One day in mid-July my Twitter feed was suddenly flooded with videos of a tiny crow tackling massive bosses and slicing signs in half. Up until that point, I had not been paying much attention to Death’s Door, the tale of a feathered grim reaper who has just had a job go terribly awry, but all the chatter had me intrigued. Knowing it was exclusive to Xbox and PC, I figured I was in for another Game Pass victory only to discover I had to actually pay for this little Indie. Still, it seemed like it could be worth it, so I happily forked over the $20 and gave it a whirl. What I found was without a doubt the Indie Game of the Summer and, quite possibly, my Game of the Year.
Perhaps what’s the most incredible thing about Death’s Door is that there’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about it. You traverse a cute little Indie world presented in an isometric view that anyone who has played years of titles inspired by Zelda or last year’s GOTY Hades should be accustomed to. The combat feels very much like something you would experience in any of the three decades worth of Zelda-inspired tales, and the weapons and tools are right at home, too. Despite how familiar everything is, the game is an absolute marvel because of how masterfully it executes it all from the brilliantly on point atmosphere to the finely tuned combat difficulty and the unparalleled joy of exploration.
You’re immediately drawn into this painstakingly handcrafted world. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous yet simplistic with neat little touches like feathers floating off of your crow character whenever you roll or signs that read with half of the text cut off when you take your sword to them. There’s so much life (and death) in every realm that you can’t wait to see what clever flourishes the two devs (yep a two man team did this) have waiting for you. This is wrapped inside a beautiful balance of absurdist humor, like a sea captain who is actually controlled by a squid or a character with a pot of soup for a head who is named “Pothead”, and the dourness and solemnity that goes along with the death following a reaper. But that death is all about bringing on new life, so a sense of hope exists with the thrill of adventure. Wrap this all up in one of the best scores I’ve heard in a while, and it creates a world you’ll not want to put down until it’s finished.
While all the little atmospheric touches are spot on, the main activities of combat and exploration are perhaps where the game shines the brightest. Similar to controlling the 2D version of Link, swinging your weapon and taking on hordes of bad guys just feel absolutely perfect. This is in large part thanks to the difficulty being dialed just right presenting a significant challenge while never making you want to smash your head against the wall in frustration. There’s a lot to learn, but enemies telegraph their moves readily enough that you’ll quickly master the dance of battle. Each new foe is a fun little puzzle to solve but not a test of whether or not you can “git gud”. Every victory is earned but never exasperating.
Of course, you’re not always clashing swords and reaping souls. Sometimes, you’re simply searching the surroundings for your next objective or one of the journey’s many secrets. Each environment is ripe with collectibles, upgrade materials, and subtle yet wonderful environmental puzzles that make revisiting each area and going for the true ending or even 100% completion a blast. Much like the combat was tuned at just the perfect difficulty, these puzzles require precisely the optimal level of brain power to never get tiring or overwhelming. At about 10 hours to beat and 15 hours to 100%, Death’s Door is exactly the length and scale for a thoroughly grand yet mercifully quick adventure.
Throughout my time being absolutely delighted by Death’s Door, two other recent games kept coming to mind – 2017’s Hollow Knight and last year’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps. There’s a certain rush I got from those two titles that came from the sense that you were playing a game that’s devs knew exactly what they were doing and were absolutely in a groove with their tuning. When things are humming along the gameplay hits a beautiful flow state that can’t be beat. Yes, you’re not going to find any one element that’s entirely new in Death’s Door, but you’re going to be surrounded by systems and ideas that are so perfectly executed throughout that you can’t help but be amazed and overcome by the sensation that you’re playing one of these oft-threaded games for the very first time. Even now as I sit over a week removed from putting all other games on the back-burner so I could focus solely on finishing my crow’s journey, I keep remembering new little wonderful things, and I know when I look back at the games of 2021, this is going to be the first or second that comes to mind. While it remains to be seen whether it can stay atop the GOTY ranks for the next 5 months, it certainly is the year’s first and most unexpected masterpiece.