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Death’s Door balances a grim world with never-ending charm

Thoughtful details give so much life to a game about death

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

There’s so much I love about Death’s Door. The isometric, top-down adventure game is full of charm and satisfying gameplay. The major thrust of the game is understanding why and how the afterlife’s Reaping Commission Headquarters exists, and this quest takes you through Death Door’s bleak yet alluring world and gets you lost in the labyrinthian dungeons that fill out the space. Under this overarching quest is a world full of thoughtful small details; through these touches, Death’s Door becomes something great.

Death’s Door is our 7th best game of the year
For our 2021 game of the year coverage, Polygon is celebrating our top 10 video games with a collection of essays. You can see our full Top 50 list here. Throughout December, we’ll also be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and more!

Death’s Door is simple. My little void of a crow is tasked with reaping souls, sometimes of monsters who don’t want to go. The afterlife here is not what I’d expect: It’s a rote, repetitive process dripping with bureaucracy. My crow can roll, slash, and shoot, and faces a variety of different enemies, both smaller foes and big bosses. Combat is fast and satisfying, reminiscent of both old Legend games and, of course, Dark Souls. On paper, the game feels familiar, but as you explore, it becomes something brilliant.

Death’s Door is, after all, about death — not necessarily a topic many would describe as inviting. But the game is inviting nonetheless. Its world, so extraordinarily crafted, somehow makes the scariest thoughts seem just a little more manageable. Death’s Door sets its grim world against a pervasive charm found in its smallest details. Intense, Dark Souls-esque combat is offset by witty humor and surprising warmth. Paired with the smooth, precise mechanics, Death’s Door is as intense in combat as it is inviting in its atmosphere. In moments that might otherwise be too much, as a newbie to this genre, I can find comfort in the little things.

I’m not necessarily a person who likes to plan out an approach to combat: I like to enter a game and immediately start hitting things. I was no different with Death’s Door. I started slashing away, testing the limits of the game and seeing what it let me break. I do this for a couple reasons, the first of which is to get used to the controls and see what every button does. To my surprise, Death’s Door lets me break things that some games would otherwise not. Things in the world would respond to my blows in ways that consistently surprised me.

The titular Death’s Door in Death’s Door Image: Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital

One thing you can break are signs, which are particularly important since Death’s Door doesn’t have a map. The gloomy, stone structures of the world often look alike, and without that direction, I can get pretty lost. I was surprised when Death’s Door’s first signpost reacted to my weapon, breaking in two right through the words telling me where to go. I clicked the button to read it: The text box that popped up on screen was slashed, just like the sign. To read the whole thing, I had to piece together the top and bottom. It almost feels silly to mention a detail like this because it’s just so small; it has no bearing on my moment-to-moment experience of the game. And yet, it’s a thing that’s stuck with me even months after playing Death’s Door. Remember that sign?

This tiny detail is more than just destruction. It’s a little reminder of the harshness of this world, that actions always have consequences. But there’s humor in that destruction, too, giving the game’s brutal world some silly charm.

Little details produced with that much care and a touch of humor are spread throughout the entirety of the game. There are little green buds that follow me around but run each time the weapon swings. There’s the way flowers sway when I pass, how leaves rustle and move under my crow’s footsteps. It’s such a contrast to the violence of the world, where a variety of enemies lurk around every corner and attack on-site. That’s on top of Acid Nerve’s incredible art direction, which mimics the game’s themes of duality: It’s both light and dark. It needs these joyful little breaks in the midst of its intense, challenging gameplay.

The details provide moments of joyful surprise in a game focused on grim topics. The duality of Death’s Door works, because these little details balance out the bleak, Dark Souls-esque world with moments of delightful exploration.

There are plenty of hidden items and places to explore in the game, but what sticks with me are these little secrets that might not otherwise get a mention, the stuff you don’t find guides or achievements for. It’s in these details that Death’s Door stands out as something truly special.