Death Squared – Review
Platform – PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (via Steam)
Developer – SMG
Publisher – SMG
MSRP – $19.99 USD
(Editor’s Note: This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 with the review copy being provided by SMG.)
The couch co-op or competitive game experience is something you do not happen across often anymore. The AAA game development sector does not bother with the idea of split-screen, opting to focus predominantly on online multiplayer. With that, it is nice to see homebrew and indie developers working on games that fill that void. This is where Death Squared comes in. Death Squared is a multiplatform puzzle game that has a focus on couch co-op using one controller for up to two or four players. It is a concept that works more than it does not and lends itself to some delightfully chaotic gameplay. Even though this title can sometimes suffer from technical and composition issues, Death Squared succeeds because of serendipity due to its unique control style and its tongue-in-cheek ‘story mode.’
Believe it or not, Death Squared actually does have a story. However, it is not at all meant taken seriously. The game bases its humor around the idea of dehumanization of one who works many hours in a sterile lab environment with only an AI as a means of assistance and/or companionship. The game takes place within the confines of a lab facility run by fictional company Omnicorp. This is where the low-level AI robot tester David Valenzuela has to evaluate the IQ of two little autonomous robots with the help of his AI helper named Iris. There are roughly 80 testing areas that the robots have to successfully navigate in order to receive their final occupation destination.
It is a skeleton of a plot that does not have a lot of meat to it, but the game’s dark techno babble riddled sense of humor helps to compensate. You never actually see either of these characters in-game, but you still get know them through their banal day-of-life dialogue. It’s pretty hilarious to listen to them banter away as David tries to get know Iris and often gets outwitted by the AI. It’s definitely funny to listen to while waiting for levels to load and there are minimalist cut-scenes that are worth a few laughs as well. Regardless of how humorous this title can be at times, the gameplay is where it shines the most.
Death Squared’s gameplay centers itself around solving spacial relation puzzles. Each level requires the players to navigate both or all robots toward the exit pads which have to match the color of said robots. All of these ‘testing areas’ have switches that move around aspects of them. They are also armed to the teeth with all sorts of pitfalls and hazards designed to blow up these cute little cube-shaped bots. Things like laser cannons and spikes spell instant death, but the level resets in a matter of seconds. The goal of the game is essentially to complete these areas as quickly as possible with the least amount of bot deaths. These stages are formed completely out of cubes of different types that have their own own unique properties.
Death Squared’s use of colors plays heavily into gameplay, as certain robots are immune to hazards and can activate switches that match their respective color. This lends itself to some well designed levels that make solid use of this paradigm. While the color coded level design allows for some cerebral puzzle solving, the control agency scheme of Death Squared is even more intriguing. This game does feature cooperative gameplay, but both players must utilize one controller in order to guide each robot to victory. It’s a style of gameplay that is much like The Adventures of Cookie and Cream made by From Software.
In terms of general movement, each analogue stick on the controller physically moves each robot about. Communication between both player is very important because some of the finer robot controls are split between the directional pad and the four face buttons. The d-pad controls the tilt of the robot that is currently moving. Tilting is useful for manipulating free-moving blocks that can block the pathways of hazards. The other functions mapped to the face buttons allow the currently moving bot to duck down, beep and bleep. The latter two are assumed to be used for communication, but you may find yourself just using them just for laughs. However, being able to duck down can make it possible to place objects on top the robot so that it can easily transport them about. The diabolical nature of the levels mixed with two player having to wrestle over the controls makes for some crazy gameplay and some funny serendipitous moments. It’s equally chaotic to control both robots as one player, as it requires a variety of hand-eye coordination not seen in most games of today. Whether you are playing by yourself or with a friend, Death Squared’s gameplay is intuitive and solid. Including the story levels and the extra party challenges, there is quite a bit here for the asking price. There is definitely some replay-ability here for those who meet with friend on a regular basis to play games.
The visuals of Death Squared are deliberately sterile with its use of of the basic primary and secondary colors. The main stages are made up of the same gray blocks, but the hazards and switches fill the color quotient. Because of the fact that the game takes place in a laboratory it makes sense that the world looks like a by-the-numbers mechanized Q*bert playing field. Even the graphics aren’t much to look at, they are very clean and sleek. They also help to maintain the purity of the gameplay by not obscuring or detracting from the color-oriented objects.
Music and Sound
There isn’t a lot in terms of music in Death Squared. What is in this title consists of a few tracks that are minimalist electronic tracks are rather subtle during gameplay. This is probably because the development team wanted players to able to hear when certain environmental hazards are activated. The one level tracks that play are serviceable, but it would have been nice to have more songs given how long the overall experience. The sound effects fare a bit better and come in to add a bit of extra challenge to the game. Some of hazards sound off when activated and others do not. Regardless, the sound design is decent even if it doesn’t necessarily pack the punch that it should.
Other issues with Death Squared have to do with the framerate and camera system. The game operates at roughly 60fps most of the time, but it tends to stutter at times. If you are maneuvering around a ledge and the game hitches then prepare to die. The framerate stutter will lead to some cheap deaths. The camera system also has its limitations and its inability to properly convey depth at times will also lead to some cheap deaths. This isn’t something that happens often, but the issue rears its ugly head during a few of the later levels which feature more complex geometry. This is aspect of the game’s challenge feels cheap in a big way and comes off as a genuine misstep.
There is no denying that Death Squared is a load of fun to play both in and single player and multiplayer capacity. It definitely has a couple of issues that holds it back a bit, but the elements that are done well in this title heavily outweigh the negatives. Its implementation of color coding that cleverly weaves its way through the well-crafted levels is something to be commended. The control agency scheme is certainly a quirky one, but it is intuitive and works surprisingly well. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the game’s story adds some funny moments to the already chaotic gameplay. If you fancy yourself a puzzle game fan or want something a control scheme akin to Adventure of Cookie and Cream, then you’ll most likely enjoy Death Squared.