A good puzzle game is not an easy thing to replicate in our modern generation of gaming. Once upon a time, Tetris was the height of cognitive challenge and spacial reasoning; but as games improved and evolved, so did our expectations. The modern puzzle game cannot simply rely on cleverly orchestrated conundrums and questions to navigate and solve, it requires a more enticing hook to keep the player committed to the task set before them. An emotional drive, instilled within characters with whom we can relate and through whom we vicariously strive. All set along a narrative path that tugs at the heart and continuously asks us to persevere, assuring that the ends will justify the means. The modern puzzle game is another breed entirely.
With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to… Robots, in a lab.
Death Squared is a cooperative multiplayer puzzle game where increasingly difficult levels test the player’s’ ability to communicate and work together without accidentally destroying one another. Playable with teams of 2 or 4 customisable robots and with a solo story mode also available, player’s are tested on their time taken to solve each level as well as the number of times each bot has died in the process (FYI: Prepare to die). Levels can vary in their difficulty, from the deceptively easy to frustratingly difficult. This is one puzzle game that’ll have you face-palming a lot, as most faux pas come because you forgot to move that one bot out of the way and then oops! It exploded, and you start all over again.
The story of this title follows an unassuming and cynical AI tester named David and his computer counterpart IRIS. Working for the suspiciously banal Omnicorp, David’s one and only job is to monitor and assess the AI software inhabiting the coloured cuboid bots as you guide them through a series of test constructs. The premise is simple; get the bots to stand on their colour coded markers to progress to the next level and do it again. The path to those markers however, is less straightforward. Each level is laden with invisible floor traps, shifting floors and walls and even laser turrets, pretty much anything that can destroy a tiny innocent robot cube is there with sights trained on messing up your day. The strategy comes with the fact that every trap and weight sensor is also colour coded, meaning the sharp thing that kills the red bot may not affect the blue. This is where good communication and teamwork comes into effect when passing the most treacherous puzzles; whether it’s sitting on a weight sensor while the other bot passes safely or protecting each other from fatal laser blasts. It’s kind of endearing, actually.
The real character and personality of this game shines through in the form of the hilarious interactions between David and IRIS; cleverly and comically structured dialogue dotted throughout each level incorporates everything from 21st Century memes to pop culture and sci-fi references. Their witty back and forth and sharply comic performances will have you laughing even at your most frustrated times and you soon find yourself pushing through levels just for the chance to hear their next conversation. Even when the controller is left idle they can be heard making comments on where you, the player, may have run off to. It’s a truly delightful and seemingly innocuous narrative as you discover that David is far from being a model Omnicorp employee.
Fans of the Portal series will notice some distinct similarities in this title; from the animation style and sterile level design to the coldly sarcastic and malicious AI. Even the robotic cubes with whom you will form a close bond despite your best intentions, and the fact that you get them killed about 20 times per level. The standard of dark comedy is almost on par here as well. As with any linear puzzle game, there’s little replay value to be had aside from besting previous death and time scores. However with 80 levels of brain stressing goodness to get through, the initial playthrough suffices to make this game worth your while. Replay value isn’t really necessary. It’s a great game to play through solo or with a party of friends, just prepare to have those friendships tested as frustration and brain fatigue will ultimately set in and try to divide you.
So, the verdict? Puzzle games come in all shapes and sizes, and this one peaks up above the rest despite its initial surface simplicity. The puzzles are challenging and cleverly constructed, often fooling you into complacency only to pull the rug out from under you with a new challenge. For any other game this may be enough, but this title throws in some classic humour to boot, a salve for burned out synapses. Complete with shout outs, references and a funny knock-knock joke or two, and Death Squared becomes an absolute pleasure to play as well as a terrific way to train the brain and test your problem solving skills.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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