Death’s Door — Inspiration Overtaken

Dark Crow-ls. The Legend of Zeld-Caw. Other desperate claws at terrible wordplay grasped at my mind the last few days. I went into Death’s Door thinking I could just play it and (hopefully) enjoy it. By the end of my first session, I was already scrawling notes down, both what I was experiencing and what I wanted to revisit in the game (more on that later). Most of my notes from that first day were inspiration-based: parallels and similarities to the standards set by Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda. But by the second, the third day of play, Death’s Door truly came into focus. For a smaller, intimate experience than its inspirations, it makes the daunting feel manageable; the insurmountable, accessible; the inevitable, comforting. It is an experience flavored by those that came before it, while finding unexpected and wonderful ways to overtake its own inspirations.

The short version of Death’s Door is this: players control a Crow, a contracted Reaper, in their journey and battles to reap their assigned soul. Shenanigans ensue. Feelings are had. Great fun for everyone, more on that later.

Inspiration

Death’s Door looks, and feels, similar to the older Legend of Zelda titles: a top-down perspective, sword-based combat, all that good stuff. The game kicks off proper with a familiar trope to any Zelda fan: we need to find a few very important items to complete our quest. If an inciting incident ain’t broke, no need to fix it!

To acquire those items, Crow must journey into and through a series of classic dungeons. Perhaps not dank, underground caverns, but classic in that they are so intentionally designed that it works. Shortcuts open up. Items are found. Upgrades are won. There are treasure chests (kind of)! They start off small and open up as players explore more and more, but never so large that they’re overwhelming or require a map.

Throughout those dungeons, players might even see things that they just can’t interact with yet: distant anchors, perfect to lasso onto; glowing walls and rocks that beg to be destroyed; lonely, unlit braziers. Players will see these elements from very early on. Just like its inspiration, Death’s Door beautifully teases the potential of what is out of reach, of those things eventually being in reach with the right tools.

Between the dungeons and other maps, Death’s Door is littered with secrets: some upgrades, some expansions, some “shiny things,” events and interactions…secrets all across the board. Heart Pieces and hidden items have translated well. And we all know what awaits at the end of dungeons: big ol’ HONKIN’ bosses. They take a lot to put down, they’re tough, they’re a culmination of what you’ve learned up to this point. Death’s Door pays solid homage to the greatest of Legend of Zelda’s myriad adventures.

But then it flies perpendicular, drawing a great deal from Dark Souls, discreetly and overtly. While Legend of Zelda makes a big deal out of finding maps, compasses, guiding tools, Death’s Door and Dark Souls have no such tools. There are no maps, only guiding landmarks, implied direction, and players’ own memories to rely on. But just like Dark Souls, Death’s Door is so intentionally designed that players don’t really get lost. They can get turned around sometimes, but there’s a sense of forward momentum, of natural wayfinding, that requires no map.

In their adventures (as noted from Zelda’s influences), Crow will stumble on different “Shiny Things,” which hint at small stories that shape the world, but exist out of the established narrative. Just as Dark Souls tells its story through the items that the character discovers, so too are the world and the characters of Death’s Door elaborated through the twenty-four Shiny Things found in the world.

Death’s Door walks most parallel to Dark Souls in its combat: Crow has a wide range of movement, but so do enemies. Success relies initially on reflexes, but survival dictates understanding. Players need to learn to read and react to the different enemy types and attacks encountered, how they change and evolve through the game, when best to strike, and when to fall back and evade. The enemies are difficult, but not insurmountable. Quick, but nothing that can’t be avoided. Reflexes will get players so far, but watching, learning the foes’ dynamics…knowledge is what will take players furthest.

Even the most observant of players is bound to fall, though; Crow can’t take too many hits before dying. That element of combat from Dark Souls most prevalent: death. Between standard enemies catching players off-guard, accidentally launching off a path edge into the void, or an overwhelming boss encounter, players are bound to die. Death’s Door not only expects this, but seems to revel in it. Where Dark Souls reminds players that “You Died,” Death’s Door is somehow even more direct. The experience is truly unique, but for now, visual representation will have to suffice:

But as quickly as players fall, they are brought back; again, where Dark Souls excels the most. Death’s Door is not punishing, it is encouraging. Every fight, you get a little further, you learn a little more, you chunk a little more damage into the big boss, you advance. Death’s Door is difficult, and it will lay you out any number of times, but it’s not defeatist. It wants you to succeed, it encourages you to try, and try again. It might not seem like it, with the giant, Soulsian bosses and enemies it throws at you, but it encourages you through every defeat: every enemy can be overcome, every attack learned from, every challenge an opportunity to grow and improve.

Its inspirations are strong, but they only serve as part of the foundation.

Overtaken

Death’s Door is defined most strongly in three ways: its scope, its gameplay, and its tone.

By way of scope, Death’s Door excels by keeping it focused. It only has a few locations, but they are made very well, both in terms of art direction and in design. Enemy designs are largely reused, but elaborated on, elevated as the game progresses. By keeping that scope limited, Death’s Door is able to present players with a beautifully-crafted and interconnected world, and intentionally-designed combat encounters to boot, without overwhelming them at any point.

