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PLATFORMS: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
RELEASE DATE: July 20, 2021
DEVELOPER: Acid Nerve
PUBLISHER: Devolver Digital
ESRB: E10+NOTE - A review copy was provided by Devolver Digital for the purpose of this review.
A bus pulls into a deserted station. A lone crow hops off with a long blade attached to his back. The world is presented in a dreary black and white as our hero, known as the Fledgling, wanders through a security gate into an office. This world is a series of floating platforms that connect thinly veiled yet familiar concepts. Within my first few minutes of the game, I was fascinated, wanting to learn more of the world I had come to inhabit, and my new little crow friend with a love for heavy swords. I wanted to open the Door to Death's Door.
Sadly, this feeling would not hold. The longer I explored, the more I fought. The deeper in my quest I got, the more the beauty of the world began to give way. The mechanics, that had held my interest through the opening areas began to display an offputting clunkiness. Beautiful as the world appeared, it wasn't enough for me to see past the muddled exploration that accompanied it. Make no mistake, throughout my quest to open Death's Door, there were many things that I enjoyed. But with every step (and birdy head twitch) I took deeper into the world, the issues that had accompanied only seemed to become exacerbated.
The narrative of death - (story)
The setup for the game is pretty simple. At the front desk of your office, you are given the task to reap a soul. In this universe, adorable little crows are sent to carry out the act which is stereotypically reserved for a skeleton in a cloak. Doors link your afterlife office to the world at large. The crow travels to a basic learning area where you ultimately reap the soul in the form of a boss fight. However, this is where the narrative gets a little twisted.
Another crow hits you on the back of the head and steals the soul. Once catching up to him he reveals that long ago he failed in collecting a soul and has been trapped from returning home because of it. The soul he needs is locked behind titular Death's Door which he has failed to open. Now he has the brilliant plan trapping the soul that the Fledgling needs behind that door, essentially forcing him to suffer the same fate. Now the Fledgling must hunt down three souls powerful enough to open the door to go in and retrieve his soul.
While players can expect cutscenes to help explore the narrative throughout their journey, it only serves as a thinly veiled string of events to guide players forward. Expect to learn just enough about the core players and the souls you are now out to reap to better understand what is going on. However, expect to not learn much in the way of the world outside of your goal.
Each area has a boss you will eventually go toe to toe with. Until you reach that point, however, the boss will act as a minor dialogue excursion. For instance, the Urn Witch who serves as the first soul to reap shows up at certain points to note how messy her house is. The joke in this is that YOU are the reason her house is now messy as you fought your way through it prior to her arrival. Other characters during that chapter help to fill in her story, but the fact that so much of her dialogue really serves no purpose other than a humorous exchange makes the actual story beats feel hollow.
In an 8-10 hour-long game, I can understand there not being a deep story. But in truth, very little of the dialogue felt like it served an integral part of the story. Every so often a major beat would occur, something that made me say, "Ok, I wonder where this goes?" But especially in the sub narratives of each realm, the payoff was lackluster. Even worse, slaying these core enemies results in a funeral for them in which their good and bad are laid bare. These moments felt extremely hollow, given these bosses' one-dimensional notes as they appear throughout their domain.
The world that death inhabits - (Visuals & Audio)
Where the game achieves its biggest victory is in the style of its substance. It is hard to quantify just how the game pulls you into it before a line of dialogue is spoken. In fact, when I first started I half expected there to be no dialogue, which would not be the first time that approach was taken. The world of the reaper crows feels ripped from an old noir film. Stark blacks and grays permeate the screen as you begin to explore your office. The scene would feel right at home in any Humphrey Bogart film.
The game is not a Neo-Noir, however, and soon you travel through the doors to a world of color, bright and vibrant in presentation. Even the most desolate area pops alive with its color, inviting the player in. The Fledgling stands in contrast to this realm, a dark shadow that brings death with him wherever he goes. Even as the other elements of the game began to fall short, the artistic vision was this element that kept me interested.
Standing toe to toe with the art is the soundtrack that accompanies. Composed by David Fenn, what follows the player through each area is a series of low-key instrumentals designed to relax the fledgling. For instance, while wandering through ruin in the forest, I was accompanied by a soft guitar and an underlying ambiance. There was faster, more lively music to be heard as well. However, even these tracks felt like they drew more from Lo-fi chill mixes than orchestral game tracks.
