Death’s Door (2021)

I played through Death’s Door on Steam this past week. It’s a highly enjoyable action adventure that lasts about 10 hours, and to my surprise it was made by a 2-person studio (Acid Nerve – the full game credits list 8 people).

To me, the game is heavily inspired by Soulsborne and Zelda games, presented in an isometric camera view. The eponymous doors (there’s lots of them) function quite similarly to bonfires, resetting the game world whenever you go through them, and also acts as a teleportation device to switch you to different locations / levels. (The doors also reminded me of Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. franchise.)

Like Dark Souls, the level design has a strong emphasis on “connectivity” – as you explore a new area for the first time, you’ll repeatedly unlock shortcuts that take you back to the beginning area (and close to a strategically placed door). The levels are intentionally maze-like, with lots of winding pathways and verticality – for example, to access the cliff on top of you (where there’s a collectible), you might need to walk around a large section of the level. In addition, sections of the level are completely inaccessible (usually, rooms with juicy secrets) until you’ve unlocked some later abilities to your character – this is clearly meant to make the levels have repeat exploration value, as you come back to hunt for specific collectibles.

With these elements in unison, the game could feel like a chore sometimes – you could be lost (“how do I get there again?”), or just frustratingly trying to figure out how to access a secret area you’ve spotted, with no feedback of whether that goal is currently achievable or not. But these are minor gripes, especially considering that it is trivial to search online the solutions to the game’s secrets & puzzles – indeed, it took great restraint for me to not open YouTube during the majority of my playthrough (at my age, if I can’t figure out the solution to something in a game in 5 minutes, I usually start searching online, as I feel I’m “wasting time”.)

The game’s combat is simple (in mechanics complexity) but quite robust:

  • You have a light and heavy melee attack (the heavy attack can be charged up to be even stronger).
  • Melee attacks charge up your energy bar, which can be consumed as ammo for your 4 ranged abilities (unlocked over the course of the game – you start out with a basic bow / arrow).
  • You have a dodge with invulnerability-frames.
  • You have 4 health (initially, can be upgraded to 6 through collectibles) – each enemy hit always cost 1 health. There’s very limited health regen available in the levels, so there’s the Souls-like tension of trying to push to the next “break” in the level (usually unlocking a shortcut back to the nearest door).
  • Enemies can hurt each other – AOE explosions and projectiles can be utilized against other enemies. You can knock-back projectiles (e.g. a fire bolt aimed at you), and the ping-ponged projectile will damage other enemies. You can also trick enemies into environmental deaths (rolling off a ledge; walking into a laser). This creates a fun mini-game.

There’s about 10-20 types of regular enemies (your usual mix of melee / ranged / elite enemies), and perhaps 6 boss fights. Combat is about learning and reading the telegraphed movesets of each enemy, and taking advantage of their vulnerability windows. Interestingly, the game does not have HP bars for enemies (most enemies die in 1-3 light attacks anyway), but rather communicates damage state visually (blood stains on the ground, red VFX cracks in the enemies’ bodies). This ups the tension in boss-fights as you don’t have full insight on how many additional hits you need to land.

I would say the combat is not difficult (the windows of opportunity are overall quite generous), but they require discipline. I also liked some clever bits of the moveset AI – for example, there’s one fight where the enemy will always use a leap attack when you try to aim a ranged attack. I was a bit frustrated at the final boss fight (not the “True Ending” fight, the boss-fight that leads to the credits scene), I felt it was a tad overlong and felt repetitive (I hadn’t unlocked any health upgrades at the time, and I felt it was a bit punishing on 4 health). It reminded me of an extended platforming sequence in Ori and the Blind Forest (which to be fair was much more rage inducing).

In all, I felt this was a great game made by a surprisingly small team, especially considering how polished the game feels, and how good it looks. It is a good reflection of the state of the industry, where small teams through smart creative decisions (stylized art, re-usable design) and tight scope control can deliver such quality experiences.

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