When Square Enix started on its initiative to make more titles for the digital download market, most gamers expected that it would go with its usual repertoire of small RPGs and strategy games. At first, the company obliged with player's expectations by releasing Crystal Defenders, a port of their tower defense title for cell phones. After that, however, they started announcing titles in genres that seemed to be better suited for their newly acquired Taito label. The first was a puzzle title called Yosumin Live, and it had mild success. Next came 0 Day Attack on Earth, an isometric shooter that wasn't exactly well received by critics or gamers. The latest release on Xbox Live Arcade, Death by Cube, is another genre that people don't usually expect from Square Enix: a twin-stick shooter. While the game plays much better than the previous effort, it's still rather difficult to enjoy.
In Death by Cube, you play as Leo, a robot that has been awakened in a sterile, white world floating in space. As a robot lacking any memories, you somehow conclude that finding another robot named Selsie and rebooting her will give you insight about how you lost your memories and how you can get them back. The path to Selsie is littered with black cubed robots that have been programmed to destroy you at all costs, forcing you to shoot and dodge everything in your path to fulfill your quest.
The basic gameplay mimics that of many other twin-stick shooters. Presented in a top-down perspective, all you really need to do is shoot everything around you that moves while ensuring that you don't get killed in the process. The objectives carry that mechanic into several different variations in each level. Some of them are pretty straightforward, such as killing a certain number of robots in the allotted time period or surviving waves of enemies for as long as possible. Others ask you to defend bases from attacking hordes or that you complete a level without using guns.
The game lets you expand your arsenal beyond the default gun. You're given a dash ability, which not only lets you zip out of crowded areas but also temporarily stuns your opponents if they happen to be within a small radius of your dash. You also get a shield that absorbs projectiles from other enemies and fires them back if you accumulate enough. Finally, you can change out your version of Leo for others with specialties, such as a spread gun, more health, faster speed or one built specifically for defending bases.
Everything in Death by Cube is governed by credits, which are used to buy the different versions of Leo. Credits are also used to buy access to the game worlds and levels. These credits are earned through the player's performance in any given level. The total score in a level gets converted into credits, and reaching different milestone levels earns bonus credits. Even if the player fails to complete a level or fails to reach a milestone, credits are still awarded, albeit in a much smaller amount. While levels can be replayed to earn more credits, the bonus will not be gained again if the user reaches the level's given milestone scores.
The game's high level of difficulty becomes a polarizing subject. Things start off normally for the first level, but by the time the second level rolls around, death becomes more frequent. While it is manageable, the third level is truly maddening, and subsequent levels only get worse. Unlike other shooters, there are no grand patterns to discover in order to survive. Instead of skill, dumb luck will get you through any level.
Because of this, the credit system seems like it's there to taunt you. Like the level difficulty, things start off pretty cheap but quickly get expensive, forcing you to reach a milestone in order to go forward. With the difficulty as high as it gets early on, the credit payoff that results from dying becomes paltry, and since you can't go back and get the bonuses from completed level milestones, you'll be replaying one level multiple times just to get enough money to buy an upgrade so you can conquer a level or open up a level or world that is much more unforgiving than the one you're currently stuck in. With the game seeming to discourage you from getting further every step of the way, only those who get a kick out of near-impossible difficulty levels will find this endearing.
Death by Cube features a standard assortment of multiplayer modes for up to eight players: deathmatch, score attack mode, and defense mode, where the winner is the first team to destroy the opponent's base. Unfortunately, there is no one playing this game online, making it impossible to get any of the online Achievements unless you seek out someone to help you out. The lack of an offline multiplayer mode is disappointing, since the nature of the game can easily accommodate multiple players on one screen without any complications.
As expected, the controls are rather easy to grasp. The left thumbstick moves Leo while the right thumbstick shoots in any direction. Using the left trigger or left bumper initiates the dodge maneuver, while holding down the right trigger or right bumper brings up the shield. The controls remain simple despite the added abilities and, more importantly, are very responsive. While there are plenty of things that make the game difficult to undertake, the controls will not be one of them.
The sound gets the job done without doing anything special to stand out from the crowd. The sound effects are pretty standard, with the laser blasts and cube disintegration sounding fine, if familiar. There's only one voice in the game, and it is that of a synthesized announcer. It fits with the tone of the game but it isn't exactly a memorable voice. The music is one area where the developers seem to have tried to make the title unique. The use of both hard and mellow techno beats melds well with the action on-screen, and while it isn't exactly as impressive as something heard in Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved or Smash TV, it does a good job of evoking the mood akin to any shooting game. The sound works well enough, so you won't be reaching to turn down the volume.
Like the sound, there is nothing truly spectacular about the graphics. As stated before, the environments are usually composed of nothing more than a floor of white tiles set against a starry landscape. The level designs change, and there are times when the tiles take on several shades of gray, but for the most part, the levels all feel the same. The game does do a good job of handling multiple objects simultaneously without any hint of slowdown. Even when the floors are slathered in blood and the screen is filled with lasers and large waves of enemies, the game never skips a beat. As for the animation, both the enemies and Leo exhibit some frantic walking animations even when standing still. It looks odd to see legs rapidly moving back and forth, but considering how lifeless everything else is, the animation is a rather welcome sight. The graphics do their job well enough but don't become memorable in the process.
Unlike a majority of twin-stick shooters out there, Death by Cube will only be enjoyable to a select group of gamers. The high level of difficulty exhibited in the first few levels of the game will likely turn off those who aren't looking for something very challenging. The grinding aspect associated with credit accumulation will drive away gamers who don't care much for repetition. The variation in tasks is a nice touch, but the nature of the title will ensure that only a few gamers will see it through to the end. Unless you enjoy your shooters with a side of masochism, it would be very difficult to recommend the title, even if the price were reduced.
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