(Cybertech) – It’s telling that even all these years later, the original top-down Legend of Zelda games are still dominant influences on superb modern titles – a case in point being Death’s Door, which makes no bones about being an acolyte of Nintendo’s super-franchise.
If you’re going to be influenced, though, you might as well do it right. And Death’s Door is a brilliant little adventure, full of character and melancholy, but also bursting with well-judged challenge.
Don’t fear the reaper
Death’s Door ushers players into a phantom world populated by cute little crows who just so happen to be reapers, sent into the real world to take people’s souls at their appointed time.
You’re a particularly junior crow whose first big soul is nicked off them in underhand style, and who must set off to both figure out why and, in the process, collect a few more big hitters. It’s a simple story with fairytale morality to go with it, but is told charmingly.
Various characters greet you and fill in the details with charming dialogue, while there are multiple moments where the script is genuinely funny – something in short supply in games like this (we’re thinking about Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango and others). You’ll get more attached to those you see more than once, and in time Death’s Door manages to summon a sort of sad hopefulness that works really nicely in partnership with its zippy soundtrack and aesthetic.
That aesthetic is a really pleasing one – you move around an overworld that links together but can also zip back to your black-and-white office to nip between shortcut doors, each area offering its own visual flavour.
Most or all of them are drained slightly of their vibrancy, painting a picture of a world that’s started to decay a bit, which resonates clearly with the lessons its story comes to tell. That isn’t to say they don’t look great, though.
They range from a fortress with windswept crenellations, to a foetid, swampy wood full of creatures, the stately gardens of a mansion, and the floating rafts of a lakeborne ruin. All look memorable – but also blend together nicely to give the sense of a whole world.
Each is ruled over by a boss character who has imprisoned a few souls that you’ll need to free before you can face them, and that will generally see you tour the area learning its secrets and unlocking a new power or two to make things easier.
It’s a solid template, straight from the Zelda playbook of dungeons, but Death’s Door also does a good job of making these bosses memorable by having them pop up for a few chats before you eventually do vanquish them.
Their character designs, along with those of your sometime allies and the crow you control yourself, are simple but really well realised. In particular, your little crow’s pattering claws, twitchy neck, and undersized wings make for small comic moments throughout the game, whether in cutscenes or just as you navigate around.
If that all sounds very twee and sweet, though, don’t be misled – Death’s Door is different from a Zelda game in a few ways, one of the biggest being in its approach to combat. Namely, there’s loads of it – and it’s moderately unforgiving.
You’ll pick up a few weapons to choose from during the game (a couple of which will require sniffing out carefully), and you also have a few spells to use against enemies, but suffer four hits and you’ll be back to the last door you popped through to try again.
Those enemies will have ranged attacks, melee, plus a bunch of jumps and rolls to employ against you – and Death’s Door is happy to throw a good few of them your way at once, leading to some pretty hectic encounters.
Thankfully, a good number of these will save after you beat them the first time, leaving you free to blitz past their arenas the next time you’re coming through, but that’s only helpful once you overcome their challenge.
The game’s big boss fights are culminations of this, requiring you to learn attack patterns and be smart with your openings, and the mix of challenge and reward is finely judged. We never got so frustrated by a boss that we quit the game, but a couple of them took plenty of tries, yielding a pleasant rush when we finally bested them.
This difficulty isn’t really mirrored by the light platforming or puzzle-solving you have to do, so it’s the main source of friction in the game, and it works really nicely to make sure that you can’t just explore willy nilly without thinking about your health levels.
It’s the mixture of charm and challenge that makes Death’s Door such a pleasure to play through – and for those who really take to it, there’s a wealth of endgame content to uncover and chip away at before you discover a final explanatory ending.
Even without that late-game splurge of extras, though, this is a lovely little tale that makes the most of a real legacy of game design, amping up some of the adrenaline in combat, but also making a statement of its own with a quaint and quiet story.
Writing by Max Freeman-Mills. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on .