Forest Temple, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Everyone remembers this temple, it’s the first one you encounter as Adult Link, featuring bigger and more convoluted puzzles in order to navigate from end to end, including the infamous Poe Block Puzzle. This puzzle started a life long hatred for Block Puzzles, Soul Reaver and Soul Reaver 2 added more fuel to the fire and I can proudly say: Death Squared not only carries the torch but runs off into the distance and taunts you over the horizon with it. Brandishing it and waving it wildly above its head, mocking you at every opportunity.
The Block Puzzle has been a gaming staple for years and despite it’s rudimentary and simple mechanics, they often prove to be the most infuriating puzzles you ever encounter in a game. So you’d think making a game full of nothing but block puzzles would be most peoples idea of hell, you’d be right. That being said, Death Squared is brilliant. It’s both simple and complex, easy yet challenging, infuriating yet rewarding, puzzling yet calming. It obtains a beautiful duality that many games of its type fail to achieve all too often. Most out and out puzzle games leave you frustrated and angry, sometimes driving you to the point of mindless controller abuse, which in turn just makes things worse!
Death Squared doesn’t give you any of that, but lets start from the top and work down. In “Story” mode you control two cubes, red and blue, which you have to navigate through progressively more difficult and sinisterly designed courses in order to reach their respectively coloured circle platform I call their home. Starting from a simple “Move from A to B unimpeded” to “Dodge the lighting, don’t touch the lasers, avoid the force-fields and get from A to B” the game goes from 0-60 in about 4 levels.
Before you know it what was a simple task now has you juggling multiple components and moving both cubes simultaneously, and it’s great! The levels are sufficiently difficult that you can’t just storm through them and designed in such a way that brute forcing a solution is next to impossible. Most puzzles can be solved within a few minutes by stopping and thinking for a second before moving anything.
Observation is key in Death Squared. A lot, if not all, of the levels feature components that move as you move, or buttons that move parts of the landscape or activate the lighting fire hydrants or raise spikes from the ground. It will take a little trial and error to discover just what each button or movement does and the best way to overcome such obstacles. After clearing a handful of levels you quickly become suspicious of any button you encounter, wide open areas and even the “safe” home tiles, as you’re never sure what devious trap is waiting for you to activate them unknowingly.
Moving with caution becomes second nature but you know what happens then? You get lax and you slip up. It only takes one absent minded moment for you to accidentally blow up one of your poor little cubes and have to start the trial all over again. That’s the bad thing about having control of both cubes simultaneously, you have to be watching seemingly every spot at once while wholly focused of moving through the level avoiding obstacles with one only to see you forgot about that one rotating laser canon until it was too late and boom goes the other cube. These moments are the most frustrating but it’s an unforced human error, not the game’s fault you’re a silly, squishy and forgetful human. It didn’t make you fail, you did, you’re not mad at the game but yourself for letting it happen when you knew it was so easily avoidable.
After stumbling your way through a level after getting two tiles from the end and accidentally destroying your cubes in some dumb way you are filled with a deep sense of satisfaction that you’re allowed to bask in for all of 20 seconds or so before the next level has you scratching your head stuck for how to proceed.
All these things are a huge credit to the game, it’s constantly keeping you guessing and never lets you drop your guard because the moment you do you get sucker punched by some trap. Most puzzle games get repetitive and dull, causing you to switch off and lose focus but Death Squared keeps you constantly engaged, constantly challenging you to push on and make it through to the next level. For such a simple design it’s often incredibly complex, something that is even more prevalent in “Party” mode that sees you and a partner controlling two cubes each and struggling to get all four home at once.
The control scheme for the game can sometimes be a little annoying, mostly in Party mode where you have to hold in one of the shoulder buttons to control your other cube, releasing it to return control to your “default” cube. These controls often lead to you accidentally moving the wrong cube and causing it to fall to its death or move off a button causing some unspeakable tragedy to befall the other little guys you’re shepherding to the pseudo-safety of their home spot. Even in solo mode the controls can be a little frustrating but again, that’s a failing of you rather than the game. You get absent minded for just a second and the game will happily punish you for it!
The visual asthetic of the test environments really gives that sense of “clinical testing operations” that Portal taught us to love so much. Completing this theme is the soft soundtrack that would be quite at home on some kind of “Zen Garden” album used to aid concentration and soothe those angry moments easily. The story mode also brings with it a familar humour-filled Narrator/AI dialogue that is a nice homage to those of the Portal franchise that often leave you chuckling to yourself.
All in all, Death Squared is a brilliantly clever and mind-bending puzzle/platformer that always keeps you guessing but never feels unbeatable. It’s got an equal measure of head-scratching and eureka moments that make it so thoroughly enjoyable and addictive. You find yourself saying “Just one more go!” then “Just one MORE go!” which quickly becomes “Just one more level” and “Well this looks simple enough, I’ll just do this one…” and an hour later you find yourself only putting the game down so you can charge the Switch.