Forget what you know about shoot ‘em ups (or shmups, as you might call them). Just Shapes & Beats looks like bullet hell in a basket, yet to all intents it is in fact a dodge ‘em up mixed with a neon pink splash of EDM-infused rhythm action. Add in a dash of co-op fun and a playful sense of humour and Berzerk Studio may just have invited you to the interactive dance party you’ve always yearned for. This game looks and feels like little else out there.
It’s all down to the soundtrack, and featuring some of chiptune’s brightest stars, like the effervescent Chipzel, as well as tracks from the wider EDM scene, like the hard-hitting Omnitica, has meant that Just Shapes & Beats is pure head banging, foot stomping, bleep-blooping quality. Maybe it doesn’t need saying that it’s not going to suit everyone, but frankly that’s beside the point when I can’t hear you complain over the volume I’ve cranked it up to.
The titular Beats dictate just what it is those Shapes are doing, and barring a late section in the single player game, there’s not a hint of firing a weapon at anything. You’ll take your square (or triangle, pentagon and circle if you’re playing with others), and have to dodge an array of neon pink things that appear across the pitch-black screen. Think Geometry War 2’s Pacifism mode and you’ll be some of the way there, though you’re afforded a dash manoeuvre that sees your shape behave like a skittish tadpole in a pond full of fluorescent carp.
The game’s visual language is clear, distinctive, and deeply enjoyable, despite the majority of the game fundamentally being just a little blue square that’s constantly under attack by pink stuff. A lot of the time it’s about working your way into a pocket of calm, which typically isn’t there for more than an instant, though you’re often afforded some warning as to where to be as the pink shapes fade into place. Only bright neon objects damage you. It’s a clever use of the monochromatic dangers, and one that’s satisfying and understandable.
Those pink shapes take on various forms, from traditional shoot ’em up bullets and the cannons that fire them, all the way up to manically grinning bosses with huge faces and flailing limbs. The story mode also features an enjoyably interactive mixture of 2D cutscene and level select, and though there’s no real cost to dying during these sections, they’re also not somewhere you can just switch off from. The tale they tell – with only music and visuals – is euphoric and genuinely funny at times, and is the perfect window dressing to the game’s central action.
It feels as though the only real naysayers here are going to be bullet-hell aficionados, as you’re removing an element of that genre and not really replacing it with anything else. They’d be wrong though. There’s more than enough challenge to simply staying alive through the course of each track, without also thinking about shooting at anything.
In fact, Just Shapes & Beats is crushingly tough at times. Even steadily replaying tracks, learning the patterns, and thinking you know where is safe doesn’t automatically guarantee your passage through. Thankfully there are checkpoints, and your Shape has four hitpoints as standard, and three ‘lives’ to get through a track, but it’s still very easy to burn through them in no time at all. Berzerk obviously know it’s tough, as there’s also Casual mode, which doubles your hitpoints and lets you experience the story mode with slightly more chance of making it through. It’s still hard. Once you’re done there there’s also Challenge mode which really doubles down on the difficulty, but has that much needed “one more go” hook that keeps you coming back.
It’s clear that the game isn’t simply about challenging yourself, it’s also about bringing people together. The four player cooperative modes are deeply enjoyable, with everyone teaming up to take on a track. Though you’re all scored separately, it’s a real team event and you can revive other players when they’re wiped out, adding camaraderie and chaos, while lightening the difficulty just a shade. Even better, you can play locally or online, giving you no real excuse not to.
Besides that there’s also Party mode where the game will soundtrack any get-together – perhaps not with your Nana – and allows you to pick up a controller at any point should you feel the urge to. Berzerk proudly proclaim to have thought of everything, and you know what? They pretty much have.
Just Shapes & Beats is the best EDM compilation album you can play, and assuming the music floats your ear-shaped boat, it’s an absolute treat. Challenging, engrossing and exhibiting a purity we so often forget, this is a genre mash-up where everybody wins.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch – also available on PC
Note: The EU and JP Switch releases have been delayed until mid-June. It is out now in NA.