Critics tend to look kindly on films or books that challenge their audiences. Challenge in a game is a thornier issue. The debate over the “right” level of difficulty in the medium stirs up pride, indignation, and even generational warfare—raise the topic with a child of the ’80s, and watch a self-respecting twentysomething proclaim that kids today have it too easy. The frenzied action of Death By Cube is a bold statement on the merits of extreme difficulty. There have been other recent games that are extraordinarily tough, but none are so matter-of-fact about it as this one.
Cube is a twin-stick shooter—use the left joystick to move, the right one to shoot—that takes place in a barren techno-dystopia. Your robot, Leo, has three basic defenses against his nameless foes: lasers (naturally), a dash move that confuses enemies, and a shield that absorbs hostile projectiles. Even with this full complement of tactics, you’ll often feel useless against the onslaught of enraged black cubes and laser-wielding orbs that converge on Leo in wave after merciless wave.
Worse yet, Cube demands more than mere survival; it demands excellence. To unlock new worlds, you spend “chips,” the game’s currency. Chips are earned by completing a level, but you only win the real money if you meet bronze/silver/gold point benchmarks. If you try to eke your way through, expect to come up a dollar short. The key to reaching those upper plateaus of success is to use Cube’s rich upgrade system. Leo has access to nine alternate suits that adjust his capabilities. One suit grants a spreading-laser attack at the sacrifice of speed, another concentrates power in his shields, etc. These little tweaks prove critical, as they can make a profound difference in the way a stage unfolds: An impossible level becomes manageable with the right change of clothing.
Anyone who plays Cube will, at times, absolutely hate it—probably when they are retrying the same hopeless mission for the 75th time. The game is too hard by design, and it differs from another unyielding game that has captured the zeitgeist, Demon’s Souls, in that Cube’s difficulty is unleavened by elegant presentation or social innovations. It’s raw and anti-mainstream, like a hardcore kung-fu movie that confounds the general public but delights its niche. Don’t mistake “raw” for “shallow,” though. Players with the ultra-competitive wiring to endure Cube’s frustrations will find a satisfying level of strategy beneath its berserk facade.