Death Squared (PlayStation 4) Review

By Sam Turner 09.03.2017

Review for Death Squared on PlayStation 4

Long forgotten, desperate in dust, and utterly overlooked, the delights derived from playing games co-operatively whilst all sitting on the same couch is, thankfully, having a much needed renaissance. Hell Divers, Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time, and Chariot have whetted the appetites of those with big empty sofas and shown that the market for the local co-operative experience is just as important as those locked behind servers and headsets. Death Squared is a welcome addition to this emerging crowd of games that beg for more than one posterior to be present on the settee.

Like all good puzzle games, Death Squared is built upon a solid and, more importantly, simple framework. Guide the two brightly coloured robots to their respectively coloured circles on the map and players are whisked away to the next level. That's it. Over the course of the next eighty levels, this design imprint doesn't change, even if the paths to success get increasingly more complicated and deadly.

What is clear from the outset is that this is more than a game of logic, but also one that will test skill and dexterity. Despite being hosted on grids of rigidly designed cubes, each of the robots moves according to the full range of the analogue stick, resulting in gamers seemingly floating across this well ordered network like a pair of whirling office chairs let loose in a world designed for mad robotic wheelie bins. One false move and you can easily fall off the map, slide into a spike or bump into a laser, losing all current puzzle progress.

This requirement to be as dexterous as you are logical really highlights the importance of finding a friend to tackle each of the testing grounds that these A.I robots have been sent to explore. What is a lonely and frustrating experience as one player, using one of the two analogue sticks of the DualShock controller to control each robot separately (think Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) becomes a thrilling experience of tense negotiation as the person next to you bares part of the responsibility of triumph riding on their touch and guile.

Screenshot for Death Squared on PlayStation 4

That is not to say that if you decide to go it alone it will be a detrimental experience. In fact, there are parts of Death Squared that work better as a single-player title than they do when half of the control is taken from your grasp. This is, consequently, where it begins to spin away like the aforementioned workplace furniture.

It's not, but Death Squared is the Dark Souls of robot-based puzzle dexterity games. You will die. With trip wires, lasers, and spikes that thrust from the floor, seeing a robot burst into a mess of screws, bolts, and fire will become a common occurrence. Indeed, on completion of the level, players are ultimately judged by the overseeing AI on how many times the robots have been led into certain doom. It wants people to fail so much that certain trophies can only be achieved by letting the newfound robot friends meet their binary maker a certain amount of times. However, despite this delight in destruction, the fact that so many levels are conquered not by brains but by "live, die, repeat," means that often those in control will feel cheated out of a much more wholesome experience, which is why going it alone is sometimes more preferable, especially if the person sitting next to you doesn't have the patience to work through a lengthy puzzle twenty times.

Having to constantly replay levels in order to find their hidden booby traps or work out how the solution is put together is a lot more rewarding as a single player than it is with a player on the same couch. The nature of the design means that you often cannot know by simply looking at the level what the solution will be and this means that it's easier for only one robot to explore parts of the stage at a time. One player, then, tends to take the lead and end up dictating to the other what to do and where to go. It's like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube with two people spinning it around at the same time. When some levels delight in making each player perform dexterous simultaneous finger ballets on their controllers, other levels strip away all joint investment as one player has to quarterback the action.

Screenshot for Death Squared on PlayStation 4

This is not to say that Death Squared is not a polished and accomplished co-operative experience. From the art direction to the perfectly pitched soundtrack, the world here is well realised and detailed. It's a joy to work in and come back to again and again. The robots have just enough personality for each player to become invested in their welfare and each can be customised with a plethora of facial hair, gurning grins, and 'go faster' stripes. The game is full to the brim with this simple co-operative joy. Moving a robot so it blocks incoming lasers so your pal can pass through unharmed is extremely satisfying, as is manoeuvring obstacles so the partner can activate switches at the other end of the map. It's all so wonderfully crafted and would be wonderful fun if there wasn't a need to repeat each section constantly just to get to a solution.

Even the narration provided by a dutifully bored supervisor and his AI chum can bring some welcome distraction to moments of trial and error. As the conversation flits back and forth between the pair, the writing is surprisingly snappy and often witty. Sometimes it falls into the well-trodden tropes of the all-powerful AI secretly trying to take over the world, but it is light enough to be glossed over. There is a darker side, which is only hinted at, yet never feels fully explored. Anyone hoping that the story will unfold into a devilish mystery of AI control will come away feeling mightily disappointed.

The narrative design also highlights the problematic duality that the game struggles with. As a simple observer, the narrator dynamically responds to success and failure, and often can place down verbal markers when you are close to finding the solution to a puzzle, which, given the fact that puzzles regularly need to be endlessly poked and prodded till a solution comes forward, is a welcome feature. He can also, though, get frustrated when one robot remains static for a time leading him to shout at the stationary object with overblown annoyance. Sometimes, this rigid robot requirement is an unavoidable symptom of the level design. Players might have no choice but to remain where they are whilst another tries out its theory towards the solution. What is frustrating for the narrator just goes to highlight the frustration of the player left looking at a level whilst someone else is figuring it out.

Screenshot for Death Squared on PlayStation 4

It all takes patience. The constant trial and error, the moments of downtime, the narrative aggravation - Death Squared tests the willingness to take these robots on one more adventure towards success. Due to this, it will not suit everyone. There is a lot of fun to be had here but puzzles are split between catering for a logical single-player experience and an enjoyable, mechanical co-operative one. The game never commits to either.

There's a moment where, in an attempt to keep the narrator happy, the AI allows him to experiment with the testing conditions. A few satisfying clicks later and the controls are switched on the robots and suddenly the game becomes an engaging exercise that both players can revel in as left becomes right and up becomes down. However, this is an idea that is swiftly abandoned and despite hope that it would return in other inventive and thrilling ways, it never does. It's an idea that would have brought cohesion to the moments of logical solitude as both players would be tasked with working their way through the changes of play. It also would have given the narrative design the added depth it so obviously craved. However, instead of giving both players the joy of dealing with rules switching on the fly, the idea hardly resurfaces and the game settles back into its groove.

For the braver players, Death Squared does offer a four player Party Mode to add increased mania, yet this mode seems to cement the idea that letting such amiable and freewheeling avatars and ideas loose on a tight and sharply designed puzzle can leads to a frantic and perilous playground. Again, it is all symptomatic of a game split between two ideas and, subsequently, this is a game that will suit one style of player over another. If you are patient and willing, it's a terrific distraction with friends or on your own.

Screenshot for Death Squared on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Death Squared needs to be congratulated for bringing much needed diversity to the couch co-op market. While there is a lot to like about how it approaches co-operative design, the player is often left with the feeling that it would be a lot easier and simpler if they were to just solve the puzzles on their own. Although co-operative play is tense, fun, and rewarding for the most part, the temptation for one player to dictate the play and take control hampers any chance for that cheer to spread across all the people involved. What should be a test of mind and logic instead is a test of patience and will, which for some will be a delight but for others an arduous task.

Developer

SMG Studio

Publisher

SMG Studio

Genre

Puzzle

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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