It’s all very standard stuff, predictable in the way that great action-adventures always are. I knew without question that a hookshot would materialize after seeing all of the wooden stakes conspicuously smattered across unreachable platforms, just as I knew that all of those crumbled patches in the walls would soon give way to an infinite supply of bombs. If you grew up on these games, you’ll likely be able to play Death’s Door through your limbic instincts.
Death’s Door is built like an old-school Zelda game: Players take control of a diminutive crow in a diorama-like world, and, outfitted with a sword and a dream, traipse through three dungeons to secure the macguffins necessary to pry open the titular gateway. In each of those levels, the player will stumble into an extra equippable weapon that assists in solving the puzzles found within the labyrinth.
Death’s Door can be a difficult game, and some of its later sections throw whole armies in your little crow’s path. But attacks and evasions can be chained together fluidly, and none of my many restarts felt particularly cheap. It wouldn’t have hurt if there were a few more flourishes on top of the standard roll-and-slash combat, but the system works. In fact, I was almost surprised by how violent Death’s Door could be. Acid Nerve lays on the controller shake every time steel connects with flesh, and the cretins ragdoll to the ground like pro wrestlers. Nobody has the privilege to die in a puff of smoke.
Otherwise, though, Death’s Door feels like a microscopic epic. It’s as if a grand entry to an overarching canon—filled with quirks, humor, and wondrous attention to detail—was miraculously miniaturized to fit into a fortnight’s worth of lunch breaks. Maybe the great sagas of videogames don’t need to be strewn out over gargantuan level caps and supersized open worlds. Maybe all it takes is a transcendent vibe.
That sublimity is only disrupted by a few problem spots. Death’s Door doesn’t quite match the immaculate level-design guarded by the Nintendo braintrust, which meant that I spent a couple parts retreading through the corridors over and over again trying to track down the last key to unlock the next encounter or whatever. This is one of the ancient miseries associated with the genre, and for a game that specializes in efficiency, too much backtracking can really take the air out of the ball. (To make matters worse, there’s no map to be found in any of the dungeons.) Death’s Door is judicious with its checkpoints—fine by me—but there’s also nothing stopping you from bolting past all the enemies you’ve dispatched in previous runs, which makes the corpserun a little pointless. Either punish me with a grind, or respawn me in the same place I died! I promise you, I can take it.