I enjoy a good mental challenge – something that really makes your brain work. Puzzle games often provide these mental masochist experiences, and the good ones are painfully frustrating but equally as gratifying. I have fond memories of some puzzle games of yore; Kula World, Kurushi and Columns were all games that tested my mettle in my whippersnapper gaming years. Sadly, it’s been a while between drinks for myself and puzzle games (I have yet to pick up last year’s critical hit, The Witness), as there have been very few quality puzzle games, and also because most puzzles in games these days can be solved by a lobotomy recipient. However that drought is now over as over the past couple of weeks I have been testing both my cognitive problem-solving skills and my patience with Australian-based (Sydney, to be specific) developers, SMG Studio’s puzzler, Death Squared.
Strange to see Red and Blue on the same team
Death Squared is an up to four-player local cooperative puzzle game. We’ve covered it a couple times before thanks to its appearance at PAX Australia, and each time I have come away both super impressed and wanting more. Thankfully, I can say that the full release delivers both an addictive and challenging experience that quenches my puzzle game thirst.
Death Squared puts you and your compatriots in control of one coloured box each in either the game’s Story mode (two players) or Party mode (four players). If you don’t have any friends you can also lone wolf it and control all the boxes using a single controller (initially I was using two controllers before realising this sorcery existed). Your job is to safely navigate each box through a series of challenges and obstacles on stationary floating platforms to reach the checkpoints. Each checkpoint is colour specific, meaning that the red box must reach the red checkpoint etc, and reaching these checkpoints is often easier said than done. Once players complete either mode, the Vault opens up and players can really test their IQ through additional harder levels.
Two’s a crowd
Four’s a party
Initially the levels are rather simple, requiring basic teamwork to get the job done, but as you progress you’ll find that the difficulty increases (naturally) and what appears to a rather simple getting from A-to-B puzzle becomes a daunting and ego-crushing struggle, in a good way of course
Story mode is made up of 80 levels, and as mentioned above has two-player co-op. While there isn’t a story in the traditional sense, the player’s crusade through the levels is narrated by a somewhat discontent, yet rather blithe employee for Omnicorp (a tech company of sorts), known as David. David’s job is to observe an AI testing program (you) complete the presented challenges. However, David is not alone; he is joined by an AI entity known as Iris, who helps control the AI testing program whilst preventing David from losing his sanity.
David and Iris will discuss things such as company communications regarding the theft of lunches, what’s it like to be an AI and your level of skill (often regarding the number of deaths you’ve accumulated on a given level). As you ascend through the levels, David and Iris’ relationship evolves, and SMG have done a good job of giving the narrators enough life to make them entertaining without being annoying, which is a tough balance to get right when going for a comedic tone ( especially when the task at hand is no laughing matter). Currently, I am up to level 52 of 80, 25 levels of which I have completed solo. This is the one nitpicking issue I have with the title: there is no online co-op. The game’s co-op is limited to local players only (couch co-op), and while PS4 owners have the ability to use share play and I appreciate the incentive (and sentiment) to actually have friends over, it limits the options for players to play together (plus my friends are the sharpest tools in the shed). Players can also find secret areas with hidden collectables, and there are 10 to collect in the game’s story mode.
Harder than it looks
Initially the levels are rather simple, requiring basic teamwork to get the job done, but as you progress you’ll find that the difficulty increases (naturally) and what appears to a rather simple getting from A-to-B puzzle becomes a daunting and ego-crushing struggle, in a good way of course. It’s not uncommon to fail 10+ times in order to complete the puzzle, and it’s highly likely at some point that the bond of your team will be tested. Thankfully the levels aren’t too hard that you’ll question your own existence, and although I found myself perishing often, it only drove me further to beat the level(s) even more (and to submitting my application to Mensa International).
As the puzzle platforms are in mid-air, there are no walls, and it’s rather easy to misjudge the angle and fall off into oblivion. Players must also exercise caution when moving, as although one player may be the colour red, manoeuvring across red blocks (or the same colour as you are) often results in falling through said block, and death. Falling to your death isn’t the only peril that faces players, as you can also be blown up if you’re not behind cover and your companion lands on a box that activates a powerful laser. Occasionally Iris will throw a spanner in the works and invert controls or multiply the amount of you that are on the screen.
Party mode allows up to four players to put their collective minds to task across 40 levels. Party mode has no narration from David or Iris and is simply all about chaotic 4-player action. Once again the levels increase in difficulty as you progress, and the matter of local co-op only is an issue – albeit a small one. I have completed 12 of 40 levels, essentially all by myself and with one controller, and although it is highly testing to control four boxes at one time, I am determined to complete all 40 levels eventually.
Death Squared is simple, addictive and challenging – it’s not so hard that it makes you feel like a simpleton when you fail, and when you do start to complete the harder levels it gives you a sense of accomplishment and that you may somehow be a long-lost relative of Albert Einstein. There is a good amount of levels included, and more than enough to make or break friendships (or yourself). The only blight is that being a co-op-based experience, being limited to local co-op may put off some people. If you want a good challenging experience, either solo or team-based, I can highly recommend Death Squared. Plus, it’s Australian-made.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro and PS4