Version tested: Xbox 360
Back in the giddy early years of the British home computer revolution, like so many of my generation I was lured into the world of BASIC programming by the ZX Spectrum and those voluminous type-in listings from Sinclair User and Your Sinclair. My enthusiasm for coding petered out before my 12th birthday, but I did manage to save two wonky homebrew efforts to a C30 tape before my interest in the mystic runes of GOSUB and INKEY waned.
The first was a crude text adventure called Worm (it was about a worm) and the second was Beat the Blockoids. In this homespun classic of user-defined graphics and rudimentary processing you had to guide a tiny stickman across an empty screen. With every step, a scowling Blockoid spawned somewhere on the map, occasionally blocking your path but just as often appearing on top of the exit or directly underneath you, ensuring that victory was almost completely random. I was very proud of myself.
I don't know what twist in space-time made it possible, but somehow that dusty old cassette must have made its way to Japan, and the offices of Premium Agency and its publisher, Square Enix, because the annoyingly capitalised DEATH BY CUBES is nothing if not Beat the Blockoids re-imagined as a twin-stick shooter. It's not just the recurring cuboid motif that tips me off but the fact that, against all logic, the developers have retained my naively awful gameplay mechanic of repeatedly killing the player by spawning lethal enemies under their feet with no warning.
The story, such as it be, is that you are LEO, an amnesiac robot. All he knows is that he must rescue his beloved, SELSIE. He does this by fighting through seven worlds filled with malevolent cubes (and some other robots but obviously DEATH BY CUBES AND SOME OTHER ROBOTS doesn't make for a snappy title). There are various level types to battle past. The bread-and-butter levels require you to defeat successive waves of enemies. Others ask that you defend towers from relentless attack. Some are simple survival rounds where you last as long as you can with one life.
All are blighted by design that is punishing rather than playful, exhausting rather than exhilarating. The game brings new meaning to the word "spam" as it constantly hurls dozens of enemies at you from all sides, each capable of taking off huge chunks of health with each touch. Then there are the enemies that shoot at you as well, filling the screen with waves of deadly projectiles, some of which have homing capability.
By way of defence you can use the left trigger to perform a dash move, which makes you temporarily invincible and leaves the enemies in your wake in a state of brief vulnerable confusion. The right trigger activates a shield that can absorb enemy fire and then spew it back out again once the trigger is release. Slurp up too many shots without discharging and you explode, losing one of your six lives.
You can also upgrade LEO with different abilities, such as a spread shot that fires weaker bullets in an escalating arc around you, or reverse shots which fire in the opposite direction to the way you shoot. You can also unlock different balances between offensive and defensive capabilities, and boost your abilities in-game by collecting icons dropped following combo attacks.
It all sounds like a game with lots of theoretical depths, but the crudely frustrating gameplay steamrollers all nuance under a barrage of infuriating mayhem. This isn't the mercurial lunacy of Jeff Minter's divisive Space Giraffe, where there were at least solid rules and compelling gameplay rhythms behind the weed-tinged psychedelic smokescreen, but a bludgeoning sensory assault where luck overrides judgment at every turn.
It's not even that the game is poorly balanced, but that there's often no balance at all. Adding insult to injury, the visuals look ugly, cheap and bland rather than stylishly simple, and the decision to spray the entire play area with incongruous splashes of gore renders the already-unavoidable enemies and projectiles even harder to spot as the chaos escalates.
This immediate brick wall is made all the more off-putting thanks to design that favours mindless grinding over skill-based progression. After each round you earn coins. If you want to play the next level, you need to pay for it. Want to unlock the next gameworld? Pay for it. Do you need a different ability to beat a level? Hey, what a surprise, you'll be paying for that as well.
You earn 1000 coins if you manage to achieve a gold, silver or bronze medal, but once that's done you can only ever earn scraps from replaying that stage. A five-minute war of attrition can net you just a few hundred coins, and in a game where almost everything is priced in the thousands that means one purchasing mistake, such as unlocking an untested ability, can lead to a joyless trawl as you hammer the same brutal sections over and over to rebuild your reserves and unlock the thing you actually needed.
Don't go looking to the multiplayer menu for a respite from the sophomoric design either, because the absence of balance breaks even this element. If you don't have the homing attack upgrade then you might as well not even bother playing, as you'll be pulverised in seconds. If you have got this upgrade then you end up doing what everyone else does: bunkering down in a corner of the map and blasting anyone who comes near. That's assuming you can even get a game started, since the servers are already a ghost town just over a week after release.
Taken along with the equally wonky 0 Day Attack on Earth, which also wrongly assumed that shooter fans enjoy mindless repetition and sadistic difficulty spikes, it seems Square Enix doesn't understand this genre. The best shooters are a dance of destruction, transforming the player into a graceful ballerina pirouetting through curtains of laser death with studied poise and flair. DEATH BY CUBE instead turns you into a balloon animal and throws you into a moshpit filled with rusty nails.
The sad truth is that there are better looking, better designed twin-stick shooters on the Indie Games channel for a fraction of the price, produced by inspired individuals who have moved on from Beat the Blockoids. Give them your Microsoft Points instead.
3 / 10