The game is presented in an isometric style, so a fixed camera on a small three-dimensional area. This is where the game's art direction began to run into problems. While many areas are wide open, even more are small cluttered with lots of objects. During combat, the level design often felt like it was actively against me. Enemies would pop up and fights would become a tedious act of trying to navigate the terrain to fight a foe. The issue with this is that since I was fighting in a flat area there should have been no need for navigating.
Guiding the cold hand of death - (Gameplay)
The story may be lacking, but it is forgivable to the degree that the game is more about its gameplay than bogging players down in narrative. Unfortunately, this proved to be more tedium still. Once the player is given the task to reap the singular soul they are walked through a short tutorial. The lessons you will learn here will provide the foundation for combat. You get a dodge button, your sword attack, and your ranged attack. All of these will be constantly used across all the areas.
Outside of that, combat does not evolve much. You will unlock new ranged abilities and weapons as you progress in the game, but each ability feels relatively similar. Melee weapons change the number of attacks you can unleash in any given combo. On the ranged front, weapons all fire directly in front of where your character is facing, with the only slight change being draw time.
The game also works in a leveling system that requires players to take the souls they have collected to the vendor in their office and purchase upgrades. These upgrades boil down to four categories - strength, dexterity, haste, and magic. These abilities in turn have five tiers in each, all of which use the same amount of souls for each level.
Now if the use of a leveling device like 'Souls' is making you think of the Dark Souls franchise, it is understandable. While this game does draw some elements from souls-likes those comparisons are only skin deep. Pressing through the world unlocks doors back to your offices and these doors act like bonfires from the aforementioned franchise, returning you to them when you die. Slaying enemies of course grants you souls and dying or using a door respawns enemies.
That is where these similarities end, however. Upon death, the player keeps all the souls they have collected thus far, removing the risk of all your work being lost. Through the multiple runs, you will most likely have to complete a realm you should accrue enough for at least one level. The issue here is how little enemies payout. Well into the game, several enemies only reward you with one or two souls per kill. At most, more powerful enemies you might encounter only pay about eight. For reference, leveling starts at 400 for the first point into a skill.
At one point during my traversal of the Estate of The Urn Queen, I made a stupid mistake and ended up lost for a short period of time. The mistake was on my end as I did not see the key I needed to collect, but here I was wandering around aimlessly. Over and over, I fought the same enemies as I attempted to find my solution. And during this, I saw how little I was rewarded overall through combat. The game also uses a mix of enemies that always spawn and one-time enemies you must beat in the mix of puzzle-solving and exploration. Once you have cleared an area, returning as I ended up doing, has a lack of reward. There are a few areas that can be unlocked as you gain new abilities, but these pose the next core issue.
The game blends a few genres together in its overall structure including a Zelda inspiration for combat as well as dungeons, with a Metroidvania element are front and center as well. Early on in the game, you are introduced to an area in which the Death's Door is located. From here the world branches off toward your goals. With a setup like this players can expect plenty of backtracking. Each area acts like a maze in its own right, with the need to go one way in order to get what you need to open a path on another part, possibly on the other side of the area.
The game's minimalist approach leads it to lack an actual map to guide yourself. This proves to be an exercise in frustration when all is said and done. Some areas do offer a more concise structure. A big courtyard with two obvious paths the player can take, or the estate which consists of smaller areas. However, an overgrown forest and the ruins that follow it prove to be large and confusing mazes. You might find yourself walking in circles regardless of if you know WHERE you need to go. All of this is before considering that as you unlock abilities you can return to locations and access new areas for collectibles, a challenge should you have no idea where to go.
A second tutorial in the game occurs a short while after the first, this time going over combat abilities. This includes the standard base attack you already learned, as well as a heavy attack, and a dodging attack that can be implemented into combat. Quickly I learned how little I would actually use them.
First off, combat occurs in three different variants throughout the game. The first involves finding random enemies in the world. While some places have groups of enemies, more often this will involve fighting one or two at a time which will be more manageable. The second is the boss fights themselves which are slightly harder one on one fights, but they ultimately come down to a pattern of memory. The final situation is when you enter an area and doors start appearing all over. This will cause lots of enemies to start popping up and attack you.
While you might expect some combat techniques to not translate to certain situations, the heavy attack didn't seem to fit in anywhere. As a charge attack, it is very hard to fit into combat when a multitude of enemies are hounding you. On the flip side, it is too inconvenient an ability to use when fighting a single enemy, even a boss. The dodge roll consistently fell into this category as well. While it was more practical, coming out of the dodge into an attack could prove costly when several enemies are right nearby. Against bosses more often than not, the moment you dodge rarely ever synchs with the moment you can start attacking.
