Review: Death By Cube

DeathByCube.jpg

Yesterday, I spent some time talking about a pair of recent arcade shooters for PSN, but today I’d like to turn your attention to another arcade shooter. This one is called Death by Cube and just came out last week on the Xbox Live Arcade.

Death by Cube is a top-down, arena-style arcade shooter along the lines of games like Robotron and Geometry Wars. In the game, you play as an amnesiac robot named Leo who awakens to find his world under attack by hordes of evil robots. Moving with the left stick and firing with the right stick, you must take control of Leo and blast through wave after wave of these robots hell-bent on his destruction in order to recover his lost memories.

The single-player campaign consists of 40 stages, each requiring you to survive the robot onslaught and complete a certain scoring objective to earn bronze, silver and gold medals which reward you with chips you need as currency to unlock additional worlds, levels and upgrades. Up to 8 players can also compete online in three different multiplayer modes, but unfortunately no one seems to playing – I haven’t been able to find a single match since release.

There are about four or five different mission types, from destroying a specific number of enemies within a time limit to protecting/destroying bases to simply surviving an endless barrage of enemies, but regardless of the mission target, ultimately your main objective throughout is to slaughter as many robots and compile as high of a score as you can by building your multiplier with multi-kill combos and collecting power-ups.

But this is much, MUCH easier said than done because Death by Cube is one tough cookie of a game. Indeed, this game puts your twin-stick shooter skills to the ultimate test, placing you on small, closed-in maps swarming with rapidly-spawning enemies who stop at nothing to smash you to bits and overwhelm you with their constant barrage of bullets and lasers.

By and large, the game controls smoothly and the challenge level is pretty fair. Yes, the game can be overly brutal. However, as you learn enemy attack patterns and weaknesses, master the dodge and shield mechanics – the LB/LT buttons allow you to make quick, evasive dashes, while the RB/RT buttons allow you to pull up a protective shield capable of absorbing bullets and redirecting them back at enemies – and figure out which ability upgrades (spread shot, homing bullets, defensive/offensive boosts, etc.) are best suited to each mission scenario, the game’s air of impossibility dissipates and the fun begins.

A suitably bizarre and violent sense of humor compliments the gameplay nicely with robotic adversaries that explode into fountains of blood (technically it’s supposed to be “red oil,” but who’s buying that load of baloney?) when killed, and the sterile, Portal-like gray and white environments serve as clean canvases for the blood-soaked mayhem. I can’t be as positive about the audio, though. The sound effects in particular are noticeably weak, providing little audible feedback to make the gushing blood and frenetic action as satisfying as it could be.

Death by Cube’s downfall, though, stems from the fact that it just isn’t balanced very well. From beginning to end, the game lacks a consistent ratcheting-up in difficulty. Instead, the difficulty seems to spike and lull with each passing stage – one stage will be a cakewalk, then without warning the next stage will pound you into submission, and then as you brace yourself for more pain the next stage lets up again.

This sporadic difficulty is compounded by imbalance in the game’s currency system. As I mentioned earlier, you earn chips by completing each stage and then use those chips to buy new stages. However, you only get 1,000 chips for each scoring medal earned (plus some bonus chips whether you medal or not) and most stages cost more than that to unlock. That means when you are just starting out, you usually only have enough chips to buy one stage at a time, maybe two if you manage to luck into an early silver or gold medal right off the bat. So, if the next stage you buy turns out to be one of the harder ones, you’ll find yourself stuck dying and retrying until you manage to eek out a bronze or going back to a previous stage to tediously scrounge up more chips.

Because of its extreme, sometimes brutally unforgiving difficulty, I can see Death by Cube being a divisive game – hell, I’m already seeing that in the polarized review scores and the game’s split-down-the-middle, two-and-a-half star Xbox Live user rating. Personally, I’ve had a ball playing Death by Cube despite its aggravating difficulty imbalance, and wholeheartedly recommend trying out the free trial version. If you like your Xbox Live Arcade games to be innocent little time-wasters, this game is not for you. But if you want a shooter with old-school arcade challenge, Death by Cube should be right up your alley.

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ You’ll either love the extreme difficulty…
+ Solid twin-stick shooter gameplay
+ Good mission variety
+ Lots of stages, medals and upgrades
+ Fitting visual style and gobs of blood

Cons:
– …Or you’ll hate the extreme difficulty
– Frustratingly sporadic difficulty shifts from stage to stage
– Currency system could’ve been a bit more forgiving
– Weak sound effects

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Premium Agency
Release Date: 1/20/09
Genre: Arcade Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!