I’ve found that things with “cube” as a part of their nomenclature tend to vary greatly in quality. There’s Ice Cube, who I’m totally down with. But then there’s the abomination known as cube steak, which succeeds only in insulting every other variety of steak simply through its existence. And bouillon cubes? Don’t even get me started.
So in the realm of cubes, where does Death by Cube, the Square-Enix dual-stick shooter, stand? Unfortunately, the game falls somewhere between the Nissan Cube and cube steak. This is not a good sandwich to be included in.
On the surface, Death by Cube is a fairly standard dual-stick shooter, similar in many ways to Geometry Wars (you know, because of the shapes) and the XBLA remake of Robotron 2084. You’re placed into a small playing field where oodles and oodles of enemies spawn nearly right on top of you, and it’s up to you to fend them off.
The set of methods that the game provides you for fending them off is one of the few things that sets Death by Cube apart. Using in-game currency obtained by finishing levels and setting high scores, you’re given the ability to upgrade to new player-controlled robots. Each robot has a different weapon: one features spread shots, while another gives slow homing lasers. Some are meant to be used in certain situations, but I found that, unsurprisingly, the homing robot was almost always the best choice for any level.
In addition, your character has two ways to defend itself besides running around in circles and firing like an idiot. First off, the dash ability lets you briefly become invincible and travel more quickly across the playing field, which also briefly stuns any enemy you touch. Expect to use this a lot, as it’s often the only way to survive for more than a few seconds.
You also have a shield that can be activated to catch the enemy’s bullets and use them as your own. This isn’t quite as useful as dash since, in most situations, any bullets that you catch will be followed by many, many more, so as soon as you let your shield down to attack, you’ll take damage.
Death by Cube also departs from the typical dual-stick formula by offering a variety of level types. Some simply ask you to destroy all of the enemies, while others are a bit more complex, like attacking the enemy’s bases. You’ll have to change your approach based on the level, which gives a bit of diversity to an otherwise straightforward affair.
If the game sounds pretty decent to you so far, then you’re in the same boat that I was in during my first few hours with the game. Death by Cube does manage to breathe a little bit of new life into the basic dual-stick formula.
Too bad that the latter half of the game seems designed specifically to piss you off.
First off, while each stage in the game gives you an objective (such as “survive” or “destroy enemy bases”), that’s only half of the story. You also have to achieve a minimum score in each stage to beat it, and this isn’t always easy to do. For instance, some stages in which you’re asked to destroy enemy bases can be completed pretty quickly: bum rush the base and give it a good thrashing. However, take this approach and you’ll fail the level, as getting that minimum score also requires you to hang around killing enemies to build up your score. No, this isn’t any fun.
The design of enemies also gets in the way. The game likes to throw dozens upon dozens of enemies at you simultaneously, which would be fine if some of the enemies weren’t tiny and didn’t kill you in one hit. In later levels, you’ll find yourself getting killed and having no idea why. Other enemies have huge, unstoppable explosion attacks that kill you instantly if you’re caught within the red-dotted area-of-effect. No, this isn’t any fun either.
The frantic shooting is also hurt by a wildly inconsistent framerate that introduces slowdown just when the game is at its most intense. There are few things more frustrating than a death that comes at the hands of the game’s own inability to run properly, and you’ll encounter more than a few of these deaths.
Speaking of the graphics, you might already be aware that this game has a lot of red stuff in it (which the official press for the game describes as “red oil,” but come on.) It’s unfortunate that this is really the only element of the game’s graphical approach that is even slightly interesting. The levels are devoid of any interesting design whatsoever, and the enemies consist of about three types that appear in varying sizes. Even the hilarity of spouting robot blood gets old after a while; if I want gore, I’ll just watch Robo Geisha. Mmm, Geisha Chainsaw…
If there’s anything that deserves praise in the game, it’s the music. Most of it is fast-paced and highly catchy electronic music, and is both well-composed and well-produced. Hell, I’d recommend spending the $6 to buy the soundtrack before I recommended spending $10 on Death by Cube itself.
In the end, that’s the main problem with Death by Cube: it has a lot of good ideas, and it’s fun for a while, but the game became a serious chore before I felt like I had squeezed ten dollars of enjoyment out of it. A multiplayer component exists, but it’s really not much fun at all, as it normally comes down to trading off kills with your opponents–if you can find any in the game’s non-existent online community.
If you’re a die-hard dual-stick shooter enthusiast, then this might be a game worth checking out, provided that you’re willing to put up with some frustration. For everyone else, go pick up a nice, relaxing Ice Cube album. At least then you’d be able to say “Today was a good day.” The outlook for a day spent with Death by Cube is far less clear.
Death by Cube offers a story (though a poorly written and incomprehensible one), and while the game presentation is mostly functional, it is entirely unimpressive.
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Though it introduces some interesting twists on dual-stick shooter gameplay, fun turns to frustration long before the experience is over.
You'll love the music, but if you can stomach the annoying "phone off the hook" sound effect for more than one stage, then I praise your intestinal fortitude.
You can squeeze about five hours out of the game if you haven't intentionally broken your thumbs by that point. Multiplayer exists, but online opponents don't.
There's some enjoyment to by found here, but by the end of the experience fun will be nothing more than a fond memory.