Death's Door and the Joy of Discovery

As I get older, I sometimes worry that I've lost the curiosity that fueled my early gaming years. My first games, the ones that made an impact, were RPGs that allowed me to immerse myself in new worlds, armed with only curiosity and a notepad to scribble maps and reminders for myself. I'd pour hours and hours into these games, investigating every inch of the world. It's been awhile since I've felt that same intrigue in a game, searching for secrets because I genuinely wanted to know more, not to fill out a checklist. But I've recently learned that all that's been missing is an opportunity to tap into those feelings of wonder, excitement, and mystery - and Death's Door gave that to me in spades.




Story and set-up


Death's Door is an isometric hack-'n-slash RPG, with Zelda-like dungeons and puzzles. You play as a little crow whose day job as a reaper gets derailed when your assigned soul is stolen, forcing you to follow the thief into a world where souls have grown past their time and become immensely powerful. You'll fight your way through the domains of three giant beings and bring them to their overdue demise in order to finish your assignment and find out how they came to be.


What struck me before I even began was the beautifully designed world. The modeling clay-like environments and characters give this fantasy world a softer feeling, which makes the towering bosses all the more threatening by contrast. Despite a world and job governed by death, this softness can be found all over in the game. The first moment this struck me was right after you attempt to collect your assigned soul, in what could be considered the prologue. You receive 100 souls for defeating them, and enter the first area where regular enemies can be found. As I struck down the winged creature that flew towards me in one swipe of my sword, I received a single soul. While this isn't called out in any way, the contrast of power and size of these creatures highlighted such a gentle frailty that set the tone for the rest of the game.


Similarly, death is not celebrated as glorious conquest, but rather the natural progression of things. Kind words are said, and you learn more about how and why these titans came to live for so long. After all, you're just there to do your job, and even massive toads have people who care about them. And this isn't to say that the game is morose and miserable - some of the NPCs had me cracking up every time we interacted, and the flavor text on items is witty and fun. It's more that there is an implicit kindness in the world, reflected beautifully though the storytelling and compounded with a gorgeous soundtrack.



Screenshot of Death's Door showing the witch's estate
I don't think I'm tall enough to fix that statue


Combat and enemies


Each character and enemy is thoughtfully designed and injected with life in a way that had me stopping (and occasionally dying) to get a closer look. Much of this life comes from a grounded approach to design where form and function are completely intertwined. If a character has a big back shell like an armadillo, you can bet they'll use it to roll and you'll need to hit their unprotected bellies. If they've got a boomerang-shaped headpiece and big legs, you know you're going to be dodging a projectile while they jump at you. This built-in logic gives the world a great feeling of consistency and the creative designs helped me become immersed as soon as I took my first steps.


And after my first steps, came my first swings. The combat, right out of the gate, is simple enough to be accessible, but fun enough to keep more experienced players engaged. You'll start with a sword, a magic bow and arrow, and a dodge roll - pretty standard fare. The movement and attacks feel good and have a nice weight to them, and are a little more strategic than I was expecting. Rolling won't cancel an attack, so the game forces you to commit to your swings and see them through. This pacing is complimented by the well-telegraphed attacks and consistent patterns, which help you figure out when it's safe to go for that three-swing combo, and when you need to roll to safety. These tactics are also present in the game's main attraction: boss fights.


Much like Dark Souls, the boss fights are about two things: pattern recognition, and greed. Boss fights build on the skills you pick up through each domain by magnifying the mechanics of the biggest enemies you faced. This helped me believe in my little crow who was absolutely dwarfed by each gigantic boss. As much as you'll need to think on your feet, you'll recognize the broad strokes of their attacks well enough to be able to focus on figuring out the fight's patterns and take them down. As for the second element, greed will be your downfall every time. You only have four hit points and the fights can be quite lengthy, so you need to time your attacks and then roll away to wait for your next opening. Each fight is as much an exercise in patience as a test of your skills. I found these fights to be exciting and fair, with some later ones taking a good amount of effort to overcome, but never frustrating to the point of needing to give up.


