“Death Squared” is a unique game that, even after 350+ “deaths,” I frequently return to, just so I can prove to myself (and those spying on Xbox/Steam leaderboards) that, even though Omnicorp wants me to fail, I will overcome hidden obstacles and complete precise maneuvers to reach the next level.
You Assumed Wrong: There’s a Story, and the A-to-B Puzzles are Challenging.
As with many games of this nature, the story is very basic yet somewhat introspective. You control artificially intelligent and always-improving square robots that are supposedly “supervised” by an engineer named David, an Omnicorp employee. Before interviewing Ash Ringrose, the studio Head of SMG Studios, I thought this story was simply an afterthought included to add some depth to the game. However, if you watch that video (see below), you’ll hear that the story is actually a major focus that translates into the design of the “characters” and the hazards/complexity of the levels. Also interesting about the story is the fact that there is frequent dialogue between the computer and David that turns into jokes and banter about the surprisingly sufficient performance of the user-controlled colored cubes. This certainly adds some personality to an otherwise static presentation, and honestly piqued my interest longer than initially expected.
The main objective of “Death Squared” seems straightforward: get your squares to their color-coded teleporters or goals. However, there are metaphorical “curve balls” that get thrown into the task, including spikes, lasers, moving platforms, and translucent floors that only allow specifically-colored squares to move about them without falling through. For instance, landscape-changing buttons only activate by their particular color, blue floors are only permeable by blue squares, and only dissimilar cubes are destroyed by the aforementioned lasers/spikes. As if those didn’t increase the difficulty enough, many of these threats change position, even appearing at a moment’s notice, depending on the movement of your blocks. Even reaching the exit for one block could trigger a trap which then destroys the other block(s), derailing your progress. Consequently, you’ll be required to coordinate square movements quite exactly, whether that be by yourself by using the two joysticks or in couch co-op with up to three other players. Another less common impediment is the occasional “program change” by David that manifests itself in level modifiers, such as y-axis/x-axis movement inversion. While extremely annoying in the moment, you’ll somehow take greater pride in being able to complete a trial after the engineer screwed around with you. Ringrose told us however that these situations occur at planned times, so you won’t need to worry about replaying a different level for leaderboard superiority while dealing with David’s nonsense. The takeaway here honestly is: expect to fail – a lot – because these deathtraps are not visually obvious before employing a “trial-and-error” approach. The only thing immediately aiding you as you begin each subsequent level is actually something I mentioned earlier: like the goals, virtually all obstacles are color-specific. This eliminates interruptions in play or the need for lengthy tutorials to explain new types of dangers as you proceed through the 80-level story mode. I found that it also makes the player instantly comfortable with newly-introduced mechanics and allows him/her/them to devise a specific strategy quickly and efficiently without worrying too much about avoiding unfamiliar aspects.
Controls Seem Easy, but Become a Frustrating Hindrance.
The controls for this game are very straightforward, albeit aggravating at times, specifically in solo play. While playing by yourself, each joystick controls the movement of either the blue or red square, but in the heat of the moment I’ve found myself forgetting which stick controls which. Additionally, small movements off-center will cause your square to quickly twirl to a falling death instead of falling slowly and allowing the player to correct balance. Unfortunately, this has led to too many unnecessary deaths, and in a game without checkpoints this means you need to repeat many puzzle sections that require extreme precision. You could probably imagine how many times I wanted send my controller in flight through my living room window due to these control problems, and that is one of my major pet-peeves in gaming: failing not because of my lack of skill, but because of control design. That said, this first problem is essentially eliminated in coop, where you only use one stick. While certainly a greater challenge in solo (due to needing to control two players at once), devising strategies with friends on your couch, especially in 4-player “Party-mode” co-op, leads to frantic shouting and exciting barking of commands by everyone in the room and ends in a greater sense of accomplishment once you finally succeed. This social gaming experience is unmatched by other puzzle games in my opinion, making multiplayer my preferred way to play “Death Squared.” A prevailing theme in cooperative puzzle games (or any co-op games, really) is that one player determines the tactic and simply tells the others exactly where to go and what to do on a map or level. But Ringrose told us, and I agree from my own co-op experience, that SMG’s focus groups and conference-goers hardly ever play “Death Squared” this way, which makes the experience extremely unique and frankly much more fun.
Long Story Mode, Excellent Co-op Experience, 60FPS
I have almost completed the story mode, and I would be quite surprised if anyone was able to complete it in any fewer than 7 hours without prior experience or exposure to the level design. The levels are the same every time you play – they are not procedurally generated – so if you don’t want solutions spoiled I would suggest watching as little video coverage as possible (streams, reviews, etc). SMG has included a Vault Mode as well, which includes fewer levels than the story mode but of significantly higher difficulty. Ringrose told us that his studio plans on adding more levels to this particular mode in the future if demand calls for it, making re-playability potentially high. While employing procedural generation for levels would create endless possibilities and therefore give gamers a reason to revisit the game, Ash also explained that SMG had tried that and the level design was uninteresting and uninspired. I personally prefer the way it launched – fewer levels that are more intricate and thought-provoking. In terms of graphics and performance, “Death Squared” performs equally well on PC and console (Xbox One/PS4), running at a smooth 60 frames-per-second. Other than the colorful character blocks and obstacles, the presentation can seem rather bland and dull, so the high framerate and sharp textures are surely welcomed. Thankfully you tend to ignore anything but the colored objects anyway, so I can’t penalize this game based on looks.
In conclusion, I enjoyed my time with “Death Squared.” Though I got frustrated in many instances, I found the solo experience rewardingly difficult (I promise, that’s a good thing). The “Party mode” gameplay coordination uniquely changed the way I used teamwork in puzzle games, and I didn’t mind “a little arguing for the greater good.” That said, the unforgiving controls bothered me immensely at times and I found that, unlike the story mode, the 4-player offerings ended too soon. At $20, I would undoubtedly recommend this, but maybe not for the easily agitated or forgetful gamer.