Death Squared Review

By Sam Quirke, 6 months ago
How do you test the intelligence of a robot? It's a question that many have explored in fiction and no one has ever really found a definitive answer. In the world of video games, one approach seems to be considerably more popular than the others. From Portal 2's tongue-in-cheek multiplayer mode to the rather more sombre philosophising in The Turing Test, there's one common denominator: switch-based puzzles. SMG’s Death Squared continues in this strange tradition of bombarding robots with brainteasers in plain-walled rooms as you help up to four of the little guys find their way to the exit.

Squared? But they're cubes! I'm already lost.Squared? But they're cubes! I'm already lost.

Being a party puzzle game at its core, Death Squared doesn’t overburden itself with a narrative. The story we have is very basic and strays a little too close to Portal territory on a number of points, involving an AI of questionable reliability directing robots to perform seemingly pointless tests somewhere deep in the bowels of a suspicious scientific corporation. The main speaking role goes to your narrator, a human employee of the corporation who comments on your actions and shoots the breeze with the AI Iris. It’s all harmless but it’s also a little bit repetitive and irritating, especially when the jokes fall flat. A few quips drew a smile, particularly the movie references, and some of the text-based content between level sets was mildly amusing. On the whole, though, the narrative is merely functional filler to break up the puzzling.

Happily, the puzzling is great, hitting the perfect balance between intuitive controls and challenging brain teasers. Up to four colour coded cube-shaped robots appear in each stage and the basic aim is to glide them over to their matching exit point. Along the way coloured switches will make elements of the map react, like setting off spike and laser traps. Some of the grid shares the same translucent colour as one of the bots, meaning they can pass through it as if it wasn’t there, while robots of other colours can use it as a solid platform. Your only interaction with the little bots is to move them across the floor; due to this incredibly simple concept Death Squared is able to ramp up the complexity and challenge quickly from level to level. There are 80 levels in the two-robot mode, and 40 more in the four-robot mode.

Rocketing out of the level is at least amusing, as long as it's happening to your co-op partner.Rocketing out of the level is at least amusing, as long as it's happening to your co-op partner.

There is a good flow here as well – each time a new concept is introduced, the initial levels tend to be simpler before ramping up to mind-boggling complexity. Falling off the map means death just as much as coming into contact with the lasers and spikes, so getting through longer levels can be a tense experience as you wonder if you’ve missed some trap or miscalculated which switch controls which part of the floor. It’s frustrating in a good way. Less positive are the times where you fail because of the game’s slightly patchy collision detection, sending the game’s moveable blocks floating serenely out into space instead of resetting at their start position. More than a few times a robot shot out of the level like a bar of soap because it apparently got trapped in a millimetre gap between two floor blocks instead of rolling over it as one would expect. Luckily there are only a handful of levels long enough for an unfair death such as this to be infuriating, and if you take everything extremely slowly you might not come across the issues at all.

With little narrative or characterisation, no competitive aspect and no real controls beyond horizontal movement, it’s not a traditional pick for an engaging multiplayer experience. Despite that, it works well in couch co-op and it allows up to four people to play simultaneously. While not the type of party game you’d actually play at a party, it works great as a bit of Sunday afternoon filler that the whole family can bond over or argue about. Quite a few co-operative puzzle games fail to capture that awesome moment of camaraderie when you finally crack a difficult mind-bender; with its intricate yet intuitive level design, Death Squared excels in the areas that matter most. It’s not going to last you and your friends forever – once you’ve cracked all of the levels there’s no real reason to return – but at least it’s challenging enough while it lasts and gives you another excuse to game together in person.

By level 78 I was starting to lose my mind a little.By level 78 I was starting to lose my mind a little.

Most of us have a family member who really likes their puzzles and Sunday newspaper conundrums – even if they don’t fancy controlling the game directly they can weigh in simply by watching and yelling instructions. However, because of the simplicity of the controls, it’s entirely possible to get non-gamers in on the action as long as they can control a thumb-stick with some degree of sensitivity. The control systems allow for either four independent controllers to be used in Party mode or two controls operating two robots each, one tied to each thumb-stick. It’s a clever way to maintain the complexity of a four-person level while still allowing it to be accessible for two. By the same token, the main story levels allow for two players but can easily be managed by one on a single controller.

It’s not a game that you want to try and conquer in one sitting, though. There’s simply not enough entertainment value or variety to try and get through all 80 levels on you own in quick succession. If you try, you may find the game’s audio design starts to grate. The voice acting for the off-screen lab assistant and his AI partner are competent enough, but the rest of the audio is pretty bland. The four robots have faces of a sort but no real voice, and the sound effects of level traps and switches is just subdued generic bleep-blooping. It sounds like there are only one or two tunes in the entire game and they have a vapid elevator-music sensibility that at first melts into the background, but then becomes like nails on a chalkboard when you’ve been staring at the same puzzle for 30 minutes trying to work out the answer.

Best played with a couch full of frazzled relatives who keep forgetting which robot they are.Best played with a couch full of frazzled relatives who keep forgetting which robot they are.

Visually the game is smooth but a little bland. It’s totally necessary to keep visual noise to a minimum when so much of the puzzling is colour-based, but nevertheless I came away feeling like everything was lacking in character. It doesn’t help that the maps are completely static with no camera controls. With the thumb-sticks both tied up in movement this makes a certain amount of sense, but it would have been nice to be able to occasionally tilt the camera with the D-Pad to be able to tell if a block is above or parallel to the character. The D-Pad is too busy being the dance controller for the robots – unlike Portal 2’s mildly entertaining animations, all that happens here is a little meaningless wobble. The majority of these issues fade completely if you play the game as intended, with co-op players in the room. You won’t be noticing the bare-bones audiovisual design if you’re too busy high-fiving your friends or screaming at your loved ones’ inability to glide in a straight line.

The achievement list is a typical mix of completing certain amounts of levels, finding collectibles and dying repeatedly. It would be quite simple to craft a step-by-step walkthrough to beat it quickly and I’m sure one will turn up soon should you choose to play that way. You can certainly get most of the achievements alone with two controllers if you don’t have a co-op partner available and it’s perfectly possible to get the four-player specific achievements with two controllers if you have nimble fingers. It will take a little while to finish everything, but there’s certainly nothing overly challenging in the list.

Summary

Death Squared is a decent co-op puzzle game that works best when playing with friends in real life. It manages the perfect mix of simple and intuitive controls with complex and challenging level progression, and it really stands out as a game with which non-gaming friends and family could easily get involved. The presentation is competent but ultimately a little uninspired, and tedium may settle in when playing alone as a result. As an excuse to get into more living room arguments it succeeds, and while the puzzling might eventually wear thin, it’s engaging enough while it lasts.
3.5 / 5
Positives
  • A simple concept with significant levels of challenge in later levels
  • Entertaining couch co-op that non gamers can easily jump into
  • Integration of new concepts throughout keeps things interesting
Negatives
  • Narrative and dialogue are pretty derivative
  • Design starts to feel bland after a while
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 11 hours screaming at tiny exploding cubes, earning all but one of the game's 25 achievements. He'll go back for the last one as soon as his co-op partner apologises for the incident. An Xbox One digital code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016. He's also been gaming long enough to know what a text parser is.