Death By Cube Review

By Russ Fischer - Posted Jan 28, 2010

Square Enix isn't exactly a publisher that's known for "space shoot ‘em up" games. Yet, some unlikely games make a compelling argument for considering a new shooter bearing the Square Enix brand; however, if you did that, you might end up buying Death by Cube and that would be a big mistake.

The Pros
  • Offers new twists on classic Robotron formula
  • No shortage of mayhem and energy
  • Such a cute little robot!
The Cons
  • Feels like a grind
  • Strategy fails and spamming rules
  • What's with all the blood?

Square Enix isn't exactly a publisher that’s known for space shoot ‘em up games. Yet, some unlikely games (late '90s shooter Einhander comes to mind) make a compelling argument for considering a new shooter bearing the Square Enix brand; however, if you did that, you might end up buying Death by Cube and that would be a big mistake.

Death By Cube

Rubik Wouldn't Touch This One

Death by Cube is pretty simple. On a plain field of play -- decorated only by changing light patterns -- you'll fly a cute little robot against waves of aggressive cubes and droids. The controls are classic Robotron: left stick moves and right stick fires. Shoot at an enemy and it explodes in a massive shower of blood (or red oil, as the case may be) that goes everywhere and can obscure your vision. Shoot enough stuff and you'll earn a higher point multiplier. If you die, your multiplier resets to zero.

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And, In a Sense, That's It. Move, Shoot, Stay Alive.

Robotron and descendents like Smash TV (which also enjoyed big splashes of gore) didn't have much of a risk versus reward mechanic. Survival was the key, but there wasn't much of a bonus for surviving by any particular strategy. Death by Cube definitely offers a bonus for using a few additional tricks; however, there's no actual strategy to it beyond that most unappealing game design concept: spamming.

Death By Cube

Dash and Shield, Dash and Shield…Over and Over Again

Death by Cube adds two new elements to the basics of moving and shooting. One is the dash, which stuns enemies (visually indicated with a color change to yellow) and weakens their defense. Stun multiple baddies at once and you'll earn a bonus. The other option is a shield, which can absorb and then re-fire enemy shots. When faced with an overwhelming volley of enemy fire, the shield becomes your best friend, but it can be overloaded quickly.

Because of these two mechanics, survival strategy should be an equation in which four elements -- moving, firing, dashing and the shield -- are properly balanced. You can buy different robot personas, which emphasize various parts of that equation. One adds great spread shots, while another diminishes your firing capability but greatly improves the shield. There are alternate robots that have great homing shots, a super-fast stream of fire but slow movement speed, and slightly slower but far more powerful shots.

Death by Spam

In reality, the gameplay equation comes down to something pretty simple: dash frantically as often as possible while shooting in whichever direction has either the most movement or (if you've dashed through a group of enemies) the most yellowed targets. Should you be unlucky enough that cubes with firing capability are on the field, use the shield as often as possible, and then dash when dropping it. The dash is usually (but not always) enough to get you to safety until the shield can be used again; otherwise, you'll be shield-less and dead within seconds.

There are a few mission types and each new mission must be bought with coins won in previous exploits. In simple time attack levels, you have a set time in which to destroy all enemies. There are pure survival waves and levels where you attack or defend a base. The most devilish mission may be the type where, in addition to waves of enemies, you have to shoot large, static cubes. These explode with deadly force, killing nearby enemies and, in some cases, you.

Death By Cube

Earn Your Pain

Each mission has point goals for bronze, silver and gold awards. You'll need at least the bronze to “pass.” That's where some of the mission types get difficult -- in the harder versions of the levels with static cubes, just getting to bronze can be tough. It isn't fun, as there are too many elements in play. Death by Cube isn't complex; it's just unnecessarily complicated.

There's a thin line between the bottomless well of appeal that a game like Geometry Wars has and the endless supply of frustration Death by Cube offers. Here, the visuals are at proof-of-concept levels (or “intentionally campy” levels, depending on how defensive you're feeling) and the action isn't up to snuff. Those prototype-level visuals obscure important details and often make you feel as if you’ve been killed for no reason, while the need to randomly spam the dash and shield mechanics removes any sense that skill is needed. There's rarely the joyous sense of escape when you survive one more wave, nor the thrill of satisfaction after earning a higher multiplier. Other shoot ‘em ups offer good rewards alongside the white-knuckle tension. Instead, Death by Cube just feels like a grind.