As many already know, a big selling point of the Nintendo Switch - and its detachable Joy-Cons - is that multiplayer can and should happen anywhere at a moment’s notice. At times it might sound like hyperbolic grandstanding but there’s a point to it all – this isn’t just a novelty, it’s a new way of playing games and it is here to stay. We've seen various games already that are arguably enhanced by that ability to intuitively pick up and play with others.
Thankfully Nintendo isn’t alone in this vision; some independent developers have been embracing the idea, and the Switch is better off for it. Amongst the latest is SMG Studios' Death Squared, an environmental puzzler that takes the concept of deadly science tests from games like Portal and makes it its own. While released on other platforms prior to this Switch release, the ability to take on its co-op shenanigans at a moment’s notice makes it feel as if Death Squared was meant for Nintendo’s little hybrid system.
Presumably you play the part of an unassuming technician named David, dictating the movement of two blocky robots as they try to maneuver across 80 trap-filled stages in the name of science. You can of course play it with a friend, but there’s also an option for solo play via controlling both ‘bots. The name of the game is patience; on rare occasions moving fast is the best option, but for the most part you must slowly work your way around each chamber if you hope to get your bumbling test subject to the goal.
Most of the hindrances and obstacles are actually controlled by you as well. Moving each robot will also cause platforms to shift, lasers to follow you and spikes to rise from certain spots. It requires a lot of lateral thinking, but even the simplest of puzzles make you feel smart for figuring them out, which results in a supremely satisfying feeling when you complete each stage.
Thankfully the game’s design is as concise as its concept. With your objective being getting your little hovering blocks to their assigned goal, the only thing you really need to do is move them. There are no auxiliary buttons to learn; although you can press them to have your AI companions dance a little while they wait their turn! If playing solo, the player controls the two cubes with each individual analogue stick. While it takes a bit of getting used to, it becomes second nature soon enough.
Each stage is presented as if you’re watching the little ‘bots do their tasks in a “virtual world” floating about, and while there isn’t a lot of variety in the environments that thematic cohesiveness is appreciated. Likewise, there’s no delineation between playing Death Squared in handheld, TV or desktop mode thanks to its sparse and industrial design. Its snarky and quizzical nature can be enjoyed no matter which way you choose.
Death Squared is not for the faint of heart nor those looking for an easy play session. You will die often, which you may as well mark as a gameplay mechanic as you can’t discover how the world works in relation to your characters without falling off of a few ledges or inadvertently blowing the duo up a time or two…thousand.
Rather than being a rote experience you get treated to some witty repartee with David, our humorous narrator and his A.I. partner, Iris. Sometimes they’ll have goofy conversations during loading screens, but often you’ll find their charming banter an interesting ice breaker to your constant failures. While they occasionally repeat themselves it’s never obnoxiously so, and it helps to diffuse the player's mood when the realization sets in that they’ve run into a wall. If you can’t take solace in the dialogue, at least be safe in the knowledge that each death results in you starting right back up immediately.
If the core eighty stages in the story leave you wanting more, there are a few more modes for more adventurous gamers. The aptly named Party mode doubles your crew of motley cube-bots for forty more stages of brain-busting scientific research that may or may not involve blowing each other up to test your hypotheses. While Story mode in and of itself is challenging, Party mode forces players to coordinate in new and unique ways. You could play this mode by yourself if you so choose, but having to hold down buttons to swap back and forth is more hassle than it's worth. If your mind isn’t mush at this point, there’s also a vault with even more two- and four-player stages that feel equal parts DVD 'deleted scenes' or a traditional hard mode.
While we’ve seen plenty of games that have similar themes and mechanics, the way they’re presented in Death Squared makes for a rare experience. Having a game that is cooperative at its core but imminently playable as a solo experience is a boon, but it must be said its wily charms are exponentially more effective when sitting next to a friend or loved one whilst you giggle at each other’s faux pas. If you want your puzzlers to be thought-provoking with a dash of dry humour, you can’t go wrong with Death Squared.