Death Squared Review (Switch)
SMG, an Australian based indie team, produced the original concept for Death Squared during a 48 hour game jam which they have since greatly expanded and revised. While it’s out for multiple platforms, I spent some time with it on the Switch.
You play as small boxes which navigate labyrinths plagued with hazards trying to reach their respective coloured goals. Both boxes must reach their goals to succeed and they are independently controlled by the joycon control sticks.
This gives rise to some interesting left-brain/right-brain problems. You’ll have the blue box on the left side of the screen, but it’s controlled with the right joy con. And you’ll find scenarios where the reverse is true for the red box. More often than I’d like to admit, I found myself focusing on the red box on the right hand side of the screen and moving the right joy con, sending the blue box hurtling into oblivion amid a shower of curses.
But that’s fine because restarting a level after you knock one of your boxes off the edge of the labyrinth is immediate. Levels are also short enough (for the most part) that following the steps you took to get back to where you were is a quick process.
As with most puzzle games, challenges appear daunting at first. But when broken down and tackled in chunks they’re rewarding and satisfying when beaten. Progress is achieved largely through trial and error: “What happens when I move the red box onto this red square? …oh, it’s reconfigured the labyrinth to give the blue box access to this area. Cool, I wonder what happens if I…” and so on.
Touching briefly again on how short the levels are: they’re well suited to playing on a commute or a short journey. It feels like it could form part of an argument for the Switch filling that ‘portable’ space we saw in early promotional material. Nintendo have danced around discontinuing the 3DS (somewhat understandably) in favour of the Switch being the portable/home console combo platform – Death Squared does sit in that Indie-Portable nexus that the Switch excels at and stands to steal from the Vita.
Death Squared is ‘set’ at some ambiguous point in the future in a high tech laboratory… Which is a testing facility… And the tests are overseen by an AI. You can sort of see where I’m going with this, but fortunately, the AI character is more HAL 9000 than Glados – indifferent and factual. However, the ‘inspirations’ drawn from Portal are everywhere – on top of the above, there is a level is called ‘Cube Companion’, the AI threatens to release neurotoxin, there is a bland but pervasive sense of corporate obeisance. I suffer pretty badly of ‘Portal fatigue’ – a product of hearing ‘the cake is a lie’ and ‘this is a triumph’ far too often – so the setting feels thin and tired.
Iris, the AI character, is joined by a human ‘AI tester’ by the name of David. And David… well… David’s a jackass. At the start of every level, David and Iris have a bit of banter where David comes off… basically as insufferable. He’s lazy, a slob, he complains about his job and Iris, he steals other people’s lunches. But the biggest problem with David is that he whines when you fail and restart a level. When a box dies, he makes a smarmy comment on how stupid you are, how hard it is to watch you faff your way around the puzzle and how long you are taking.
In short: the game is pointing out to you how tedious trial and error is to solving a puzzle. Which is a little on the nose, given trial and error is how you figure out and solve puzzles.
And it’s not wrong, the trial and error can be pretty tedious. Testing what a switch does for the first time can trigger spikes to appear where you would naturally leave your other box, killing it. Or perhaps a chunk of the labyrinth will shift out and nudge a box off the edge. It can feel as though the levels are designed to catch you out, forcing you to restart, while you are supposed to be testing and can be exceedingly arbitrary.
Speaking of arbitrary, during one level the controls spontaneously reversed and then reset when I died. When I restarted the level, the controls stayed normal and nothing more was said on the matter.
Levels rapidly become about holding a long chain of ‘Simon Says’ actions in your head. When combined with the left-brain/right-brain problem I described above, you find yourself starting a level, dying, David passes comment, restarting level, progressing, dying, David passing comment, repeat.
There’s also a ‘2 player’ mode where you sync two sets of Joycons and have four boxes manoeuvre around labyrinths. This quickly descends into a span of time you could call: ‘friendship/relationship destroying’ ala Portal 2, New Super Mario Bros Wii/U, Super Mario 3d World multiplayer. “Don’t go there- no, don’t do-FUCK” “What’s wrong with you, why did you hit that switch, you knew that would knock me off” “I have no clue how to solve this puzzle, can we please just order food.” Co-ordination, communication and patience are key – and I’m not sure the game is funny enough for you to laugh your way through it or good enough to be worth the arguments you are going to have.
Were you a true monster, you could give 4 people a Joycon and have them control a box each. But I think there are treaties prohibiting the use of torture.
There are Portal references, there are Terminator references, and at some stage David queries Iris about ‘ancient form of communication called memes’ before laughing at how quaint they are. Death Squared either tries to wink and nudge at the player (which it fails to do) or completely lacks its own identity, choosing instead to crib one from Portal. Both are unwelcome and a little disappointing. Combined with the puzzle design that will force you to restart over and over again, I’m not sure Death Squared is a great game
On the other hand, you might be hurting for games to play on your Switch. Particularly one that is portable and doesn’t drain your battery at an alarming rate. And you could absolutely play Death Squared with the volume down meaning you don’t have to listen to Iris and David which makes the experience infinitely more palatable. You won’t miss interesting world building or stellar sound/music design and you’ll have something you can fire up on the bus or train journeys to work that will tide you over until the whole Neo-Geo library is dumped onto the Nintendo store. Or Splatoon 2, Mario Odyssey or whatever Nintendo’s new Virtual Console equivalent are released.
Then again, that Zelda DLC just came out…
6 references out of 10