Every few years the world is treated to a star bursting onto the scene. Whether it's a young actor realizing their potential on the silver screen or that relatively unknown music group finally showing up on the mainstream’s radar, people love having a new horse to back. Death’s Door is that breakthrough moment for developer Acid Nerve.

The two-man UK studio most well-known for 2015’s Titan Souls is not a household name, but after their latest endeavor, it would be a crime if that continued.

HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND

Death’s Door is an isometric action-adventure game for Xbox and PC that harkens back to 2D titles of yesteryear. It follows a soul-reaping Crow who’s latest target has been snatched away by some mysterious force. With nothing but a simple sword and some bits of magic, the aviary hero must complete puzzles, take down bosses, and uncover the secret of his stolen goods.

Though Death’s Door can look and sound like a gleeful Disney adventure at times, featuring witty writing and some genuinely funny moments, it is anything but. It tells a dark and brooding tale filled with death and lives lost.

While the player may be cracking jokes with a man whose head is literally a pot of soup one moment, just one room over they will be treated to the story of a poor soul who died looking for the one they love. The game weaves in themes of grief, the thirst for power, and the inevitability of death, all doing so with an almost Studio Ghibli-like artstyle.

This is a dark game at its core. Yes, its dry sense of humor shines through, but the dour and macabre world doesn’t make this the Saturday Morning Cartoon a journey like this could be.

KNOCKING AT DEATH’S DOOR

Death's Door Xbox
Xbox

Death’s Door is a gameplay triumph. The game takes all the best parts of classic Zelda titles, like Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past , and mixes in the pulse-pounding combat and brilliant level design tricks of the Dark Souls series.

To say Death’s Door is fun to play is an understatement. The levels seem to weave themselves together in a brilliant kind of way, offering health pickups, shortcuts, and secrets to be found at a superb pace.

All this is tied together by this morose black and white hub world where the player can take currency accumulated through combat and upgrade their adorable feathered hero. This is level design that is usually reserved for the Miyazaki's and Miyamoto's of the gaming world, yet Acid Nerve pulls off this impression swimmingly.

Something else that needs to be highlighted is the soundtrack. It seamlessly blends bits of ambient piano, airy acoustic guitar, and epic strings, creating a soundscape that stands out from the title screen all the way through to the credits. This is a batch of songs that will have gaming vinyl collectors clamoring for a release on wax.

Technically speaking, the game does have its hiccups. Most of the time, the action is locked to 60 FPS, but can dip below for brief moments here and there. Where these frame drops happened did not seem to have any rhyme or reason, not usually occurring in high-paced combat encounters, but rather when simply exploring the world. It is not the biggest issue, but for a title that mostly runs like a well-oiled machine, these technical hitches are noticeable.

EAT CROW!

Death's Door Crow
Xbox

Gameplay-wise, Death’s Door is a joy. Traversing this dark cartoony landscape is so much fun, and taking down hordes of enemies with the hero’s magic and blade is smile-inducing when it all clicks.

The recipe for combat that Acid Nerve has cooked up is brilliant. The process of striking an enemy with the hero’s sword to acquire ammo for their bow or other abilities ensures that the player is staying on the offensive. This creates a delicate dance of dodge rolling, firing arrows, and slashing away, making each enemy encounter descend into controlled chaos that one has to experience to truly appreciate.

The combat loop walks a thin line between challenging and frustrating, sometimes falling into the latter, but never enough so that it feels cheap. Each and every death is the player’s fault.

Yes, Death’s Door can throw wave upon wave of foes at its protagonist, but it never feels as though a sequence is impossible or unbeatable. That “one more try” mentality of the Souls franchise is on full display here, without ever reaching controller-throwing levels of difficulty.

The bosses throughout the game are great as well, but will leave some wanting more. And no, not more from the encounters that come packed in (those are some of the best parts of the game), but more so the quantity of them overall. The boss fights are that good, so it’s hard not to want more.

When gamers aren’t swinging steel they will be tasked with completing puzzles and exploring dungeons. These ingenious little brain teasers certainly will make one think, but that “a-ha” moment is never too far off. The puzzles along the critical path rarely get too difficult, but with a myriad of secrets hidden in the deep recesses of Death’s Door, there is plenty of challenge there for those seeking it.

2021’S INDIE DARLING

Death's Door Frog
Xbox

To sum it up, Death’s Door is truly something special. How a game like this was made by two people defies logic. It is polished in nearly every way. Teams one hundred times as big wish their games played like this.

The brilliant blend of combat and puzzle-solving, a breathtaking soundtrack, and impeccable level design make it feel like the modern 2D Zelda that Nintendo simply refuses to make. Sure, it wears its influences on its sleeves, but when its influences are the masterpieces they are, it’s hard to complain.

At times, it can frustrate with difficulty spikes, it may leave some wanting more big boss battles, and the frame rate can drop here and there, but those are minor gripes when the whole package is something as good as this.

Death’s Door shines in nearly every way and is easily one of the best games released so far this year.

This game was provided by Devolver Digital.

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