Okay, cards on the table time. I don't like puzzle games very much. Aside from Tetris and perhaps a bit of Bejewelled and Zoo Keeper, I generally try to avoid the genre. I know this is a big generalisation, but I just don't like the way in which most puzzles often have limited outcomes and require patience that I don't really have. I don't usually feel a big sense of achievement from completing a puzzle, it's more relief that I never have to do it again, a bit like maths homework!
So, I approached Death Squared
with trepidation. The game has already been released on Steam, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with the Switch version (the one I'm reviewing) coming a little later. The game is billed as a multiplayer puzzle game and would seem ideally suited to the Switch, considering the ease with which anyone can join in by sharing the Joycons.
Unfortunately, I have played the game largely alone. Playing with my seven-year-old daughter beyond the first 20 stages became a real exercise in frustration and after a while she gave up. Each of the game's 80 story stages can be played cooperatively with two players. In addition, the game features a party mode with a further forty stages that can be played with four players simultaneously, assuming you have another set of Joycons available. Without any assistance available, I tackled the story stages alone and in doing so discovered something that I was absolutely not expecting. I love puzzle games. Or, at least, I love the spatial puzzles of Death Squared
The premise of Death Squared
is pretty simple. The player is observed by a low level employee of 'Omnicorp,' a corporation researching artificial intelligence. Supported by an AI driven assistant who provides vocal encouragement, the player controls two, or sometimes more, box-shaped robots through a series of trials supposedly to test the quality of each machine's AI.
Rules of movement change between each level. For example, on some levels the robots move independently, on others their movement will have an impact either on each other or on the environment. Quite early on, some trials require the player to move the robots in opposite directions simultaneously or avoid lasers that move dependent on the player's actions. Each level takes place on a grid of blocks with the main objective being to manipulate the environment so that both robots reach their respective colour-coded goals.
Cooperative play requires near constant communication between players as the fate of one player's robot is tied directly to its counterpart. It is impossible to go it alone, unless the player wants to take responsibility for both robots. The level design throughout is excellent, matched by an extremely well judged difficulty curve. The first ten or so levels can be completed relatively easily, but by the time I reached the half-way point, stages were taking considerably longer to complete. However, I found that the increase in difficulty directly corresponded to my feeling of achievement when I finally figured out the puzzle.
This may sound ridiculous, but as I already mentioned, I have never found the completion of puzzles satisfying. The puzzles in Death Squared
are so well designed that, with the exception of levels 65 and 79, I never felt frustrated. Mistakes were my own fault and each level was short enough that a return to the beginning of a stage was rarely a source of irritation. Another aspect of design that I came to appreciate during my play-through was the way in which I found that I was sometimes able to complete puzzles in ways that the designer had perhaps not intended. I wouldn't necessarily call this exploiting glitches - it was fun to see what kind of movement the robots were able to achieve.
Although the game is clearly designed to be enjoyed cooperatively, playing through alone was still extremely rewarding. This was thanks, in part, to the way in which the story gradually unfolds via exposition provided by the accompanying AI and Omnicorp observer who provide context and motivation throughout each test. The environmental design of Death Squared
was clearly inspired by Valve's Portal
series. The conversation between the AI and employee bears a striking similarity, in form if not content, to the dialogue between the player and Glados in Valve's game. I found there was just enough dialogue to focus the story, but not so much that I felt that it needed to be switched off.
Visually the game apes the aesthetics of Portal
's test chambers, but despite the playable robots being box shaped they possess a degree of character. Towards the end of the game I became quite engaged in the way in which the story detailed their ultimate fate.
Playing Death Squared
to completion did not take me a great deal of time. From start to finish I spent around five hours guiding the robots through their various trials. However, I would imagine that this time may have been extended had I played it with another person. It certainly feels that there is room for further expansion of the game via the inclusion of downloadable levels. Following completion of the story, a new mode can be unlocked, the 'vault'. The new levels are considerably more difficult than those in the main game, I found them to be an enjoyable struggle. Unfortunately, I was unable to try 'Party Mode' as I don't currently have a spare set of Joycons. I can only imagine how friendship-ruining the game would be with four players.
I greatly enjoyed my time with Death Squared
. The game has broadened my expectation of what a puzzle game can be and has engaged me with a genre that, for the most part, I have generally just tolerated. Although the main game is over rather quickly, it does feel extremely well thought through and polished, it most certainly left me wanting more. SMG Studios does appear to have plans to support the game with further levels post-release. I can't want to see what they come up with.
+ Well-judged difficulty curve.
+ Excellent presentation.
+ It made me like puzzle games!
- A little short.
- Some puzzles can be slightly frustrating.
- Some concepts are a little repetitive.
SPOnG Score: 8/10