Death’s Door, an isometric dungeon-crawler that came out for PC and Xbox earlier this year, is a master class in elegant game design. Nowhere is that more apparent than in one late-game boss fight. In pretty much every way—visually, thematically, mechanically, musically—the bout is a tour de force. I cannot stop thinking about it.
Major spoilers follow for Death’s Door.
The setup for Death’s Door is fairly simple: You play as a crow, a rank-and-file employee in a bureaucratic organization that collects the souls of the dying. In the rules of this agency, when you’re in the field, you can die. But once you return with your “assigned soul,” you’re back to immortality and an indefinitely extended (after)life.
Your first gig is to field a soul from an octopus-looking monster that’s not quite ready to say goodbye to being alive. You pull the job off, because it’s basically a tutorial level, and then an older crow who calls himself Grey Crow comes out of nowhere and steals the soul that’s by rights yours. Apparently, he needs souls to open the titular Death’s Door, behind which he’s lost a soul of his own, so he can return to an ageless existence. Grey Crow then tasks you with defeating three Giants, each of whom live, in classic Zelda style, deep in the pits of labyrinthine dungeons. Once you complete your task, shit gets real.
Using all three Giant souls, you open Death’s Door. There, you meet Death, who is not a concept but actually just a former reaper named Death, who, while wearing a fanny pack, regales you with the big twist. Years before the events of Death’s Door, your boss, the Lord of Doors, sought eternal life in a conspiratorial plot that required locking Death behind a door and tossing away the key. Grey Crow can’t handle this information overload—can’t handle that he devoted the bulk of his life to a fruitless cause—and becomes consumed with rage, transforming into his boss form, The Grey Crow.
Though he’s tough, The Grey Crow is by no means the most difficult boss fight in the game. (That dishonor unequivocally belongs to Betty, the third Giant.) But it’s certainly the prettiest. Here’s a video from Fuzzy Bearbarian, a YouTuber who specializes in creating boss fight guides, showing a no-damage (!!) match:
Yes, it’s an impressive feat. But also: the music! The stark visuals! It’s like that definitive black-and-white segment from Gris, Nomada Studio’s excellent 2018 puzzle-platformer, except stretched and molded into a boss fight that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The fight against The Grey Crow stands out not just because of what it does but because of what it doesn’t do. Most of Death’s Door constrains you to a specific space. Dungeon fights are typically bordered by walls or bottomless pits. Prior boss fights, meanwhile, go down in tightly confined arenas, circular or square platforms that can fit in the space of a single frame. But when you’re up against The Grey Crow, you can run and run and run—forever. (Yes, yes, I understand that it’s an optical illusion, a graphical trick that makes you feel like the space is without bounds. Still, after spending an entire game navigating dictated boundaries, the sensation of limitlessness is intoxicating.)
But it also plays with the game’s form in a way no prior boss fight does. Death’s Door doesn’t have health bars or hit points or anything like that. Rather, as you chip away at an enemy’s health, they’ll slowly develop fuschia-colored cracks. Once an enemy looks ready to shatter, you can usually do away with them in a hit or two. The Grey Crow introduces an extra wrinkle: Every time you land a hit, he’ll lose a feather. Any detached plumage will turn into homing projectiles that slowly track you. If you can line it up right, you can smack those projectiles right back at him, thus delodging another feather, creating a cycle akin to a dance.
Defeating The Grey Crow might take you a few tries, depending on how comfortable you are with isometric action games. Like Fuzzy Bearbarian, I found it easiest to pepper him with the upgraded fire spell—found in the catacombs en route to the Witch’s Mansion—which deals consistent damage over time. In the latter half of the fight, he’ll start dropping gravity wells that can ruin your day, so shooting those is imperative.
Eventual victory brings one of Death’s Door’s themes into crystal clarity. Despite its name and its ostensible focus on, y’know, reaping souls, the game about life. It’s about how, when the time comes, most folks don’t want to die, and will do anything within their power to avoid it. But that’s not how things work. Without death, Death points out, there cannot be life.
There’s a haunting, melancholic bent to the whole thing. Yes, you win, but it’s one of those in-name-only victories. The Grey Crow doesn’t revert to his previously even-keeled manner. He doesn’t have an epiphany and give up the fight. He’s just...gone. By your hand.
“I’m sorry about your big feathered friend back there. It’s always hard for the living to let go of the dead,” Death tells you once you walk back out of his door. “Even more of a rough one, having to reap him yourself.”