Screenshot of Death's Door showing a fight against a moving castle
Turns out sentient buildings are mean


Design, Death, and desk jobs


What fueled my love for this game more than anything was the level design. The game does an incredible job of creating an environment that encourages you to explore, and not need to fear wandering. The enemies you'll face in the main zones are definitely plentiful, but for the most part don't present a huge danger if you take your time to clear each group out. Healing spots, in this case containers where you can plant found seeds, are spaced well through the areas and can often be found exactly where you need them. The areas also only reset on death, so you can clear out sections without worrying about anyone coming back for revenge.


On that note, death itself is also only a light deterrent, instead of a demoralizing failure. Where other games might take away resources or progression, Death's Door is not so punitive. You won't lose any of the souls you collect from defeated enemies, and your progress is saved. Instead of punishing you, it gets you back to a safe spot, brushes you off, and sets you back on your way to try again. This made some of the more tricky secrets something I wanted to work towards instead of something I'd come back for after I'd gathered enough upgrades to become all-powerful.


Screenshot of Death's Door showing a fight with a fire plant, a wizard, and a goblin
Okay, if everyone could just take a number I will help you in the order you arrived

When you die, you're brought back to your most recent checkpoint - doors that connect the main world with your black-and-white bureaucratic hub world. The maps are expansive and filled with winding secret areas, so how does it accomplish ease of navigation with few access points? Put simply: levers, ladders, and creative level design. As you progress through each zone and dungeon, you open up shortcuts that quickly lead back to your door for that area. This makes the eventual run back quick and saves you from repeating difficult sections.


This approach accomplishes two important things. One, as I beat these sections or cleared mini-boss fights, I felt rewarded by having something physically alter within the world, reflecting the changes I was making. Second, as there are no maps in the game, this helped me become familiar with the design of each zone as the new way to run through it reinforced my understanding of where sections were in relation to each other. This, in turn, made exploring all the more comfortable as I developed a sense of where I was going and more familiarity with each area.


A screenshot of Death's Door showing the black and white hub world
The feeling of bureaucracy brought to... well, almost life

the joy of the unknown


This comfort fostered the primary feeling I had while playing: a gleeful excitement for exploration. Every piece of the game, from the combat to the levels to the NPCs themselves contributed to this lasting feeling of immersion that had me so excited to keep scouring every inch. Each new ability opened up new parts of the zones, which made combing back through earlier levels a fun (and optional) scavenger hunt. At one point, I found a clue for a puzzle I'd struggled with earlier, audibly yelled out "oh!" and ran back to the puzzle, grinning ear-to-ear. While none of the puzzles were terribly difficult, every accomplishment in the game makes you feel clever and like you've really earned your reward. Not to mention, there is a delightful change that happens in the world as you collect things that I don't want to spoil - but trust me, you'll love it.


This love for discovery is echoed through all aspects of the game's design. The way paths are opened through zones to make navigation easier, to the relative ease of the enemies you face, to the secrets you find scattered around the world all feed into the excitement and joy I felt turning over every stone. I might be alone in this, but even the exclusion of a map was a welcome addition to this feeling. It's been years since I felt compelled to write down tips given to be by NPCs or to draw rough maps indicating where I was sure I'd be able to access a secret path, if I only had the next ability. This atmosphere of discovery was perfectly suited to someone like me, who loves being plunged into a new world with little more than a hint and a gentle push in the right direction.


Screenshot of Death's Door showing a rundown building with a neon sign and a NPC wearing a yellow jacket
This place has the best food, even if the chef's a little odd


TL;DR


Death's Door taps directly into a feeling I haven't had since I was a kid: a readiness to accept a new world, with all of its surprises and secrets, armed only with curiosity and a notepad (well, my phone's notes app). My wonder and excitement were rewarded with excellent level design and a gorgeous world to explore. The combat feels tight and powerful, and the storytelling was heartwarming and made me fall in love with so many new characters from all parts of the alignment chart. Death's Door is my favorite game I've played in quite some time, and I think you'll fall in love with it too.


Death's Door is available on PC through Steam, and on Xbox One.