Article written by Alex C.
Published on 07/08/2012 at 08:00 AM.
Sound Shapes was one of the Vita’s first titles to become public, and yet it’s only just being released now. What lies beyond the intriguing gameplay mechanics and clever musical collaborations, and is it everything we hoped it would be?
Sound Shapes couldn’t be more about music if it – ironically – came out on vinyl. Your character – a little blob that rolls sideways and jumps – starts out from a record deck, collects beats and notes along his way and ultimately ends up back on another turntable. The association is more than just figurative – you’re essentially building up the song as you go, the elements lost amidst each level’s wild environments. Even the game’s menu plays out like a record box, and levels are arranged into ‘albums’ to reinforce the connection.
Dystopian cites, 8-bit homages to classic retrogaming and exotic dreamscapes are but metaphorical grooves in plastic, realised most dramatically in Beck’s crackled land of bullets and buildings but on a more ethereal level in some of the more floaty, experimental stages. The former’s Spiral Staircase is a rousing, building track played out with much danger aside monochromatic, pointed structures, but you’ll also find yourself underwater, or up in the clouds, or – in the case of the Superbrothers album, deep inside an unnamed, isolated corporation in the midst of a disturbing takeover; smoking office staff soon lost to an alien invasion.
Purgatory, one of the Superbrothers album’s key tracks, is a stunning experience, the next one charged and dramatic.
It’s this diversity, even within the confines of a themed ‘album’, that Sound Shapes excels at. This isn’t a record box the size of DJ Shadow’s – there’s only a handful of albums included and each is more like an EP in size than a regular long-player: think 3, 4 and 5 tracks per album. That said, each level can last a good few minutes and when pieced together generally form a coherent package that begs to be replayed, especially given the leaderboard that sits at the end of each run and reports the time taken to complete and the number of notes collected.
Ah, the notes. It’s here, and apparent even from the starting tutorial, that Sound Shapes isn’t a standard platformer even if the massive array of gameplay twists and turns might suggest that’s the case anyway. Each level starts with the bare bones of a music track, and although for the most part collecting the floating musical cues is optional, by doing so you’ll start to build up the audio sequences block by block as you progress, essentially crafting the record from tiny pieces. This is actually fundamental to Sound Shapes, and one of the reasons it’s such a good game.
Take, for example, Beck’s first track – Cities. It’s a typical Beck track in principle: lazy, rolling drum loops and his trademark vocal work over staccato, distorted noises. But that’s only once the music is in full swing: at the beginning, as the level starts in a dark, ablaze city, it’s little more than a shuffling shaker. The first three notes, all on the same screen, build up the drum track with a few off-centre beats and a snare. Leap into the second screen and those beats are visualised as concentric rings pulsing to the rhythm, a further layer atop them triggering a stunted cannon on the ground.
The next screen – a few simple hops away – offers up another checkpoint, a rumbling bass guitar and a pack of deadly missiles moving and turning to the same rhythm. It’s building, slowly. By the fourth screen Beck’s lyrics are already starting to appear as literal subtitles, safe to jump onto and again reacting to the beat perfectly; a few more notes starting to add to the richness of the audio, and a radio beacon’s graphical signal acts as a circular bounce pad pulsing on the 2nd beat of each bar.
Levels build (and drop) in this way throughout the game, although the contents and approach vary wildly. By the end of this particular Beck level alone you’ll have escaped the grasp of several ever-growing bomb explosions, jumped over fire, dived through tunnels, watched Beck’s lyrics form blocks and toy with you and dodged dozens of packs of nightmarish missiles. There are surprises everywhere in Sound Shapes, the main one discovering what awaits you for yourself, so we’ll not spoil any more. Suffice to say that any videos you’ve seen up until now can’t possibly prepare you for everything the game throws at you.
Sound Shapes’ most endearing trait though, is the controls. You move with either the analog stick or the digital pad, but regardless there’re only two more buttons: jump and dash. Jump’s on the cross button, and you can use either the square button or the right trigger to dash. Generally dashing means that you’ll roll faster, but tapping it also means that you’ll drop from any surface you’re currently attached too – finding out which surfaces are sticky and which aren’t can take a little trial and error for each new screen, but generous checkpoints (with instant restarts) and some intuition go a long way to removing any frustration that might otherwise have manifested itself.
It’s also worth mentioning the graphics, which change in style from album to album but are always a delight. From the retro arcade influences of the Deadmau5 levels (by the brilliant PixelJam) through to the sublime work that Capy did on Hello, World and Superbrothers on the aforementioned Corporeal, Sound Shapes is a real treat visually. Even the menus and UI, something I’m normally all too hasty to escape from in videogames unless done properly, is consistent and endlessly pretty.
Completing the game (which requires you to simply beat each track rather than the more difficult task of also collecting all the notes along the way) opens up a couple more options: the first is Death Mode which flips the records over to reveal a much harder, single screen challenge based on a key screen from each of the main levels (and rewards trophies) and a really smart Beat School, which asks you to construct levels that actually reproduce specific music and drum tracks that are played before each lesson. Each mode is selected from a touch-screen friendly hub screen.
The editor itself is an absolute joy to use. The available elements start off quite basic – squares, circles and triangles of both sticky and non-sticky nature, the ability to craft basic musical pieces and a few dangerous bits to avoid. Danger in Sound Shapes is always red – no other colour will kill the player regardless of how it looks, and red always kills in a single hit. Once you’ve completed some levels elements will start to appear in the editor unlocked for use, and range from background art to individual enemies and even more musical sections.
Within minutes I’d created a giant cog system, the blob tiny in comparison, which echoed the likes of LIMBO.
Creating levels is a case of tapping through menus, and then placing blocks with the touch screen (and resizing and twisting them with the rear touchscreen) – you can snap to a grid, use multiple screens and build pretty much anything from the flip screen classic Manic Miner to something altogether more elaborate. This isn’t LittleBigPlanet – there’re no computers or fancy logic routines, but then this is all synced to the music and thus represents a totally different approach. Levels can be uploaded and rated in the Community section, where you can also follow a timeline of your PSN friends and what they’re doing.
It’s all rather brilliant. Most of my time with the game was spent with the Vita version, which seemed like a natural fit and the short level spans worked perfectly with my current fondness for short bursts of gaming. That said, the PlayStation 3 version offers up an identical experience (albeit perhaps with a little bumpier frame rate) and the cloud syncing between the two versions should (it didn’t work on the PS3 review code) mean that you can play at home and then take the game to work and continue it without worrying about losing any progress; the fact that both versions are included in the price is particularly welcome.
In short, this is a startlingly fresh platformer with stacks of character and some really clever musical synergy. A complete joy from start to finish.
Sound Shapes has emerged as one of the Vita’s finest games, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s deep and complex enough for the hardcore whilst remaining accessible and fun for those that just want something a little bit different. As a platformer there’re probably better options, but this isn’t just a platformer – it’s a music sequencer, an underwater explore-em-up, a bullet-hell shooter and a trip into the minds of a bunch of people we wouldn’t normally get to experience. Just buy it.
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