Somewhere at the intersection of Dark Souls and classic Zelda lies Death’s Door, a delightful indie adventure in which you play as a little birb with a sword. I wield the internet speak of “birb” here because you’re a cute AF crow whose job it is to reap the souls of the dying. You never really learn why Death’s Door has such heavy-handed tonal dissonance, but the end result is the single most charming game of 2021 — and one that deserves to win at The Game Awards 2021 for Best Independent Game. Here’s why.
Your nameless Reaper is a crow employed by the Reaping Commission Headquarters, a stodgy office located in some cosmic purgatory. While on an opening mission to collect the soul of an unwilling monster, you’re ambushed by an old, enormous crow who takes it. You soon find him at the titular Death’s Door. He drops some cryptic hints about a conspiracy (or ... crowspiracy?) about the RCH and its hilariously named leader, the Lord of Doors, urging you to slay three prominent enemies so that their “Giant Souls” might finally unlock the door to whatever really lies beyond the limits of death.
Perhaps best of all? Following a July 2021 launch on PC and Xbox consoles, Death’s Door is now available on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation consoles.
Made by Titan Souls developer Acid Nerve and published by Devolver Digital, Death’s Door is a fairy tale that hearkens back to a classic era in gaming before fully-immersive 3D environments. The isometric camera angle and comically nonsensical enemy design feel like a time capsule to another era. Yet it achieves a certain level of polish and depth that’s rare, even by today’s standards.
The framework evokes Ocarina of Time’s opening act: Venture into three unique dungeons and claim each of the magic McGuffins that lie there. The core gameplay loops are where Dark Souls comes in. The RCH serves as the central hub. Doors throughout the living world represent your checkpoints (or “bonfires,” to use the Dark Souls nomenclature), each of them leading back to HQ. Walking through any of these doors instantly heals you, and you return to HQ upon every death. In both cases, enemies respawn in the same places.
Oh, and some of the combat gauntlets are very challenging. For the quick-fingered, however, Death’s Door is exhilarating rather than exhausting, and it’s much easier to play than anything with “Souls” in the title.
Speaking of the combat: You start out with a simple sword, along with a bow and arrow, discovering several other weapons and magic powers along the way. All enemies are fast and aggressive, so it’s a lot of dodging and timing your strikes just right. But the tasteful, limited upgrade system and weapon variety allow you to essentially choose a custom playstyle. Use the Rogue Daggers for quick slashes and Bomb spell for massive damage in a wide area. Or opt for a heavier weapon with the fast-shooting bow.
My personal favorite? Upgrading the Flame spell (which shoots a small fireball) causes it to deal persistent burn damage over time, and because it travels through enemies, it’s excellent for crowd control. And the basic Reaper’s Sword is versatile enough to be an ideal go-to. The best players will mix things up on the fly depending on the environment and enemies present, but you can probably get by leaning into whatever seems fun.
And there is a lot of fun to be had.
Our hero is a cartoonish crow, even down to the cute little waddle and the endearing way he sometimes cocks his head to the side. If he weren’t hurling fireballs and slicing up spiders with his rad pink sword, you’d think he were a regular crow that’s somehow human-sized. The story really is quite grave, so it’s pretty delightful when everybody looks so ridiculous.
That bizarre dissonance lends itself to many genuine laugh-out-loud moments, whether it’s the silly froghemoth king with a name longer than Daenerys Targaryen’s title on Game of Thrones or when the witch calls you a “little shit” for smashing her pots.
There’s a giant gravedigger who yearns for death, a mad witch who transforms people into urns, a goofy frog king who lords over a swamp, and perhaps best of all, a guy who talks like a gallant, wayward knight who got his head transformed into a big pot of soup. The only misstep in the entire game is that you can’t say yes when he offers you a cup of chowder from his noggin.
Despite all of this silliness, Death’s Door is a serious philosophical meditation on mortality steeped in anti-capitalistic rhetoric. Truly, it is the breath of fresh air we all need in 2021. Why does death define our existence? Why do we do everything in our power to avoid it? What is the true nature of death? Is the man — or bird — who conquers death braver than the one who welcomes it, or is he the coward?
Death’s Door is out now on PC, Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation.