Nintendo SwitchAlso available on Apple Mac, PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
One must wonder if, going by games like Portal and Death Squared, AIs of the future will be a digital equivalent of Jack Dee: sarcastic, dark but wonderfully funny. In Death Squared, the AI’s name is Iris and together with David, a human observer and employee of Omnicorp, they are testing other AI in the form of robotic cubes. We’re not too sure what they are testing for but know that other, apparently inferior, AI can end up doing less than glamorous jobs should they be found inadequate. As such, it is up to you to guide these AI cubes through eighty story levels, forty party levels and thirty extra vault levels for those wishing to tackle the most toughest of challenges. Developed and published by Sydney based SMG Studio (who are more renowned for their plethora of one-finger controlled games), Death Squared marks an interesting aside for the studio. Namely it is their first on console, but also you will have to use more than one digit to play it.
Like any good puzzler, things start off relatively simply and the goal is pretty straightforward. If you decide to go solo and play by yourself, then you control both of the two AI cubes via the thumbsticks. This can be a little tricky and we often found ourselves moving the wrong cube leading to the poor things’ demise. Playing with a fellow human makes this a touch easier but still can be fraught with danger. Your aim is to guide them to their corresponding pads and once both reach their respective destination you move on. However, buttons need pushing, laser beams need dodging and you will quickly find that cooperation is key.
Completing these later levels is far from simple and can push your grey cells to their limits. For example you may find out that you will have to piggyback on top of your companion in order to reach a button or that one will have to shield the other from a laser. If you are playing with a friend, hilarity will no doubt ensue as you both argue as to who moves where in order to complete the level. Moreover, most buttons move things around levels and can frequently trigger traps for the other cube. We would be lying if we said that we never deliberately triggered a trap as a means to annoy our fellow gamer and snigger afterwards.
As mentioned the levels themselves start out tamely and ramp up progressively. They never get to the point of absolute frustration mainly because you can figure out how to complete a level through trial and error. If you’ve ever watched Edge of Tomorrow then you pretty much know how this goes: Live, Die, Repeat. Even the trickiest of levels in Death Squared can be beaten by following this method and while it can be a touch laborious it is a method of success. Thankfully we rarely had to employ this tactic and most can be figured out with a moment's pause and very cooperative friend. As you play, Iris and David will have back-and-forth conversations about your performance, working at Omnicorp and a whole host of other mundane topics. The humour is very reminiscent of GLaDOS in the Portal series, however Iris never gets quite as dark in her humour. It’s not overly intrusive either, striking a nice balance which complements proceedings rather than detracting from them.
Whilst Death Squared is challenging and fun to play on your own, things are far more entertaining when one or more people are involved. There’s support for up to four players locally in party mode and two players in story mode. However, if you’ve only got the two Joy-Cons that came with your Switch the controllers will need to be shared to play all four cubes. For earlier levels this isn’t much of problem but as things progress switching around does get a little wearisome. It was far easier to play the four cubes with just two people and if you’re up for a real challenge, play this mode solo and take control of all four. However, the Switch does support more than one set of Joy-Cons so this issue can be circumvented if you do have an extra set.
In the visual department things are pretty good. Sure there’s not a lot here but everything is crisp, clear and, unlike the puzzles, uncomplicated. There’s a very industrious feel to everything and given the setting we suspect that’s somewhat deliberate. Whilst to some the levels appear to lack charm, the cubes themselves more than make up for this. Each look unique with sad-looking eyes that just gaze into the expanse. It makes you wonder what that poor thing is thinking as you tumble off the side and die for the umpteenth time. Perhaps this is why the machines will rise and overthrow us, sick and tired of incompetent humans who are seemingly incapable of solving what is to them, the most simplest of puzzles.
Death Squared is a very entertaining puzzle game. With the right group of friends and, if you can muster them, an extra set of controllers, it is a great way to spend an evening. It will no doubt put some friendships to the test given how it will explore how well you can cooperate with each other without succumbing to temptation and wiping your partner’s cube out. Even then, though, if your sessions are anything like ours this will likely be met with bellowing laughter and the constant suspense of wondering when they’ll get their revenge on you.
The need for extra pads for four-player matches is a shame and we wonder why they couldn’t have used the thumbstick and directional buttons separately for each cube on each Joy-Con. This is perhaps our only big criticism and even though the implementation is cumbersome it’s still fantastic that you can have four players with just two Joy-Cons. For our money every console needs a good puzzle game and the Switch is no exception. If you’re a fan of the genre then Death Squared comes highly recommended and whilst it isn’t overly innovative it is very competent puzzler and more importantly, fun!