Developer SMG Studio
At PAX Australia in 2015, I was thoroughly impressed by how two cubes, as well as some circles and spikes, so effortlessly made for an enjoyable co-operative experience. Freelance games reviewer, Jason Imms, and I shared ideas, laughed and failed, but always found solutions to puzzles, even if it took a short while. I’ve been looking forward to this game’s release, and its final iteration is polished, meaty and fun to play with a friend. Surprisingly, some aspects of level design now detract from the experience, but I think I understand why.
When the game was at prototype stage, you could stare at each level and mostly glean how to solve it, occasional nasty surprises aside. It felt smart. Now, there are 80 two-player story levels with increasingly more pieces, lending them an illusion of incremental complexity, but this actually removes some of the player’s ability to make clever decisions. My husband and I found that the first several levels felt smart, but we later had to trustingly navigate to the interactive pieces in turn, eventually solving many levels as if by accident.
This also exacerbates the “nasty” in “nasty surprises” to a feeling of proper unfairness when difficult-to-anticipate spikes, for example, suddenly stab you after a long journey through a not-rotatable isometric level. Oh, and it’s somewhat too easy to accidentally drive your cube off an edge, even when it hasn’t disappeared into an area you can’t actually see. Bigger, and more pointlessly difficult, isn’t always better, as I also appreciated with BOOR. Linelight nailed level design, simply by using game elements in more, not bigger, ways.
Having said this, there are two wry narrators, who remind me of the radio jockeys in Zombies, Run. They’re framing the unfairness of their testing you into amusing contexts, threatening you with janitorial duties, even reminding you to move if you’re idle for too long. You can play while they deliver story and I liked their banter a lot. Other nice touches include custom paint jobs for your cubes and funny moments like where they reverse your control scheme, then switch it back again because your many deaths signal that you can’t handle it.
Party mode is for four cubes. Good luck with that. But, yes, it’s supposed to be chaotic. It wouldn’t be a party without everyone pushing each other off edges and yelling at each other, after all. As with all modes, you start to dread certain pieces, not in a bad way, just because you know things are going to get tricky. For me it was, “Oh no, lasers.” And, this is an odd point, but “single player mode” which was one cube on each of your controller’s sticks, hasn’t made the final cut. Now you need two controllers and the will to play with both, as a lone player.
Probably the most useful endorsement I can give to Death Squared is that my non-gamer husband wanted to play it every night, in a way I haven’t seen since his brief, but very fervent, infatuation with Mini Metro last year. I wanted the scope to be smaller and more thoughtfully crafted, but I also wanted to play it, so it did plenty right. I do have a bit of a love/frustration relationship with puzzle games, but it’s more difficult to become annoyed when you have a friend sitting next to you who has to bear half of the responsibility for failure and success.