Death's Door nails the action but leaves me hungry for more bird lore

I want Death's Door to waste a little more of my time. I know that's a weird ask, and I can't remember if I've ever felt this way about an action game before. But the premise of Death's Door grabbed me from the first seconds of its reveal trailer earlier this year. Crows as grim reapers, living mundane office worker lives while traveling to fantasy worlds to collect the souls of the dead? I wanted to bathe in that setting immediately. After playing a preview of the first couple hours of Death's Door, I feel like I'm still waiting for it to actually deliver on its premise.

As soon as the game begins a bus drops me off outside the Reaping Commission and I guide my crow up to a desk where my first assignment awaits, the red sword on his back the only sign of color in a grayscale world. Unlike the reveal trailer, full of wordless cutscenes brimming with personality, the camera here mostly hangs back in its zoomed out isometric perspective. There's barely anyone to chat with.

Within three minutes I'm through a door to another world, off to collect the soul a bureaucrat has charged me with in just a few lines of dialogue. The Reaping Commission is all but deserted—a wasted opportunity for bird lore if ever there was one.

Coming off a recent obsession with Hades, where every return to the hub greets me with half a dozen characters to talk to and stories to advance, I'm sad to find the Reaping Commission so empty. Where my crowmies at? Death's Door is as quiet as Hades is talky, though it's hardly somber.

The few crows I can talk to crack jokes about their nightmare paperwork, and one of the first characters I meet on my quest has been cursed with a soup pot for a head. Soup splashes on the ground when he takes off his lid to bow deeply in greeting.

Later he offers me some with a spoon. My crow politely declines.

Most of the time Death's Door is quiet, letting a strong symphonic score set the mood. You know this mood: lonesome wanderer, mysterious ruins, majestic windswept peaks. Puzzles that ask you to shoot an arrow through a brazier to light another on fire, passages hidden out of sight around an isometric camera-obscured corner. When I run into enemies, like fuzzy fluttering bats and dunce cap-wearing zombies, action is fast and punchy. On a controller I can tap out a three-hit combo with the X button or hold a trigger to charge up a heavier hit. With a health bar with only four pips and no block, I need to precisely dodge roll away from enemy hits at just the right moment.

It feels exactly as it should. Death's Door will likely be a game I recommend in the same breath as Hyper Light Drifter, which also executes straightforward sword combat and dodging with a confidence that just feels great to control. Also like Hyper Light Drifter, the world I explore in Death's Door is a joy just to move through, with 3D art that feels so painstakingly handcrafted it takes on an almost claylike quality. Stone banisters and pedestals have wobbly edges instead of being quite square. A subtle depth of field effect blurs out the background like a camera panning across a miniature film set. It's lusciously designed without ever feeling flashy.

Death's Door is one of those games made of very familiar parts that I'll happily play to see exactly how they're being put together. I just wish it had the budget or aspiration to feel more like its trailer, bringing me in closer to its characters and the delightful drudgery of being a soul debt collector in an avian afterlife accounting firm.

Maybe beyond my first couple hours the Reaping Commission gradually becomes more populated, but I suspect it's not going to give me the lore dumps and more animated cutscenes I so crave. But I can live with another stoic, Zeda-lite adventure, especially if the few NPCs I do run into are introduced with this much charm.

Death's Door is out on Steam in just a few weeks—July 20th.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).