‘Death Squared’ iOS Review (In Progress)

Death Squared (RORORORO)
By: SMG Studio

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I got SMG Studio’s Death Squared a few days early and was hoping to be able to finish it and write a proper review in time for release. It turned out to be a much harder game than I anticipated, and one that I enjoy but in short bursts. I didn’t want to wait until I complete the game to get some impressions out for my readers, so I decided to try something new. I’m going to review it based on what I’ve played so far, and then edit it as I complete more of it. I’ve been told some features will be added, as well, so perhaps by the time I’m done playing it will also be a better version of the game. I also wrote some very early impressions here.

Death Squared is a puzzler at its core. It was released on console and PC as a multiplayer co-op game, but it’s more of a solo experience on iOS, since the screen is the controller. Through the eighty levels, you take on the roles of a blue cube and a red cube. The red one is controlled via a floating joystick that is triggered by touching anywhere on the left half of the screen. The blue one is controlled using the right side of the screen. In each level, you need to get each of them to their same-colored circles, which is the goal. On the way, you’ll encounter all sorts of traps like spikes and lasers. Red buttons are triggered by Red standing on them and blue buttons are triggered by Blue standing on them. If there’s a button, it will have the same result as pushing the cube onto the goal. So you need to pay attention to what happens and remember it before getting them to their goals. For instance, let’s say you push Blue onto one of his buttons and blue spikes appear. They won’t harm Blue, but they’ll kill Red if she lands on any of them or is on a spot when Blue triggers them. Let’s say you move Blue off the button but then get him onto the goal after moving Red around. If you didn’t memorize where the spikes appear, you could end up killing Red when you move Blue to his goal. So you really have to pay close attention. The good thing is that, so far, I’ve been able to move one character at a time without worrying about moving both together. I’ll let you know if that changes later and becomes an issue. But being able to focus on one character at a time has definitely made it a more approachable game for me.

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Other elements include holo cubes that are basically nonexistent for the same-colored cube but solid for the other color. For instance, Blue can stand on top of a red holo cube but Red would fall through it. The two cubes can also stand on each other’s heads to get over the holo cubes that would otherwise be impossible to cross, or just to reach higher platforms. There are also inanimate cubes that can be pushed to block lasers or used for any number of other tasks. The puzzle designs are clever and satisfying, and I’m eager to see what’s still in store for me.

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I’ve made it to level 25 and from what I played so far (this may change later), it’s sort of a turn-based puzzler in that any traps or dangers are a direct result of your actions. For instance, if there’s a laser that moves, it only moves when you do. It won’t just move on it’s own while you’re standing still and doing nothing. This makes it a thoughtful puzzler, because you can take as much time as you need to experiment and think things through. From what I’ve played, as long as you’re alive, you’re safe until you make your next move. There is a timer and a death counter, but from what I can tell, they’re there for speed runners and don’t affect the gameplay otherwise. You’re not actually on a time limit.

That said, it’s still a punishing game that earns its title. It’s a puzzler that punishes you if you don’t think things through, like move a little and watch what happens, then move a little more, then plan out your escape. But it also punishes you for being imprecise in your execution. You might know exactly what you need to do, but accidentally leave one of your cubes partially on a tile that has a trap on on it. Or when you’re pushing an inanimate cube along a narrow path, you have to be so careful how you move or you’ll just topple off the side to your doom. I really like the puzzles, but I think for me it would be a more enjoyable experience with more forgiving controls that don’t require so much precision. Perhaps something more touchscreen-friendly like swiping once to move one tile over? Dying because you didn’t think before moving is something that’s fun and can be laughed at. You brush yourself off and swear to plan things out better next time. I don’t even mind dying in order to learn something. But dying because you didn’t move slowly enough from one tile to the next feels cheap and is usually where I end up taking a break.

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As for co-op, I don’t think this version is great for that unless you have Bluetooth controllers. I tried playing with a friend sharing the iPad and it feels a bit tight. She also didn’t like that I kept telling her what to do, since I was coming in with more knowledge and experience than she was. Perhaps you need to play with someone from the start? I’m not really sure. But she did like killing me off, and I let her do it until I realized that the game was tallying my total death counts. And that’s something I have a bit of a gripe with, too. Dying restarts a level completely, but it keeps track of your deaths. You could exit the level and start fresh and then clear the level without dying and your previous deaths won’t count. I’m not sure why it needs to keep track of the deaths, but maybe it makes more sense when playing co-op. In any case, I recommend just ignoring it to make your life less stressful.

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A couple of things I should mention are the adorable hats you can put on your cubes, as well as different decals like a mustache or crossbones. There’s no IAPs or ads in the game and you have all the hats right from the start, with no silly grinding to get them. I also love the narration in the background between a human and AI who are observing the tests they’re putting Blue and Red through. They might get impatient if one of the cubes doesn’t move for a while, or express their surprise at how easily you solved a puzzle. It does get repetitive if you leave the level and then come back, as they’re mostly on a script, but it’s not too much of an issue. I find them more endearing than annoying.

There’s no iCloud sync yet, unfortunately, though the developers did say they want to add that later. I’ve been sticking primarily to my iPad because of that, but am looking forward to having that feature so I can work on a level in bed without having to play catch-up on my iPhone. Apple TV would have also been nice for co-op, maybe having one person play with a remote and the other playing with their iPhone? I’m not sure if that could work, but I’d definitely give the co-op another shot if that ever happens.

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At the moment, there are also a few issues like a save bug which made me lose a few levels of progress. It wasn’t too bad, but be aware of it until the patch is through. The developer said to try exiting to the main menu before quitting the game to make sure it saves. The level select screen could also use a bit of work. I often accidentally choose the wrong level while I’m just scrolling through them to find the one I want. It’s not the end of the world, but is a bit of a time waster.

The bottom line is that Death Squared has very clever puzzles, with each and every one so far making me think. There doesn’t appear to be any filler and the game shouldn’t be a quick one unless you’re much better at it than I am. So there’s definitively a lot of bang for your buck. That said, you’re going to need some patience to deal with the controls, as they don’t feel quite at home on a touchscreen. If you’re used to other cube-swiping games like QB, the controls will feel awkward and clunky in comparison. And I won’t lie — I’d love to see a version of this game with friendlier controls that would make it more about the puzzles themselves and less about moving with precision. But I’m still enjoying it and am definitely going to stick with it and report back after I’ve made more progress. Until then, check out my videos and see if it looks like something you’d enjoy. There is definitely a lot to like here, but it’s not without caveats. If you want to give the game a try, you can download it here.

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