Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Death Squared


There are games that come along every once in awhile that shake their respective genres up a bit, that put a little something into them that you haven’t seen before to make things fresh. Death Squared, though many of its mechanics are a bit familiar in some way, absolutely swings for the fences, looking to change peoples’ expectations for puzzle games. The best news is that, at least in my opinion, they’ve made something special and memorable.

The closest relative to Death Squared would be the very cute and entertaining Snipperclips that launched with the Switch. It had a pretty unique hook with a team-oriented dynamic and required collaboration between 2 or 4 people to get through the various challenges it presented. Death Squared is both far more versatile, allowing you to easily (in terms of control mechanics, not necessarily in terms of challenge) play through the 80-level Story mode alone or with a friend. By extension you’re also able to play through the 40-level Party mode either with 2 players performing double duty or with 4. Whichever way you choose to play there are challenges to consider. Controlling 2 robots apiece requires some left/right brain coordination and dexterity as you move around and have to execute precise moves with each, independently of the other. Opting to use more people, only controlling 1 robot apiece, presents its own issues with keeping everyone on the same page and likely needing to cede planning to only one person at a time. That’s unless you wreck yourself or each other on many of the fiendish traps that have been set before you. Having played many levels in all possible combinations I’ll say that they’re all interesting and entertaining, so you should have a great challenge no matter which way you play!


Once you’ve settled on how you’re going to take on the puzzle gauntlet put before you, it’s important to note that while you’re dying repeatedly the game does its best to keep you entertained through the misery. As you make progress you’ll hear running dialogue between an IT worker, David, and a computer AI named Iris. If you’re a big fan of the Portal and GLaDOS, in particular, some of the humor in their interactions and discussions will provide added amusement as they discuss what’s happening on-screen at times, offering a sort of commentary on your progress (or lack thereof). There are also a number of highly corporate-looking emails and notices shared between levels that should look very familiar to anyone who has worked in an office. These sprinkles of charm and humor, as well as some other surprise elements I won’t spoil, do an excellent job of keeping the experience from being too sterile and help to take the game to the next level in terms of the overall presentation. Since you will die quite a lot there are some specific sound bites that may get repetitive but remember, in those cases you’re really the problem since you’ve obviously insisted on dying so much.

Getting on to the real meat of the game the discussion should really center on the puzzles themselves and what you should expect when you play the game. Within the first half of levels or so you’ll likely have the majority of elements and trap types exposed to you in some fashion. Among the elements you’ll contend with are spikes, lasers, trip wires, teleportation pads, and movable blocks. Not all of them are lethal but they all present their own inherent challenges in terms of how best to avoid or make use of them, often in combination with one another. Typically on the first level any one of these is added the nature of their use will be straight-forward so you’ll understand the basics. From that time on, as they’re blended into new scenarios and mixed with other elements, you can expect that in many cases you’ll learn nuances to their use that will be absolutely vital. Basically, you’ll often need to learn how to use or abuse elements at their limits in some way. Even if you’re able to get through the bulk of the puzzles without feeling terribly taxed bear in mind that in addition there are 10 secret boxes hidden in various levels to find and The Vault, a collection of much more difficult puzzles (more will apparently be added to over time) and for Switch fans there will be exclusive levels as well!


What I believe makes Death Squared special is its ability to first make you feel sneaky or smart and then slap you with the realization that you were merely doing what was expected. There are quite a number of solutions to puzzles in the game that will, in some way, revolve around you taking in the problem and trying to do things that don’t color within the lines. I found in several cases the solutions to puzzles weren’t clear to me when I applied a traditional way of thinking to them, the assumption that all pieces had to in some way fit in perfectly was what was holding me back. I would then usually find the solution by initially thinking I’d found some sort of dodge, a way around the problem, but then once the puzzle was solved on reflection I’d see there was no other solution. This sort of reminds me of elements of The Stanley Parable where you think you’re defying the game and breaking out, only to then find out your move has been very much anticipated and is even necessary. While not everyone may have this experience in the same way it is these sorts of moments in the game that made the biggest impression on me and greatly enhanced my enjoyment of it all.

Moving into the areas that could keep people from enjoying the game to the fullest we’ll begin with the fact that Death Squared can be quite challenging to play by yourself or with others. While simultaneous movements aren’t always required to solve puzzles careful coordination and patience are absolutely necessary to get through many of the levels. The limits of your own personal dexterity will be tested if you opt for single-player, while the limits of patience and good will towards one another will be put under strain the more people you add to the mix in either mode. While my wife was game to play through Story mode with me for most of its length, the number of levels we’d play per session started to drop and then at Level 65 she couldn’t take the pressure of it anymore and decided to let me complete the game by myself. In the case of Party Mode having us both control 2 robots proved problematic early since the challenges there ramp up pretty quickly. We then added my kids to the mix and that took care of the control issues but, as with 4-player Snipperclips, we had to keep the sessions to a few levels at a time to keep the stress levels down. Results will vary depending on who you’re playing with but you’ll definitely need to keep this in mind!


It has been a long time since I’ve played a puzzle game where I didn’t end up feeling like I was going through the motions as a single-player experience. From that perspective I enjoyed the mental and physical dexterity required to tackle Story mode solo. While my wife and I completed all of the challenges in Snipperclips she also said, as a more casual game-player, that she preferred the less “fidgety” nature of control and challenge in Death Squared and that’s a perspective I can agree with. With there really only being a focus on movement the puzzle experience is a bit more pure and unencumbered, leaving you only with the challenge at hand. In that regard I also think the multiplayer aspects of the game have been as well-addressed as you could ask, you just need to provide a smart and patient group for it to work. With that in mind I’d say that no matter how you choose to play the game, alone or with friends, it absolutely works and is a great time. By their nature puzzle games aren’t for everyone but as a total package, and considering all of the viable ways it can be played, Death Squared is the most satisfying one that I’ve played in a very long time. It has, appropriately, defied expectations and raised the bar beyond the previous boundaries I had put on the genre.

Score: 8.5


Pros:
  • A massive amount of challenging content
  • Viable whether playing alone or with friends
  • The light and often adaptive commentary provides levity and polish


Cons:
  • It may tip the scales to being too challenging for some, moving into being aggravating
  • There are puzzles where trial-and-error is absolutely necessary rather than the puzzles being intuitive
  • There are times where late “gotcha” deaths can be aggravating after you’ve generally figured things out


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