying the game are fairly simple. You have weapons with a number of consecutive swings before you have to pause between attacks, a couple extra attack types that are effectively the same based on dashing and a charge-up attack, magical attacks that more or less function the same way with small tweaks, a dash/dodge ability, and then basic controls. You don’t even have a jump mechanics to worry about. Most of the enemy attacks fall into a few basic patterns (with variations as you get deeper into the game) and the enemies you see are generally repeats that have some cosmetic changes and a new attack move or pattern. Even the puzzles stay fairly simple, encouraging you to make use of the ability you just unlocked or encouraging you to come up with new ways to use the existing abilities in new, thoughtful ways.
Like many similar games, though, there is more to it than meets the eye. The game makes clever use of forced perspective to hide things, forcing you to explore what might be a hard boundary only to discover that it was just a visual boundary as the camera turns to reveal the secret you just uncovered. A lot of the game functions based on this idea, that you can learn new things through trial and error, observation and experimentation, careful analysis, and dumb luck. To make matters a bit easier, nothing necessary to the plot or the main portion of the game is hidden behind clever visuals. You can go through the entire game without digging beneath the surface ever, or maybe only doing so when a friendly ship captain wearing what is definitely a backpack and not a cephalopod feeds you a delicious meal and some juicy hints about where to find secrets.
The whole game is like that, actually. Your character is simply called “reaper” most of the time, an early friendly NPC is called “Pothead,” and the big guy you work for is called “Lord of Doors.” All of these names are incredibly descriptive and fitting for their characters. While not every character is named as such, all of the character designs give you a pretty quick idea of what each character is about and what they want without getting overly complex or cluttered. The whole game, though visually rich and pleasant to look at, manages to stay simple and without the level of detail given to games like Hades. Though Death’s Door is no where near as smooth as Hades is, it is just as beautiful, albeit in a different, more cartoony and simplistic kind of way. It is EXACTLY what you’d expect of a game about collecting souls as a crow with a sword who works on commission.
While the writing in the game isn’t inspiring, heart-wrenching (well, so far. There’s still time for it to be that), or go-down-in-history levels of beautiful, it is incredibly fun and light-hearted without shying away from the relatively serious topic matter it has chosen. This type of characterization and tone is maintained in the game as it shifts from dark and troubled to light-hearted and fun. I want to say more about some of my favorite moments from the game, but honestly they’re better to experience yourself. I laughed at loud at times, responding to a visual gag (or a string of them, actually), and other times the somber mood left me feeling pensive and reflective as the true nature of what I was seeing sunk in.
I still have a while yet to go in this game (I think I’m about a third of the way through it), and I can’t wait to keep playing. If you’re looking for a fun indie game that is challenging without being punishing, with wonderful writing and music, I suggest buying Death’s Door. After all, it won’t break the bank and it’s worth every dollar so far.
Ed. You can read my final thoughts on the game in this post if you’re interested in my view on the game once I’d finished it!
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