Hands-on with the co-op puzzler
The lobby of the San Francisco Hilton was congested as 9 to 5ers met over cocktails, conversed, laughed, and routinely checked their smartphones looking for a better time than the one they were currently having. Well off my normal path, I stopped by for an appointment away from the bustle and the noise in a somewhat quiet area where I would be meeting Ashley Ringrose of SMG Studios. Based out of Australia, SMG will be releasing Death Squared, its first console game, in a few weeks. I’ve been writing for Destructoid for well over a year, but this was to be my first face-to-face meeting with a developer.
Death Squared, which we have previewed here before, is a multiplayer puzzle game with a simple premise: move your robot to its color-matching goal point. Play by yourself and you control two robots with each of the control sticks on your controller. Play with a friend and you’ll each control one robot, working together to reach their respective goal points. The campaign has about 80 stages and can be played entirely in co-op. Bring in two more players and you can tackle special stages designed for four robots. Two players can also take on these stages, each controlling two robots.
At first glance, Death Squared appears to be nothing more than a simple puzzle game, one you could find many replicas of across Steam. The concept of moving your character from its starting point to its goal isn’t what I’d call groundbreaking. Even moving two different characters at the same time isn’t anything new. I enjoyed a similar concept in games like Trainyard on my iPhone for years.
So when I sat there, taking on a level or two on my own, I wasn’t exactly on board. I was more blasé to the experience. Sure, my hand-eye coordination was tested as controlling two robots at once was a bit like trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, but it wasn’t impossible, and with these early puzzles, wasn’t exactly a challenge. But add a second player, and the game became something more.
When Ringrose picked up the second PS4 controller, plugged into the Asus laptop the game was running on, the full potential of this experience dawned on me. Succeeding is co-op affair, you have to work together and use your logic and problem-solving skills to reach the finish. But, as been my experience in the past, having fun with a friend should always include a little dickery, and there is plenty to be found here. Each of the nearly 150 stages present in the launch version of the game will come with obstacles and traps that are hidden from view, only visible after you activate it. Step on a switch and who knows what will happen. Some of these switches look just like your goal points, but instead of beating the level it might accidentally trigger some spikes that kill your partner.
As I played with Ringrose, I could just make out a devilish smile as he activated a trap, destroying my robot. The first time it was funny. The second time when it was accidentally triggered was even funnier. The third time is when we got down to business.
Throughout the few levels I played, without even communicating verbally, I could see us actively solving the puzzle and all its quirks on the screen. With each new level, I would quickly identify the dangers and scan the area to see just how we would proceed.
As two seasoned gamers, Ringrose and I really didn’t have too much trouble with the stages we played. Years of puzzle game experience trained me for this. But ideally, this game isn’t made to be played by two lifelong gamers. It’s meant to be played by the grandmas and grandpas of the world who want to spend time with their grandkids. It’s for the moms and the dads who only have match-3 apps on their phones looking to bond with the child who always has a controller in their hands. It’s for the boys and the girls and the indeterminate sexes to play with their partners who might not play games on the regular. If you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend who wasn’t into gaming, this is the game to play with them.
The first few levels of the campaign were stupidly simple, meant only to explain the basics of how you play. There doesn’t seem to be a tutorial, but I think it’s better for a game as easy to play as this to not include one. But even in those stages, I was introduced to a few of the 15 different elements found in the game that will alter how the level works, such as conveyor belts and motion-tracking lasers. Later stages, including those found in the Vault, will feature several of these different elements in the same level.
I asked if the introduction of these elements would be similar to the recent Mario vs. Donkey Kong games, where an element is introduced and it becomes the focal point for the next 10 or so levels. Death Squared will not follow that formula, instead adding and subtracting elements without a set pattern. The goal here isn’t to just keep throwing elements into the mix, it’s to create a difficulty curve that will keep players healthily challenged.
The challenge of solving each stage won’t be the only thing to keep you interested in the campaign. There is a full-blown story mode here, complete with voice acting and a plot that I’ve been told is rife with humor and intrigue. While I don’t know how the story will play out for people who buy the game, for me it was full of pandering. As if the snacks from Australia I was given weren't enough, SMG Studios had voice actor Mick Lauer, who plays David in the game and I’ve been told is popular on YouTube, record specific lines just for me including naming Destructoid and saying CJ in the audio track. My guess is they didn’t even attempt to try pronouncing my last name; something substitute teachers learned years ago is futile.
