Acid Nerve’s debut, Titan Souls, felt like an exercise in how far you can streamline a game. Born from a game jam, this stripped-back boss rush – in which both you and your colossal opponents had 1HP – was an unconventional idea that worked on paper but struggled to sustain a full game. Its followup is almost the polar opposite. Built on more formulaic foundations,
Death’s Door feels like a game that started small and just kept getting bigger, wider, deeper – and better.
It appears from the outset to be a compact, isometric
Zelda-like, offering a familiar mix of combat, puzzles and exploration. You play as a crow, tasked with harvesting the souls of the dead in a world where they’re unable to pass on; when your latest job goes wrong, you have to retrieve the souls of three characters who, having exceeded their natural lifespan, have evolved into monstrous giants. With four equipment slots and five spaces for alternative weapons in your inventory menu, it looks like you’re in for a brisk afternoon’s entertainment. Yet, appropriately for a game about defying the final curtain, it keeps on going.
You’d expect a small studio’s second game to be more substantial than the first, but there is a clear uptick in quality as well as quantity. Combat is crisp and precise. You face standard grunts with rangy swipes and leaping slams, archers that back off and take careful aim, chunky knights with weapons that reach farther than a single dodge-roll, and mages that launch smoking projectiles and spirit away when you approach. They’re archetypes, sure, but they’re characterfully designed and thrown at you in devious combinations to keep you on your talons.
It has a similar rhythm to Hyper Light Drifter, as you dart forward for a quick left-right-left combo before retreating to attack from a safer distance, assuming they’re not preparing to launch or lunge or leap towards you. Instead of refilling your ammo, successful swipes top up a magic meter that you expend on arrows, fireballs and bombs – each taking successively longer to charge in accordance with its power. Some enemy types, meanwhile, can be corralled to take out others. Whack the pot of a mortar-spitting flower and you can blow up a cluster of enemies without having to lay a feather on them.
In the Zelda tradition, these also help solve environmental puzzles: fireballs stoke braziers and burn away cobwebs, while your hookshot carries you across chasms and activates distant switches. Accessed from a large graveyard hub, the boss domains are expansive and intricate, stuffed with clever shortcuts and secrets that have a habit of drawing you away from your destination – though with no map you won’t always be sure you’re going in the right direction. Set away from the critical path are orbs of soul energy that can boost your abilities, and buds to plant in scattered pots which instantly flower for a single-use health top-up (though they blossom once more on death). And the settings themselves are far from your average desert, forest and ice biomes – the frigid peaks of one villain’s mountain lair are as close as it gets. A visit to a haunted mansion takes you through an underground lab, while an amphibian king resides within a flooded cathedral that feels like three dungeons in one. It could feel disjointed, but outside of the monochromatic Reaper Commission, from which you can fast-travel as you unlock more doors as shortcuts, it’s entirely contiguous. It’s beautifully presented, too, a combination of perspective, lighting and subtle use of depth of field give it a pleasing solidity, almost as if you’re traversing a series of dioramas stitched together seamlessly.
Then there are the boss fights. The problem with Titan Souls’ approach was that these encounters could often be anticlimactic and unrewarding, with some titans defeated by happy accident, while others felt like brick walls, exacerbating the repetition of the process. There were no shifts of momentum and no thrilling comebacks. With greater margin for error, Death’s Door’s showpiece scraps now have a lively ebb and flow. Battles can still be over quickly – the window of invulnerability after you’re struck is narrow enough that you can easily take two hits in short order – but their attack patterns, while often swift and ferocious, rarely feel unfair. Each time that allcaps DEATH greets your demise, you feel confident that the next attempt will get you closer to finishing them off.
On it goes. Freed from the restrictions of their debut’s ‘you only have one’ conceit, you sense creators David Fenn and Mark Foster are enjoying themselves here, cutting loose with ideas and odd little surprises. Despite the sombre theme, the script (polished up by Lego City Undercover scribe Graham Goring) is witty and wonderfully irreverent: you wouldn’t ever get a Zelda boss exasperatedly calling you “a little shit”, while one late-game introduction delivers the biggest laugh we’ve had from a game all year. It squirrels away mysteries and secrets a little deeper than you might expect, too. There’s a nod to Super Mario Sunshine in a mechanic we’re fairly sure is never explained. One deliciously horrible moment sees you take a swipe at a cluster of rock-like obstructions, only to discover they’re not rocks at all. And right at the end you’re given an item that reveals, post-credits, that your adventure isn’t over just yet.
Occasionally it goes a little too far. With no map, and a few samey-looking areas, the route forward sometimes only becomes clear after a fair amount of wandering. One fussy timing-based challenge involving precise hookshot use while moving across slippery ice platforms briefly has us considering a lower score. And if bosses are intended as a test where you apply everything you’ve learned, in one case Acid Nerve really does mean everything. Otherwise, this is a distinctive twist on an established formula, and a remarkable accomplishment for such a small team. Its subject matter might seem like serious business, but this game about death feels thrillingly alive.
This is a distinctive twist on an established formula, and a remarkable accomplishment for a small team