If there’s one thing the Nintendo Switch and many other consoles need, it’s proper multiplayer titles. Without a drive to get more people to share in your experience, a good game becomes like a good dream: it’s interesting enough in your own head, but rarely captures other people’s attention when you tell them about it. Death Squared seeks to capture the shared moments of gaming in a way that becomes less and less popular as time goes on, which is local, “couch” co-op. Something that, as a long time Nintendo fan, is my bread and butter, and a style of multiplayer I hope to resurrect with the Switch and its ability to become a gaming hub at any time, anywhere.
Death Squared is a puzzle game about colorful cubes who must work together to make it through a series of tests and trials set forth by a company who’s testing a new version of artificial intelligence. As your blocks move forward, you have the constant narration of a relatively laid-back technician, David, and a supervising computer, IRIS, who plays the “straight man” to David’s quips and comments. The target is simple: get the blocks to their same color, circular base. As the game progresses, the puzzles become increasingly difficult, with lasers, spikes and other traps waiting to destroy you. If one cube loses, the whole level needs to be reset.
Death Squared is incredibly polished with its controls and physics. In a game of millimeters and the smallest margin of error, I found the blocks did a great job of responding well to where they were supposed to be and where I wanted them to go. They interacted with walls and each other smoothly and naturally, and I never felt like I fell when I shouldn’t have, or gotten exploded when I was well outside of spike reach. That’s not to say I didn’t feel like some deaths were bullshit, but that’s way more about my playing ability and not the game itself. You also need to remember that triggers and the bases can be activated by only a small amount of your cube touching it, so be warned when getting into position. You don’t want to think that you’re free of getting electrocuted when, in actuality, your cube’s corner is poking out around the side of the wall.
Additionally, there is some variety for how to solve puzzles, but not a lot. You can sometimes try different paths or patterns to achieve a goal, but, by and large, things need to be accomplished in a pretty specific order to get to where you want to be. On a lark, I attempted to shoot myself across a gap in one stage so I could avoid a long sequence of opening and closing pathways and try to finish the level much faster. Eighteen deaths later, I realized that I needed to play the game or suffer punishment. Fair, but not my favorite conclusion.
The graphics are also fairly great for what Death Squared is looking to accomplish. Your cubes are bright and detailed, and there won’t be any mucking about with uncertainty about where you need to go. The levels are usually stark, metallic gray with anything colorful being harmful (lasers) or helpful (your base). With two squares on the screen, you don’t get too confused, but four does become a blur of confusion as to who should go where when and how. The loading screens, a different sort of element, are at least a bit clever and show a fake sort of diagnostics report before major level changes.
In single player mode, I found the game went by pretty smoothly and easily. One Joy Con for one block, work with yourself to get where you need to be. WARNING: if you have the Neon Blue and Red Joy Con set, you will be quite confused initially, as the red block is player one (Blue Joy Con) and the blue block is player two (Red Joy Con). Super simple and not a problem for any other color scheme, but teeth-grindingly frustrating when you pause, come back, forget and promptly ride off into the abyss.
The puzzles aren’t bad, either. After a certain point, you need to confirm with yourself that you’re going to die once per level, as the switches and bases tend to trigger additional effects that you couldn’t possibly know about. Hell, level 2 has hidden spikes that you won’t know are there until you trigger the first base, immediately raising expectations for what future levels hold. At one point, David gets control of the simulation parameters and weird things begin happening, like finding your directional pad reversed. But the nice part is, with only one player, you have no one else to get upset with. Death Squared is meant to be played with friends, however, who are likely sitting right there, which, depending on your friends circle, might be a problem. Do you have a friend who sucks at communicating? How about one who thinks they’re always going to be a leader? Do you have a friend who simply doesn’t get when you are trying to tell them something that is plain as day? Or, worst of all, do you have a friend who takes games way, way too seriously? If you answered yes to any of these, Death Squared is going to bring back shades of ugly you haven’t seen since a game of Monopoly that should have ended three hours ago. Death Squared isn’t responsible for crappy friends, but you need to realize that the core intention of this game is to play with other people, so choose your crowd wisely.
Four player mode, for the owners of lonely hearts, is absolutely playable in a single player fashion, and is a logistical nightmare. One Joy Con controls two players, who you change by holding down the ZL/ZR trigger. Not pressing, but legit holding it down the whole time you want to move them. So, even if you have four players but only two controllers, the likelihood of passing off the controller and them forgetting to hold down the button before piloting your character to certain death is, well, incredibly high. If you want to do Party mode by yourself, learn to compartmentalize and take a steadying breath before each move. If you want to play with four people, buy a second set of controllers. If you have any friends like those mentioned above, have a third set of Joy Cons tucked quietly away for when one of the first two get broken and the uncomfortable subject of buying a replacement comes up.
The audio is a last and not great note in the game of Death Squared. I’m trying hard not to compare Death Squared to a certain puzzle game of critical and fan acclaim throughout this review, and this is the part where it takes a turn. Most of us have enjoyed a Valve-published puzzle game containing portals that’s renown for excellent levels, great design and a snarky, deliciously sadistic AI voiceover. I feel like Death Squared really wanted to capture that kind of feeling with their own narrators (the ever present David and IRIS), but it just feels so forced and unpleasant. David seems to just bemoan his own existence and gets progressively more excited as you move through the game, where IRIS is just deadpan throughout. You hear exposition at the start of some levels that has nothing to do with anything (“Yes, I went to the bathroom before I came into the office”) and they comment when you die too many times, or when you don’t die at all. I appreciated that they weren’t just relentlessly negative or mean, but it felt, for the most part, they were yammering to keep themselves entertained and it had very little to do with the player. It was almost MST3K but without the charm. Given that the music is very forgettable, I found myself enjoying the game more with the sound off.
And that is the big takeaway from Death Squared, I enjoyed the experience overall. There are a ton of tests to do in the story mode, quite a few in Party mode, and a set of ridiculously difficult extra levels in the Vault that are you rewards should you beat the main game. There’s also ten hidden treasures throughout the story mode that are well worth your time to hunt down and find. I had a great jaunt with my kids and wife, and the giggles from the explosions were well worth the eye twitch I developed from all my deaths. This is a game that simply would lose its charm with online multiplayer because you can’t properly rag on your friends with a screen between you. I feel bad that I hate the exposition voices, but they were enough that it pulled away from my own focus on the game. Either way, Death Squared just makes sense on the Switch. Having a conduit where you can try your best to make it look like you speared your sibling on accident just to induce rage-gaming works great when you can change environments. If I had this when I was a child, my father would have hurled the Switch out of the back window of our car to stop the screaming. It’s perfect. Mute the volume, have two sets of Joy Cons and get ready for nonstop nonsense.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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