Nintendo Switch: Death Squared (review)

Release date: March 2017 (July 2017 on Nintendo Switch)

Developer: SMG Studio

Format: Digital download (eShop)

Other platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC (Windows)

Price: $15 AUD

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this game; I received a free code for it on my Switch from one of the developers.

Death Squared is a physics-based, isometric puzzle game that can be played solo or co-op. It originally released on XBox One, PS4 and PC early this year, but eventually made its way to the Nintendo Switch a few months later. There are three modes to choose from: Story Mode, Party Mode and Vault Mode. Story Mode has 80 levels, which can be played either solo or with a second player. There are 40 levels in Party Mode, which is designed to be played with three or four people. Vault Mode – which can only be accessed once you’ve beaten the main game – contains about 30 levels that were considered too difficult to include in the other modes, with more levels apparently coming later as DLC.

The gameplay is deceptively simple; you take control of little robotic cubes and maneuver them through a series of self-contained stages to their corresponding coloured circular pad. It’s a straight-forward concept, but after you finish the first few ‘tutorial’ levels, you will find yourself having to actually think about how to successfully get your cubes through the stage without meeting an untimely end. Many levels include lasers that will destroy any cube that isn’t their corresponding colour, so you need to protect them by either pushing blocks in front of them or using that laser’s cube as a shield. Cubes can move through transparent blocks of their own colour, but will be blocked by transparent blocks of another colour. Stepping on buttons often rotates platforms or moves obstacles to clear a path, but it can also cause spikes to shoot up from the floor or down from the roof, or sweep other cubes off the map if they happen to be in the way of a moving platform’s new location. Sometimes even moving your cube along the stage will cause another part of the stage to move in response, so you really need to pay attention to where both cubes are at all times. In this regard, death is never really random; if something changes, it was set in motion by one of your cubes.

Luckily death doesn’t come with huge consequences, as it happens often. In fact, I felt like avoiding seeing your cube get blasted into oblivion often relied more on trial-and-error and luck than any real skill, as there are a number of hazards it’s impossible to know are there until the first time it annihilates your poor little cubes. It was frustrating enough to make it almost to the end of a level only to be killed, but especially frustrating when you were killed by something you couldn’t possibly have known was there. There are no checkpoints in the levels, so dying means having to start over, though the levels are usually short enough that you can get back to where you were within a minute or two at the most. Still, it did mean there was a genuine sense of satisfaction and accomplishment upon learning each level’s tricks and successfully making it to the end.

Throughout this single-player mode, a humourous commentary is provided in the form of banter between David, a scientist observing the cubes (ie. you) and remarking on their attempts to navigate the levels, and Iris, his AI partner, as well as some cool ‘system test’ loading screens between levels. Though puzzle games like this don’t really need a story, it is a nice touch, adding a sense of purpose to working your way through the puzzles. Occasionally David also decides to mess with the cubes, reversing your controls or making a number of copies of your cubes spawn on the stage. This made things quite interesting, but it seemed to happen very rarely, so it wasn’t something that became a nuisance in my view. At the end of each level, you also get feedback on the performance of each cube, based mainly on the number of times the cubes bit the dust.

When I played solo, I felt that it was a game better suited to bite-sized play sessions rather than being played for several hours straight. Though the level designs and mechanics are interesting and get increasingly more complex, the visual design doesn’t change a great deal throughout the game, so it can start to feel a little ‘samey’ after a while. That being said, this makes it a good choice for those looking for games they can pick up and play a few levels of during their break at work or on public transport.

As a multiplayer game, however, it’s pretty easy to play Death Squared for an hour or two straight. There are 40 levels in Party Mode, designed for three or four players, and these levels are almost immediately more complex and challenging than the Story Mode levels. Having to manage four different cubes, with each potentially having the ability to kill everyone else with a single careless movement, requires a lot of communication and teamwork. The mechanics are essentially the same as in single-player, but dialed up a few notches, and I can guarantee there will be lots of screaming and swearing (and laughing) when someone moves at the wrong time and causes another cube to get blasted by a laser, or when the cube carrying all three other cubes accidentally falls off the edge of the level, sending everyone else plunging to their death. A lot of co-op games are good drunken party games, but I feel like playing this game drunk would probably just result in a lot of smashed controllers, as everyone really needs to concentrate to get through the levels. So if you’re at a party and everyone’s maggotted and wants to play a video game, fire up Super Smash Bros or something.

Unfortunately, Death Squared‘s co-op mode is local multiplayer only; you won’t be able to get online and play with your friends elsewhere. This might be cumbersome for those playing on PC or other consoles, but luckily with the Switch, you can take it with you anywhere for some impromptu, on-the-spot fun.

Most of the time, the fixed camera angle allows you to see the entirety of the level with no issues, but on a few occasions (mostly when playing Party Mode), I or someone else died simply because we couldn’t see a hazard or a hole in the floor behind another block or obstacle. This added to the occasional feeling of deaths being ‘cheap’ because you don’t know the danger is there until it kills you at least once. It would have been nice to have the option to adjust the camera angle (even if it was just panning side to side) when needed, though I’m not sure how it could be implemented when playing with more than one player (a solo player could simply use the L and R buttons to swivel the camera). It was a small gripe, but one that a few of my friends commented on when playing with four players.

Death Squared is a fun game in general, but it’s also good for those who aren’t normally gamers, or who might have limited dexterity in their hands. Each little cube robot is controlled by one JoyCon, but the only control you really need is the thumbstick, for directional movement. The other buttons just serve cosmetic purposes, like making the cubes dance or flash their lights. Since you basically only need your thumb to play this game, it meant that even my Nan (who has arthritis) could have a go. We played the first five or six Story Mode levels together. That being said, if someone is playing it for the first time, I’d recommend starting them off on the earlier stages, as the later levels can be pretty brutal.

Me and some friends playing Party Mode. (photo by Cathy Lim)

My Nan playing the tutorial level with one of the Switch JoyCons.

If you like physics-based puzzle games, Death Squared is well worth your money, and it feels especially suited for the Nintendo Switch, where you can either play it at home by yourself or gather some friends at your next social outing to play co-op. It strikes the right balance between being accessible to just about anyone and providing a genuine challenge, and it’s just damn good fun.

Score:

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