This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Death’s Door and The Forgotten City.
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Man, looking for indie games worth reviewing is like that one Monty Python sketch sometimes. We’ve got Soulslike. Egg and Soulslike. Bacon and Soulslike. Soulslike, egg, sausage and soulslike. And isometric hack and slash exploration games with RPG elements and Soulslike. Death’s Door being an example of that last one. In Death’s Door, you play a little crow who is one of many crows employed by some kind of celestial bureaucracy, and your job is to venture into the world and capture the souls of the newly dead, who are generally newly dead because you just killed the absolute motherfuck out of them, but that’s quotas for you. After your latest assignment gets stolen from you, you find yourself having to travel to the, erm, three corners of the earth to harvest powerful souls from big bosses in order to open the titular Death’s Door and complete your assignment. And no, you can’t fly there, despite being a bird. You probably can’t fly ‘cos you’re carrying the weight of a great big sword to do all the hacking and the slashing with. I think this is that “min-maxing” thing people always go on about. Anyway, Death’s Door is a game I would classify as story rich and cash poor.
It’s built a nice little world to take place in, it’s got that very indie-game art style you see in games like Ashen where it looks like everything’s made of folded craft paper. There’s some fun dialogue to be had with interesting NPCs who have that Dark Souls quality of adding life and texture to the setting while being absolutely no bloody help whatsoever. It’s just I find the gameplay to be generally a bit flimsy. Part of that might be the isometric look, which I think might be becoming one of my least favourite graphical styles, at least for action games. It makes it hard to gauge depth, the characters are so tiny on screen you can’t read the slogans on their hilarious souvenir T-shirts, and it’s too easy to get lost when the areas go past a certain size. In a third person open world game if I’m trying to remember where the tower of bollock scraping was I can look to the horizon for its telltale spherical ramparts, but in isometric land I can only go “Oh it was somewhere in the easterly quadrant of this giant sheet of graph paper I can only see ten square yards of at a time.” And Death’s Door doesn’t have a map so no bollocks are getting scraped today.
The environments just feel like competing labyrinths with different wallpaper and whenever I picked up a new ability that opened new areas I’d be like “Well, I did once see an area I needed this ability to get to. I also once found a coffee place in Melbourne that did amazing croissant french toast and I’m fucked if I can remember where that was, too.” So I felt very disinclined to go hunting for optional secrets or extra weapons, especially since I plowed through all the story bosses with very little trouble using nothing but one of the first weapons you get in the game, because the combat’s the other thing that’s a bit flimsy. You can mash attack or you can dodge or you can use a ranged attack and granted it’s impressive for a flightless bird to have any repertoire that goes beyond “eat seed” and “hop about” but it’s not the most nuanced gameplay in the world. All in all, probably for the best that Death’s Door doesn’t outstay its welcome. I mean, just three big bosses to find and then back here for the inevitable plot twist and dramatic climax, sure, I can rattle that out in one shift and be home in time for Thundercats. So that’s Death’s Door. The Soulslike equivalent of a packet of Monster Munch. Some interesting flavour to it but I’ll stop thinking about it the moment it stops troubling my digestive system.
So the next game I tried out was The Forgettable Title. Oh sorry I meant The Forgotten City, a sort of thinky thinky talky talky investigative adventure game thing that didn’t get off on the best foot with its name and playing like something that got hacked off a reject Bethesda game complete with the traditional very off-putting fixed boggle eye contact conversations, and with looking like it was pieced together from the example art that came free with the 3D modelling software, but somehow it drew me in. The premise is, you’re a generic present day chucklefuck who’s too busy staring at their modern gizmo to avoid falling down a time portal to 2000 years ago where a group of Ancient Romans are trapped in an underground city ruled over by a central doctrine that if any of them commit a single sin, then all of them will die. And if you’re anything like me once this has been explained to you by the city’s overseer you’ll go “Whatever, grandad,” forget this isn’t Skyrim and immediately loot some coins out of the chest in his bedroom. Whereupon a spooky voice will loudly denounce your sin and unsettle your entire breakfast, and you’ll be forced to sprint back to the time portal as the world falls apart about your ears and half-digested pop tarts tumble down your legs. Then you get teleported back to the start of the same day.
Yes, you’re stuck in a time loop. Jolly original idea if it weren’t for Outer Wilds. And Sexy Brutale. And Elsinore. And Minit and all the other ones. Bit of a trend in adventure games right now, actually, why only recently I don’t know seeing as Majora’s Mask did it twenty years ago, but it’s a good idea, it means you can have a sense of ticking clock urgency while also not punishing the player for taking their time to experiment and maybe occasionally blow off the main quest to flick playing cards at Andie McDowell, film reference. So it might not be original and it might have the general air of a basically okay-looking IKEA bookshelf that wobbles ominously when you lean on it, but I think the writing carries The Forgotten City. From the initial quest to figure out which of the twenty-odd boggle-eyed ancient Romans is going to fuck things up for everyone else we delve into a deeper investigation of the city’s true nature. The premise raises many philosophical questions, very few of which go unaddressed in dialogue at some point – what constitutes a sin? No one knows. How do they even know that committing a sin will kill them all? They don’t, that’s why half the population are sitting on undisguised hate boners for the city’s ruler.
When your game is heavily dialogue-tree focussed the important thing is that I should never feel like I can’t say something I want to say, and Forgotten City mostly pulls that off, I’m generally free to call out the local cunts for their various cunty behaviours. So despite the wobbly design and occasional highly out of place combat section, I stuck with Forgotten City. There was always an investigative thread to pull and a few to keep in mind to pull in slightly different ways next time around and I was interested to see where it led. I do wonder if the game would’ve been more interesting if I didn’t keep my entire inventory from loop to loop. If I was obliged to remember sequences of actions required to get certain key items before I could proceed the game might have had a more meaty challenge aspect to it. As it is, success becomes inevitable. There’s one sidequest centring around a merchant who’s demanding a thousand Denarii for an essential cure, but I’d been swindling him out of five thousand Denarii every loop for the last three so I just chucked the smug asshole some pocket change, pausing only to wipe my nose with it. The hilarious thing is that there was a time traveller before you who went through the loop enough times to grow old and die without finding a solution. What the fuck was that guy doing? Trying to take his pet glacier for a walk?