Developer/Publisher: SMG Studio | Overall: 9.0/10
It’s not often that wonderful little games blow my fucking mind. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Death Squared really surprised me. A smartly designed, 3D puzzler with enough content and accessibility to stay enjoyable for a long time is exactly what you’ll get with this title. There are 80 levels for single/co-op play, and not only that, you can play with up to four people in another 40 levels, and even further, there are “experimental” levels that unlock after defeating the Story Mode.
The basic puzzle idea is to place your colored box on the like-colored circle. Red Box goes on red circle, Blue Box goes on blue circle, etc. Along the way, more mechanics will be introduced that will create fun challenges that actually make you feel smart when you solve them, such as switches, moving platforms, colored lasers, movable boxes, and other elements. The 3D nature of the puzzles also gives an interesting perspective as you move along all three axes to get to your goal.
While some levels are harder than others, you’ll inevitably get stuck trying to figure out exactly what you are supposed to do on a puzzle. You have to respect the process and order in which you do things; if you get too far ahead of yourself, you may just fail — or you might actually figure out the right way to do something. What is so fun about Death Squared is that sometimes there are multiple paths to victory, or the order of events isn’t so obvious or linear which means you’ll have to experiment.
The game is primarily designed for co-op, but can be played as single player in both the Story and Party modes. What is also neat is that you can control all players with one controller if you are playing solo in either mode. In Story Mode, the Blue Box can be controlled with the left stick and the Red Box with the right stick. Being able to play as 2+ players simultaneously without having to “switch controllers” or press a button to take over the other “player” gives the game a much higher fluidity and frees up the puzzles to anticipate two or more players being able to coordinate with each other at the same time. In Party Mode, you’ll have to hold down the left or right trigger while using the corresponding stick to take control of the Green Box and Yellow Box. Once you are in solo command of four boxes, the puzzles could get overwhelming if you don’t plan out every step very carefully — it is already a challenge being responsible for two at the same time, let alone four.
Death is also inevitable, and you’ll be falling off, getting zapped, blowing up, and maybe even flying into the air as you fail the puzzles. Each death adds one to the death counter which appears in the right-hand corner every time you die. The story is a humorous foil that strings all of the puzzles together, and you’ll hear bantering voice overs at the beginning of each stage between the AI assistant Iris and human tester David. Their goal is to test the “AI” (which you control) to see how far it gets and for what purpose they will ultimately serve in the real world. The jokes fall flat sometimes, but generally it lightens up the atmosphere and David will chime in with some lines as you keep failing over and over. Replay value is also there as each level records your death count, time spent, and some even have “secrets” to find.
So, with as much praise as I have for the game, why doesn’t it just earn a straight 10? It’s nearly a perfect game in most aspects, but there are a couple of things that bring it down in my opinion. The substantive criticism is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety. Yes, the puzzles are wonderfully designed and I really enjoy what is in here… however, there are a lot of levels and by the time you’re on the 40th it can begin to feel a little too samey, and you’ll want to take a break and play another time. I got to about level 60 before really wanting to have something that breaks up the formula more, but alas I’ve died nearly 500 times already, so I’m still more or less motivated to keep at it.
Now for the nitpicky criticism: I primarily played with an Xbox 360 controller, but the controls can be a bit non-intuitive — sometimes I accidentally moved the left stick when I wanted to actually move the right stick; the controls were fucking with my brain a bit. Other than the “eyes” on the front of the box saying they are activated, there’s no outright indicator, such as the light on top of each box’s head that you are “now moving Blue Box” or whatever. Sometimes it’s too late before you notice, which can be needlessly frustrating; it doesn’t necessarily feel like that is “part of the difficulty” here since a large purpose of the game is to be co-operative. This is easily alleviated by actually having a friend to play with, of course, but I don’t usually have the luxury of asking my housemate to help me play a game since he’s apparently too busy fucking his ex-girlfriend while posting shit on his current girlfriend’s Facebook wall. And the other one is an 80 year old man who lives in a literal pile of trash. But I digress!
Art, music, and sound design are also worth noting here. The art is pretty minimalist, but the boxes have quite a bit of charm to them despite being, well, boxes. The obstacles and other elements aren’t too exciting otherwise, though. Music is great, as it would be stuff I’d probably listen to in my spare time. The voice acting is also pretty good — they actually hired a voice actor named Ricepirate, whom I’ve never heard of, but sounds like a guy I listen to on NPR on my way to my big boy job everyday. This signifies that effort was put in to make it not sound like its just some guy working for the developer already, and went a long way in joke delivery.
Perhaps Death Squared’s real lesson is to surround yourself with people you can play video games with. Death Squared is accessible enough that you’d probably even want to play with your very own Trash Man. Even with your Imaginary Friend(s), Death Squared is a lot of fun, so try it out!