The Nintendo Switch is no stranger to cooperative puzzle games, having launched with the unconventional Snipperclips. Indie developer SMG Studio introduces its own take on the genre with Death Squared, a local multiplayer puzzler that tasks you with guiding colorful cube robots past cleverly placed deathtraps. Unlike Snipperclips, which takes an anything-goes approach to its offbeat logic, Death Squared delivers a more mechanical experience, emphasizing the rule that every action has a reaction.
In each of the game’s 3D puzzle stages, you and a partner each control a colored cube robot: one red, one blue. The colors aren’t just to help you tell your characters apart; you must guide your robotic cubes to their respective colored circle switches to complete a level. Most of the game relies on color coordination; only red bots can activate red switches and pass through red blocks, and vice versa. The same rules apply to lasers that will instantly kill any robot that doesn’t match its color, but do absolutely nothing to one of the same color. In this way, you can usually see what the goal is upon entering a stage. The challenge is manipulating each level’s pigmented parts to your favor.
What gives Death Squared depth beyond its color matching is the golden rule that every action has a definitive reaction. Press a switch and a block may rise, for instance. However, you’ll never know what a switch does until you press it. Instead of raising blocks, the same type of switch might activate spikes on the floor, potentially killing your partner. Pushing buttons isn’t the only action with consequences; simple movement can cause blocks to suddenly shift or force down a spike ceiling. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of trial and error, which can make some deaths feel unfair. The penalty for dying is just restarting the stage, but for the longer puzzles, there’s a devastating feeling when all your progress is wiped because you accidentally killed your partner. It doesn’t help that there’s a death counter that exists purely to mock you.
Movement is another issue; you can only use the analog stick, and not the d-pad, to move around each stage's grid of blocks. Surprisingly, your cube robots are not limited to exact grid-based movement. You have freedom to move however you like, which sounds good on paper but has poor execution, given the mechanical puzzle design. It isn’t always clear if you’re in the death zone of a laser or if you’ve completely boarded a moving block. Too often, moving feels like a balancing act as you try to avoid falling off the stage. In addition, depth is difficult to judge, and you can’t rotate the camera to account for it. I’ve accidentally fallen through many gaps because I couldn’t tell if there was solid footing there or not.
Despite these flaws and numerous frustrating deaths, I enjoyed most of the game’s 80 puzzles, primarily because of its excellent co-op implementation. Aside from the obvious benefits of having a second person to bounce ideas off of or to laugh with after a sudden death, Death Squared puts teamwork at the forefront of its design. It’s not enough to simply get your own cube bot to your circle switch; you must communicate with your teammate, who may need to press switches to help you advance. Or perhaps there is a blue laser aimed at your red partner, and the only way to proceed is to absorb the ray with your blue body. I liked seeing the puzzles progress, increasingly forcing my partner and me to move in sync and complement each other’s journeys.
While you can play the entire story mode in one-player, it’s difficult to control both robots at once; you move each one with a corresponding analog stick. I often lost track of which stick moved which robot and ended up inadvertently falling through many pits. Additionally, later levels required a lot of coordination, which were actually harder to pull off alone than with a teammate. At least you can choose any control scheme to play this game, whether playing with the Joy-Con controllers in the Switch’s handheld mode or using a Pro Controller. You can even use a single Joy-Con on its side, though that makes it especially difficult if you’re controlling two robots – you need to press a separate button to identify which bot you’re playing as.
Each puzzle took me anywhere from a minute to half an hour for some later levels. You can replay any completed levels to improve your time or challenge yourself to beat it without dying. If the 80 story levels and extra difficult postgame puzzles aren’t enough, there is also a party mode, granting up to four players control of four robots. Aside from being a lot harder to manage, the game doesn’t change much. There are only 40 party mode levels, but it gets insanely tough a lot sooner, not even including its separate batch of postgame puzzles.
Although the game has bland factory-like settings, the cube robots themselves exhibit some character through their bleeps and blinks. The game’s personality truly shines through voice over banter between sarcastic Omnicorp employee Dave and the A.I. Iris. Its humor is most similar to Portal, though Iris never reaches the ridiculous lengths of GlaDOS. Dave can be annoying too; if you leave either robot idle for an extended period of time, he starts yelling at you to move – which goes against the slow-paced nature of the game.
As a fan of both puzzles and cooperative experiences, I enjoyed my time with Death Squared. It’s easy to say “just one more” after every inventive and devious puzzle. Although the game has some flaws – its reliance on trial-and-error and imprecise movement – playing with a teammate alleviated those frustrations, leading to laughter each time an unexpected death occurred. Although playing the game alone is neither that fun nor easy to control, playing with a well-coordinated partner provides the perfect setup for this mechanically colorful puzzler.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!