The issues surrounding the heavy attack also prove to be the most annoying issue with ranged attacks as well. All ranged abilities require a charge up of the attack before you can unleash it. In combat with large numbers, especially later enemies that can clear distance easily, this charge time makes it largely unviable. Even with few enemies, my brain often tried the rush the motions, leading to segments of dodging around to pull myself out of the situation I just put myself in.
Worse than combat, ranged abilities are often used as integral parts of the minor puzzle solving you need to do to progress. During the forest portion, I regularly needed to quickly light fires in an area to unlock gates. This would be a tedious affair on its own but the need to charge each shot as you are rushing between the points proved to be a source of frustration. And this trend continues long into the later hours of the game.
The puzzles in general did very little to excite me. Not only do you wander around in areas with no map hunting them down, but most areas also rely on the same puzzle over and over again. Lighting torches is a classic puzzle trope that felt like it was played out by the end of the Estate, but somehow just kept on going after. Other areas have you hitting buttons to make platforms appear, hitting a tree that shoots out exploding balls to clear breakable paths, lighting furnaces. As stated, this wouldn't be as annoying if they weren't introduced as soon as you entered and last through every single room.
The core combat was one of the things that drew me in early on in the game. It was fast-paced and the first fight doesn't present the features that would follow. As soon as I reached my first base enemies I started to see the biggest issue. Attacking an enemy is done through a combo and based on the direction your character is facing. Most enemies should be finished off with the base three-hit combo you begin the game with. The issue became a problem for EVERY combo that caused my final attack to slip right through. You attack for two hits, then your third would just air hit behind them.
This is an issue early on because this exposes the player for a free hit by the enemies you are fighting. I had hoped to see this problem solve itself once I started leveling, but that only exacerbated it. Leveling your dexterity which affects combo length and speed only creates more hits to slip through the enemy. I invested in my strength stat hoping that would make it slightly easier to finish them before this became an issue, but at best, later enemies took one less hit while early enemies required the same.
One enemy, in particular, became the bane of my existence. A floating wizard shoots a single ice shard at you before teleporting. You could deflect the ice shard back at him, as most projectiles can be, but this requires making sure your angle is directly on him. Once hit, he begins spinning away, something that requires a lot of haste to make a non-issue. During one segment in the estate, this enemy tended to favor one spot on the map to teleport, a small transition hallway to the next area. Since he can float over gaps, he positioned himself at a spot where only an outline of him could be seen. Aiming arrows at him was more about luck, and you couldn't slash him. This would not have been an issue if he did not do this EVERY SINGLE TIME.
That was the most noticeably annoying encounter with him, but make no mistake those enemies tend to favor situations like that no matter where you find them. As pointed out previously, enemies offer very little in the way of reward. Upon revival, say you want to return where you died and keep progressing. Don't worry, because teleporting enemies like the wizard will make that near impossible. Traversing areas with enemy traffic will pretty much force you to fight through over and over again. Enemies that can teleport can be run past easily enough, but they will follow you long after. While not the hardest enemies to fight on their own, you will not like them in a group setting.
Trust me when I say, I went through the door to Death's Door, wanting to like it. And in truth, I did not hate it. It has a very cool aesthetic and art direction, a soundtrack I would love to listen to on repeat, and an adorable feathery little lead. Unfortunately, overall that wasn't enough to keep the core issues from piling up as I got closer to my ultimate goal. The game draws influence from too many genres, and weirdly often draws from one genre to hurt the other genres it is drawing from. The exploration is pretty to look at, but a slog once areas begin opening up and you find yourself lost among the beauty.
I wanted to love the story, as the setup was so engaging. But it was soon unraveled into a mundane exposition that served little point but a cheap chuckle. The game ultimately banks on me caring about these characters as it tries to illustrate both good and evil deeds, but this messaging falls flat.
Finally, the combat, which appeared to be the lynchpin of the game, became more of a source of annoyances than a source of excitement. In truth, I think most of the other issues with the game could have been forgivable. Many indie games have done the things that Death's Door does to great effect, The Touryst being one that comes to mind. In the grand scheme, years ago this would have been a great adventure. However, now in such a crowded market Death's Door is a door better left shut.