The (Strenuous) Unravelling of a Cube’s StoryFeatures
A shallow read of its premise and Thomas Was Alone resonant art style promises an endearing little adventure, while the user denounced difficulty level coupled with its citing of Twin-stick shooter and bullet hell elements as the basis of its game play lead one to assume it’s nothing but top-down chaos. The truth is though, Story of a Cube is never wholly either of those; What it is instead is a light-hearted amalgamation of the two that brings about a visually exuberant, psychologically frustrating yet satisfactorily obsessive challenge that will in deed consume valuable amounts of your time and patience.
As the Cubical survivor of an inter-geometrical attack of Circles on a lowly village of Cubes that results in the abduction of the latter, players are quickly tossed into what is effectively a six-stage revenge spree; a spree that starts off predictably, leading players equipped with a slow-firing weapon left behind in the incident straight to the lair of the attackers. Coursing through the maze-like fortress’ defence system of mass-bullet firing turrets and their variations however unearths the presence of a conspiracy, promising to shed more light and lend depth to the abduction of the Cubes.
This mystery perpetuates as players descend into the Circle HQ’s levels of progressively stronger turrets, inhabitants and carnivorous obstacles, before finally culminating into a climactic showdown at the end of its revelation. In essence though, the plot itself is far from ground breaking and offers only a modicum of intrigue. What’s more, narrated through adolescent toned on-screen dialogues emanating from the protagonist or other characters encountered, the Story even leaves first time players expecting a satisfyingly explosive narrative end to justify the game’s overwhelming challenge — amusingly disappointed.
This is largely due to the game’s multiple endings — named Stupid, Bad, Good and Secret; Unless one proves to be extraordinarily skilled at its game play, Story of a Cube concludes in its Bad before revealing how one can unlock the Good ending by effectively playing on a higher difficulty level in the absence of any deaths. Even so, neither of the Good or Secret outros are grandly soothing — although the latter does reward players with a special developer video that explores the game’s special and secret features.
In control of Cube and its weapon by means of the WASD and Mouse controls, players must face off against a complete assortment of the aforementioned enemy forces and inevitably, have their patience and reflexes tested in a gruelling end-of-level boss battle or a lethal race against pieces of the game environment.
These battles range from overcoming gigantic turrets from bullet hell to a swarm of piranha-like missile cluster, while the game environment themed final challenges task players with dodging moving walls from all directions as they push towards the end of the level. As the levels progress, so does the fire power of the turrets and the complexity of avoiding lethal obstacles — which is then complemented by Cube’s finding of an equally powerful weapon and even a bullet time effect through the flow of the campaign.
The thing is though, staying within line-of-sight of more than a single turret for multiple seconds almost certainly results in instant death. By the time new players panic to move their reticules over the enemy, two, three or even four of Cube’s lives pass — forcing them back to a previous, distant check point. Sure, the game doesn’t demand that each turret be taken down to pass a level but passing through any area without losing a considerable amount of lives mandates their annihilation.
And preserving lives is necessary, for their complete consumption ends in a failure of the level and its re-play from the very start. This quickly turns enormously frustrating especially when on your last life during the boss-battle of a level that took you 15 minutes to clear, only for you to die within a second at the boss’ showing and having to redo it all again. Bullet time is immensely unreliable as well; while its effect is naturally limited, the lack of a visual meter to indicate its depletion causes one to easily over/under estimate its tenure and consequently, run head on into a razor-sharp windmill when they didn’t mean to.
So apparently, one is required to call upon unrealistically heightened reflexes not just in combat but in near impossible moving obstacle scenarios as well. Furthermore, while the game does provide three levels of difficulty — each of which differ in the population and resilience of enemies — one might find themselves bombarded by the massive swarm of bullet pumping turrets that greet them within but 3 minutes into level one even on Easy. In summary then, inncessantly unforgiving enemies, dodgy point n’ shoot mechanics, a negligible difficulty system and partly broken bullet time begs to pile on the rage quits. Or so it would seem on the first few play-through’s.
For it is in persistence and prudence that Story of a Cube drops its façade of being an unevenly mechanised, fast-paced, non-strategic shooter and reveals a different story underneath; Taking one’s time, peeking around corners, diving into it to determine the strength of fire power that lies ahead before returning back and unleashing your own from a distance causes progress.
Determining where these enemies lie, even if off screen, via trial and error before pointing the reticule in their general direction and counteracting their fire power until they eventually relent; learning that turrets are taken down by only a few carefully positioned bullets rather than fully automatic fire, realizing that every weapon has a role to play depending on situation, finding patterns in moving obstacles and the glorious display of projectiles discharged by bosses even in the absence of bullet time — all point towards Story of a Cube’s demand of much more than the mindless spamming of the mouse button.
Yes, it still gets irrepressibly difficult and the retries — especially on one’s first venture into the game — are extraordinary. Yet constant failure causes one to develop an instinctual understanding of enemy positions, attacks and ways to avert them with minimal loss of life via memorization and constant practice. Despite the game choosing to offer players one of its many achievements on passing the more strenuous end-of-mission scenarios, it is in the sense of personal accomplishment that arrives with their first ever completion where Story of a Cube truly shines.
This learning curve is further spruced by a degree of unpredictability that surrounds every level; no two levels feel repetitive despite the omni-presence of turrets, made possible in large part by the creative placement of character and non-character induced challenges that leave one anxiously anticipating every corner. Finally, the ultimate challenge of acuity that does arrive in the form of the final boss battle is, at least visually, every bit glorious.
Speaking of which, the game’s minimal art style works well for itself; Every level leaves the screen beaming in neon, which is further emphasised by the presence of gradient shadows. The use of shake and screen dimming effects under damage, followed by that of 8-bit animations & art to indicate key cards, varying bullet sizes, smoke, electric cables and other populace only adds to the fact that despite its using of a total of only 7-8 colors throughout, Story of a Cube is undoubtedly a visually attractive adventure. Throw in a fantastically composed soundtrack by Bocuma and fleeting Easter Eggs that show up for a fraction of a second on loading screens — and you have yourself a fully atmospheric one at that.
That said, apart from the eccentric learning curve, Story of a Cube does possess its fair share of issues; The innumerable number of retries seemingly forces one to have to sit through every one of the dialogues that transpire during them. However as developer Frederik Madsen later pointed out, the game’s Steam manual does indicate that dialogues can be sped up by use of the Ctrl button — a feature he plans to make more obvious in a future update seeing how users have brought it up in the past. Seen within the update will also be a tweak to the game’s black GUI on its final stage, whose dark layout currently makes it difficult for players to read the position of dialogues and the reticule on screen.
Additionally, there’s no denying the frustration that could be avoided were the game to support Controller input and at least a functional bullet time indicator. Interestingly Madsen admits that these were both planned features for the game that ended up not making the cut owing to last minute technical difficulties. He states though now that both are certainly in the books as future additions, along with a Level Editor that will let players create, upload and share their own stages.
Story of a Cube is now available on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux. As always, learn more of the intricacies of its development while staying in tune to future updates via its Higher Eclectic Space.
The above article serves to provide Community members Tiny Atom Games with constructive feedback towards the overall improvement of Story of a Cube, while also illustrating to other Community residents the game’s functioning and nuances.