I’ve had my Nintendo Switch for just over a month now, but it’s already my preferred way to play video games. As a father, I have very little time to relax once everyone goes to sleep, so I often have to choose between playing video games and just vegging out and watching Netflix or YouTube. With my Switch, I don’t have to choose, I can do both. I’ve also gotten some use out of the system’s built-in portable co-op, playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with my nephews and, more recently, playing Death Squared with my wife – in bed, nonetheless.
Death Squared released earlier this year for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC, but like so many other independent games, it feels most at home on the Switch. The puzzle game tasks players with moving two or four different-colored robot cubes across grid-based levels from point A to point B. In single-player mode, each joystick on the Joy-Cons controls a different robot (two at a time). Things can get a bit tricky when you have to move both robots at the same time. However, in co-op, with the Joy-Cons detached, each player can naturally control a separate robot independently. It’s simple and intuitive to just pick up and play the game – in a way that only really works on the Switch.
Death Squared never over complicates things on the gameplay front. The only input you need to know is how to move the joystick. That’s it. The rest is a matter of learning the various traps and mechanics that are layered on top of that simple premise of getting each robot to point B without dying. The game feels right at home among easy-to-learn but difficult to master Nintendo games like Mario Kart 8 and Arms.
As the name implies, Death Squared uses death to teach players how the game works – which isn’t always to its benefit. Each new puzzle layers new challenges onto the formula, oftentimes without warning. For example, you only learn about the spikes that pop up from the floor and kill your robot at the very moment they kill your robot. Playing in co-op, dying repeatedly due to your partner’s impatience, incompetence, or mischievousness can be a good time. But in single-player, the trial and error gameplay can feel unfair and quickly becomes maddening as you gingerly try to navigate around each level while the game’s characters – a man named David and his A.I. overseer – mock your poor performance.
It’s all much more enjoyable while playing co-op and can become pretty addictive once it sinks its hooks in you. With each level lasting no longer than a few minutes, once my wife and I got into a groove, we didn’t want to stop playing. With each new conundrum, we became better at coordinating and anticipating the game’s dastardly traps. My wife, who rarely plays games, ended up getting sucked into the clever puzzles and every time I suggested we quit, she would plead for just one more level. While a lot of credit goes to SMG Studio for designing the most enjoyable co-op puzzle game I’ve played since Portal 2, I can almost guarantee that my wife would’ve balked at the idea of playing Death Squared on PlayStation 4.
The difference comes down to simplicity. Despite the controls being essentially the same across platforms, the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons present a far less intimidating form factor than the sixteen different buttons on the Dual Shock 4. It’s not that my wife is a simpleton (in fact, she’s much smarter than I am), it’s just that she isn’t as fluent in the language of video games. Neither are most people outside of the gaming bubble that we often find ourselves in. My three-year-old daughter never showed an interest in actually playing video games until I brought home my Switch. Now she can actually finish a race in Mario Kart 8. She hasn’t beaten me yet, but I look forward to the day when she does.
So, even though the game is relatively friction-less for newcomers, some frustration rears its head through odd design decisions and technical quibbles. Each of the game’s test rooms (read: levels) are designed as floating constructs in some seemingly dark, vast warehouse. None of the test rooms have walls, so you’ll often just fall off the side of the structure and die when all you were trying to do was navigate in a straight line, especially in single-player when you’re often controlling both cubes at the same time, similar to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. So many times, I knew what I needed to do, but actually executing it was not as easy as it should’ve been. This makes simply going through the steps of completing a puzzle more frustrating than it needs to be. This is especially compounded by the fact that the game doesn’t consistently auto-save. Too often, I would load an old save only to find that I had to start a couple of levels back from where I had last stopped. And when simply moving around the environment can be treacherous, that problem isn’t as minor as it would otherwise be.
Despite some of its minor issues, I’m still having a blast with Death Squared, and I think my wife is too. We haven’t made it through all of the game’s 80 plus levels (which is why you shouldn’t consider this to be a full review), but we have every intention of going back and seeing what new predicaments we can solve for those adorable little cubes. I can sincerely say, this is a game I’d much rather play on my Switch over any other system - and the list of games I can say that about is rapidly growing in number.
A game as simple and accessible as Death Squared just makes more sense on Switch, but the fact that it’s also a smaller indie title that released to very little fanfare on other systems doesn’t hurt either. With less competition, now is the perfect time for games like this to find an audience. Death Squared benefits from being a kid friendly pick-up-and-play game on a kid friendly, mobile console. Though it isn’t a perfect game, it deserves to be seen and played by more people, and I’m glad it might have that chance on Nintendo’s nifty young console.