Next, gameplay: the blend and balance of action and strategy is reminiscent of its inspirations, but Death’s Door finds its own balance. Enemies are quick, and so is Crow; this isn’t lumbering dodge rolls and heavy swings from Dark Souls. But neither are things lightning fast, either enemies attacking or players reacting. It’s an in-between area, where everyone can tell what’s happening and what’s going to happen without watching for microscopic tells. It’s kicking yourself when things go wrong for not reading the game’s wind-up, not cursing the game for being unfair.

There’s a sense of improvement without feeling “grindy;” natural progression (collecting souls to upgrade your combat abilities) seemed, in my experience, to keep pace with the challenges Death’s Door was throwing at me. It never felt like I needed to grind my way towards upgrades. When I needed them most, I could invest, or otherwise get excited to have enough to upgrade. Death’s Door doesn’t waste your time.

Remember how I mentioned that, like Dark Souls, you’re bound to eat dirt and die a fair amount? Unlike Dark Souls, the “currency” you collect, souls, remain with you after death. There’s no losing your progress, hoping you can find your cache before you die again, it’s your progress, and it remains. It doesn’t diminish the game’s level of challenge, but it feels forgiving all the same. Death’s Door feels respectful of your time, and recognizes where its experience is strongest. For the audience it’s trying to attract, this is an ideal middle ground. It is challenging, but more forgiving than those it draws from.

Next, think again on how Death’s Door and Legend of Zelda often tease equipment: in Zelda, you wander through a dungeon and find oddly-placed elements that you know will come in handy when you discover a new item. But that’s just it; they’re almost always relegated to the dungeon you find the item in. Think of metal walls where you find magnet boots, or hookshot points where you retrieve the hookshot. Death’s Door starts teasing those equipment possibilities nearly at the start of the game, planting seeds of excitement and eventual fulfillment in its players. It not only makes traversal in familiar areas more fun, but, in line with scope, is never overwhelming; there are only a few major upgrades to acquire, so not many kinds of teases to keep track of, only locations.

Therein lies the final gameplay element: the mystery. Players will, no doubt, encounter any number of strange puzzles or structures in their adventure, seemingly inaccessible or utterly befuddling. But, in the words of Benoit Blanc, “Compels me, though.” All things, as we’ve been taught, can be surmounted. If I couldn’t remember something, I’d write it down, a reminder to revisit it later. Sometimes, “later” was as late as the post-game, after credits had rolled, just to check it off my list. But I was compelled by the mystery past the main narrative, and I wanted to see it all through. While I appreciate games that tell their story and end, I’m a sucker for games that stretch it out a little past the credit roll. It’s always nice to see what’s happened since the story’s “end.”

Lastly, I wouldn’t give two shakes of a feather about the post-game if I wasn’t involved in the game’s tone, in how it has played, in how it has told its story. It’s told through an unpredictable cast of characters that deserve to be met on their own terms, from adventuring companions to friendly faces, vindictive villains and crafty cooks, and every interaction in-between. Words do them no justice, but they are all endearing in their own way.

Musically, I can simply describe Death’s Door’s soundscape as transcendent, sublime in its own way. Truly otherworldly, in a game so rooted in death and the beyond. It moves seamlessly from ambient environments, to rollicking combat, to mournful reflection, to silly character moments. It never misses a beat, it feels natural, and each track stands tall on its own. To put it differently: this is the kind of soundtrack where I wasn’t halfway through Death’s Door before I paused the game and searched for the soundtrack online. I was heartbroken when I found vinyl preorders had already ended, but still bought the digital album all the same. When you know that early that a soundtrack resonates that well, you can’t deny what it’s done for the experience.

Narratively, Death’s Door takes a simple approach: its dialogue is quick, sharp, and interspersed with humor all throughout, even in its most reverent scenes. The story is simple on the surface, and goes deeper only as players care for it, only as they explore for it. It’s a perfectly fine story on its own, but through item descriptions, through careful observation of the world, through truly paying attention to dialogue, the worldbuilding goes that much deeper. Death’s Door presents an enjoyable story on its surface, but for those who yearn for more, they need only dig a little deeper. All parties can walk away satisfied.

The tone, at the end, is disparate, but no less gratifying. It is silly, but simultaneously heartfelt. Tragic, but no less cathartic. It makes the unknown more comforting, while reminding us how wild what we know is, and how much we have yet to know. It pays respects, and allows the player to, in a way that a game rarely, if ever, has before. It is a game about death, dying, and hastening that process for some, and yet it never falls into a feeling of ludonarrative dissonance. Death’s Door is a balancing act that has no business working as well as it does…and yet, it does.

Respects, Paid

We are all built from those who inspire us, whether we acknowledge it or not. As storytelling evolves and changes, we take inspiration from the stories that came before, that we may craft new stories, using the best parts of old stories to craft them. Death’s Door pays its respects to the inspirations that came before it, but it is its own tale; shaped by its predecessors, but not defined by them. It is a story of what we are bound to, what we are capable of, and the lengths we are willing to go to for each other. It is a story of perspective. Our stories are the culmination of what others have left us, done to us, done with us, and done for us. Death’s Door is a story built on the foundation others left, but made into a new, beautiful story, told in a way that only this story could be, just as our stories can only be told in our way.

All images captured in-game.

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Mike Shepard

Mike Shepard

Just an amateur reminding himself of what he loves. Looking to write about all the things and experiences that make the end of the world worth living in.