The story and the characters aren’t just there to amuse you and move the story forward. They can also change a level as you’re trying to proceed through it, though I wasn’t able to experience this in my limited preview session. The game is launching in multiple countries at the same time, but I’ve been told it will only include an English voice track with subtitles possibly to follow at a later date.
With a few levels under my belt and several deaths in the crushingly difficult Vault stages, I asked about the future of this game. Would there be more levels added, modding or a level editor? Ringrose said his team was planning on adding more levels to the Vault after launch and was looking into modding on the PC version. A level editor has also been considered, though it is not clear how much if any work has been put into one. My hope is they’re able to add one down the line because with a fervent fan base you can keep a game going for years. Just look at Portal 2.
Speaking of, throughout the interview Portal 2 kept coming up. With the voice acting, the type of humor found here and the fact that these robots are all just test subjects, it would be hard to miss the comparison. The Portal duology is widely loved and respected and has been the influence for many games since release. Ringrose said he welcomed the comparison as his team is looking to capture the same idea that made those games such a hit: simple elegance.
Death Squared got its start back in 2015, birthed in a game jam by lead designer Patrick Cook. The idea behind the concept was “what happens next.” Development on the full game began shortly after, with upwards of 16 people working on the project. I asked Ringrose what lessons his team had learned from SMG’s previous games and he told me they taught them to focus on what was really important, like polishing the experience and limiting your scope to something that is achievable by such a small team.
The polish I found in the version I played, which is nearly identical to the final product, is the result of consistent showings at public events like PAX. Ringrose said the feedback his team received from players played a huge role in shaping this game. If a number of people failed the same puzzle again and again, that would be a sign that maybe that puzzle is too obtuse and would need to be refined. I asked about how the levels were made and quickly figured out why some of these inordinately difficult levels came to be.
Two people are creating all the levels for the game and throughout development, challenged one another to beat dastardly levels they had designed. Around 200 levels were created for the game, but a fourth or so have been cut due to difficulty or just not being any fun. If any of these brain-busting levels made it into the final game, you’ll find them in the Vault.
I tried my hand at three or so of the Vault levels and was completely lost at first. One had elements I didn’t recognize while another had a solution I figured out quickly but was unable to finish because the path from point A to point B wasn’t as clear as I thought it was. These levels tested Ringrose and myself, and for me, showed off the full potential of the concept. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Pirate Ship level.
I, controlling the blue robot, was in control of the titular ship. Ringrose, in control of the red robot, needed to be rescued from an island full of switches that would kill me. When I tried to move left or right, the entire ship would move instead along with simulated waves made by the simple block designs that permeate throughout the game. In motion, it was spectacular. If I tried to move forward, I fell to my death. Working together, I had to move the ship over the island he was marooned on, trigger some switches to get him aboard, then position my ship near my end point so I could finish the level. I think we tried that level for about seven minutes without being able to beat it. Several times we came so close, but something tells me there was one more element to that level I had yet to figure out, something I’ll have to do when the full game is released.
Death Squared will launch simultaneously on PC, PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. I’ve also been told it’s coming to Mac. Each console edition will include exclusive Vault levels that you won’t find on the other, however, the Steam version is said to contain them all. This is SMG’s first console game and it is self-publishing. I asked how it was for such a small team to work with the giants at Sony and Microsoft and Ringrose said it was an easy experience as both companies were very communicative. Sony even featured the game on its blog to help promote it.
When asked about porting it to the Switch, Ringrose said he’d love to, calling Nintendo fans “their fanbase.” SMG Studio currently does not have access to a Switch dev kit but has requested one. Previously, the developer was in possession of a Wii dev kit, but by the time they got it the console was already in its death spiral. Death Squared is made in Unity, so a port shouldn’t be too much of an issue, he told me. Just thinking about the Joy-Con and how easy it is to turn one controller into two, I know this would be a perfect fit for Nintendo’s new system.
If you are interested in playing Death Squared, you will have two more chances to do so before its launch this March. For those interested in the US, you can have a go at it this weekend at PAX South. For our readers down under, there will be one last public showing at RTX next month.