Beak on through to The Other Side
The Old Testament defines to each of us this allotment of years: Three Score and Ten. Still, it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? And while some feel that the dice roll of fate is frequently unfair to us, there are others who are at peace with the unknown, choosing instead to simply take stock in the moment — the here and now — maximizing whatever time they have. After all, life is mostly half-chance, and nobody can truly predict when it’s their personal time to shuffle off the proverbial mortal coil.
But what if you could bend the rules? What if bargaining, extension, or outright denial were on the table of finality? If death was an economy, a commodity even, what would it mean for the people, families, and services of the world? More forebodingly, how would society play out should those options be afforded to the ruthless, the greedy, the powerful, and the selfish? These and other dark musings lie among the topics featured in Death’s Door, the new release from British two-man studio Acid Nerve.
A blend of morbidity, comedy, and otherworldy curiosity, Death’s Door is Acid Nerve’s attempt to present an engrossing gaming experience — awash with evocative imagery and gallows humor — while also pondering some of society’s most enduring and troubling questions — those of indebted servitude, the class struggle, and the abuse of power — as well as love, life, and, inevitably, death.
Oh, and it also happens to be one of 2021’s finest releases.
Death’s Door (PC [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Developer: Acid Nerve
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: July 20, 2021
In Death’s Door, the souls of the dearly departed are gathered and escorted to oblivion by a commission of crows — known as “Reapers.” For these reapers, death is simply a bureaucracy, a dull nine-to-five of long hours, ungrateful superiors, and endless paperwork. Still, old life must end for new life to begin, and as such the reapers are required to help those For Whom the Bell Tolls on their merry way to the afterlife… But somewhere in this centuries-long routine of birth, death, and rebirth, something has gone very wrong.
While on a routine assignment to gather their latest soul, a reaper encounters an ancient crow, old beyond his years. This crow informs our protagonist that all is not well in the life of death, linking the drama to the discovery of both a mysterious door and several lands where people and creatures have aged far beyond their allotted lifetimes. What’s more, there are problems at the offices of the Reaping Commission itself. Multiple employees have not returned from their daily assignments, while upper management has been making some suspicious “need-to-know-basis” requests of its workforce.
Death has seemingly passed its own expiry date, and now it’s up to our fledgling reaper to put in some overtime, venture into these lands of immortality, and uncover the answers to this mystery of the great beyond. Just be sure to fill out your timesheet, as you’re going to earn far more than a day-in-lieu once this shift is over.
Death’s Door is a dungeon-crawling fantasy adventure with a focus on exploration, combat, and rudimentary puzzle-solving. The Legend of Zelda for goths. Players guide our feathered friend through a handful of unique worlds, battling mobs of enemies en route to a series of epic (and creative) boss battles. As they progress through each distinct land, our sword-swinging pal will earn new skills, weapons, and battle abilities — none of which will come as a surprise to anyone well versed in the genre. Additionally, players can trade in gathered souls for stat-boosts, helping our little reaper with their offensive and defensive capabilities, while applying new and powerful effects to their useful array of spells.
As the reaper progresses through each world, a tale of greed, corruption, and blind denial begins to unfold. To speak more of it would be to spoil matters, but Death’s Door’s narratively driven adventure is absolutely bursting with personality, despite its meager cast and slight script. It tells a tale that is equally bleak and hopeful, moving and comedic, and welcomes the player into an endearingly dark fantasy universe, while also taking honed satirical shots at numerous real-world themes. Death’s Door is undoubtedly grim in nature — bear this in mind before hitting the start button — but uses dry, sardonic wit to keep its narrative just on the right side of appealing, a testament to its British writers’ wry views on a ghoulish topic.
As you may have gathered from the review thus far, Death’s Door is hardly reinventing the wheel. You have your underdog hero with their sword, a selection of well-worn spells and abilities, some upgradeable stats, maze-like dungeons, and pattern-based boss fights. So why all the plaudits? Well, it’s simple. Death’s Door might be somewhat derivative of many adventures that have come before it, but it just does everything that it attempts So. Fucking. Well. From gameplay mechanics such as character control, world traversal, combat, and puzzle-solving, to the aesthetic appeal of its lush, stylistic visuals, evocative and memorable score, and dark, conspiratorial narrative, Death’s Door hits every last mark.
The key to its success lies in its own self-awareness: Death’s Door never over-extends its reach. Though an ambitious release, Acid Nerve is well aware of the project’s positives and its negatives, working hard to accentuate the former, while hiding the latter. Death’s Door‘s gallery of grunts is somewhat repetitive, so the title works hard to create mob battles that are varied, intense, and visually exciting. There is no voice acting, so the narrative makes sure that all spoken dialogue is concise, with humor that works better because it is written, rather than spoken. The world’s maps are relatively small, so the developer gives them life via fascinating visuals, dynamic effects, creative design, and atmospheric sounds.
Perhaps most crucially of all, Death’s Door as an entire game is wonderfully succinct, lasting just long enough to tell an emotionally resonant and engaging tale, packed full of mystery, action, and personality, winding things up before any one element can outstay its welcome. There is no padding. The story knows exactly when to roll credits (while still offering a little extra questing for those not quite finished enjoying the surreal odyssey). Death’s Door is not wholly original by any means, but is, nevertheless, a masterpiece of video game design. It is a lesson in how to attain the very most out of the very least, and how to learn from your genre contemporaries whilst still stamping your work with a bespoke identity of its very own.
Whether in the thick of battle with some grotesque guardian, picking your way through its labyrinthine dungeons, solving its satisfying puzzles, or simply conversing with its cast of tired, world-weary characters, Death’s Door excels — offering adventure, action, intrigue, laughs, and perhaps even a tear or two. That this feat was achieved with little more than the talent, passion, and scope of a two-man studio is the black cherry that sits atop of this particularly gloomy cake. Death’s Door is a dark diamond, destined to stick with me for the remainder of my days… and possibly beyond.
An exercise in design excellence, Death’s Door recognizes and capitalizes on its strengths to deliver a smart, creative, and thoroughly engaging adventure, painted with wonderful visual strokes and peppered with witty, thoughtful commentary on life, death, and how we spend the hours in-between. Sporting polish beyond its budget and ambition beyond its scale, Death’s Door is one of the year’s best releases, and a must-play for adventure fans everywhere. Don’t fear the Reaper.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]