A challenging re-imagining of the dual-joystick shooter
Let's just get this out of the way first: I love Dual Joystick Shooters. I played the first geometry wars so much that I created some pretty nasty gashes on the sides of my analog sticks. That being said, I'm as fed up as most of you are with the genre as of late. Aside from I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 (which benefited from being extremely cheap at 1$), there hasn't been much to jump-start this stale and possibly dead genre.
So it was with great skepticism that I approached Death By Cube, knowing full well the mechanics before I even downloaded the thing. Or so I thought. See, Death By Cube adds a much needed strategy by adding in not only shields (something found in some shooters of this nature) but a dodge/dash function as well. Therefore, the strategy of of the game is relegated to three core mechanics: dodging, aiming, and defending. As a kicker, you can unlock additional characters that each have different strengths and weaknesses within those three areas. I'll cover the dodging and defending mechanics in detail since they are unique and change the way the game is played significantly. If this game were a SHMUP, I would safely call it "Bullet Hell" with the insane amount of inescapable shit flying at you on a constant basis, and without mastering both of these skills, you will fail again and again.
Dashing: by pressing either the Left Bumper or Trigger, your character can, for a short time, move more quickly and invisibly in any direction you choose. After you start a dash, an after-image is created where you first started the dash, which is then where the enemies on screen think that you are (think last-known position from Splinter Cell Conviction). Also, if you touch an enemy while in a dash, they become stunned for a short period of time and take more damage from your attacks. Some of the bigger enemies even have shields that cannot by penetrated unless you stun them first. This mechanic was the most interesting to me, because it made the game more about controlling the battlefield than constantly moving to avoid fire. My favorite character to choose is the one who can dash for an incredible amount of time, because he is basically a stealth character: redirecting the enemy so that you can come up behind and get a critical hit.
Shielding: Now, the Dual Joystick shooter is no stranger to a shield mechanic so this may not come as a revelation to players at first. However, there is a key difference to this shield mechanic, in that while your shield is activated, any bullets that come in to contact with it are held in place. The player can then release these held bullets in any direction to attack the enemy. If you reach a certain capacity of bullets, a timer starts ticking down from 3 and if you don't release your bullets by the end, your ship explodes. You can dodge while holding the shield up as well. A complaint I have about the shields is that it's very difficult to figure out when your shield is available to you (As Brad laments in the quick look here on Giant Bomb). There is a character that has "better" shields and I noticed that he can use shields with no cooldown a few times in a row before he has to wait to use them again, but most of the other characters can only use it once before waiting a short while. The cooldown certainly makes sense from a fairness perspective, but I wish there was some visual cue to let you know when you can use it again.
Finally, no review of this game is complete without a mention of the ridiculous difficulty this game doles out. The first few levels hold your hand until you understand how everything works but then it's no-holds-barred. You have to be incredibly judicious with your dodging and shielding because there will be a constant flow of enemies either shooting at your or flying towards you kamikaze-style. There is a health bar and multiple lives as a buffer, but the levels which require you to stay alive on one life are some of the most nerve-wracking and challenging levels in the game. There are also some levels that are tailored specifically to a certain type of character and it's not immediately clear which one you should choose. Therefore, some of the game can be trial and error.
There is a multiplayer component which I imagine would be incredibly fun and strategically sound, if there was anybody playing it online... It did just come out though, so I hope there will be a more constant stream of opponents in the future. I would recommend this game to any fan of the genre, or anyone interested in a stiff old-school style challenge. There is a medal system in place for those high score junkies and of course xbox live leaderboards (Does anybody actually care about their standing? I'm always so low I don't even bother). Tons of levels to choose from and 8-player Xbox Live mayhem make this well worth the 10 dollars they're asking for.