Sound Shapes Review: Brilliant, Yet Barely Hinting at Its Own Greatness
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Sound Shapes Review: Brilliant, Yet Barely Hinting at Its Own Greatness
Cover Story: Queasy Games has built a dazzling framework, but fans will have to do the heavy lifting.
ou could almost be forgiven for writing off Sound Shapes as “just another psuedo-intellectual indie title.” At first glance, it bears all the hallmarks of your stereotypical “hipster game.” Simple play mechanics? Check. Sound Shapes controls with only the D-pad and two buttons. Minimalist visuals? Definitely. Its worlds are built on simple, hand-drawn and pixel and retro-vector graphics. A slick interface and decidedly un-corporate sense of identity? Absolutely. Not that polish and personality represent negative traits, of course.
Fortunately, you only need a few minutes with the game to realize it’s anything but a lazy or cynical attempt to ride the coattails of the retro-cool trend. Sound Shapes’ distinctive aesthetics serve a definite purpose. The game is simple for a reason. Two reasons, actually: One, the level designs and game mechanics have been wed carefully to its music, which builds, Rez-like, as you complete each stage. And — more importantly — two, the real purpose of the game is for players to take up the reins and create their own Sound Shapes puzzles, so it needs to be approachable and uncluttered at every level.
Musical compositions weave their way into the design of each stage; beneath the entire game lurks a grid that describes not only the form of a given stage but also the tunes that play behind it. The coins you collect as you make your way through a level don’t appear haphazardly. Their position on the screen corresponds to both their pitch and when in the stage’s (user-composed) background theme they play. Sound Shapes offers a wealth of level design components to drop into a stage, but the shape and flow of a given level is defined to some degree by the notes you need to collect as well. Creating a level to upload and share — again, the real point of Sound Shapes — isn’t entirely unlike drawing a little world around the notes on a staff on a piece of sheet music. Band class doodles brought to life.
Sound Shapes’ stage editor manages the rare feat of being both incredibly flexible yet incredibly easy to use. Because of the cooperative nature of level design and music, you’re able to create both platforming challenges and cool (or not) beats at the same time, from the same interface, and watch them evolve together. You can mix and match both audio and visual elements from any stage you’ve mastered, which leaves you with a ridiculous wealth of design options once you clear the game’s 20-odd levels. While there are practical limits to what you can do with a Sound Shapes level, it offers impressive depth and ease of use. Its one real drawback — at least in the Vita version reviewed here — comes in its use of rear touch for scaling and rotating objects. As with any back-panel Vita functionality more complex than simple tapping, this proves in practice to be clumsy, frustrating, and ill-conceived.
That’s no big deal, really. The greater issue with Sound Shapes is that the package as it’s sold feels somewhat incomplete. Each of its two dozen stages can be cleared in the space of about two hours, and while you can go back and attempt to top the leaderboards or master the unlockable ultra-challenge mode, the simple fact is that there’s not much in the way of content here. The levels seem to exist less as content in and of themselves and more as vehicles for providing the player with new objects to play with in edit mode.
The bundled stages offer interesting examples of what a creative designer can do with the game, but few of them really capture the true potential inherent in Sound Shapes’ unification of music and platforming. Of note, Jim Guthrie and Superbrothers’ stages unfold in a sort of 8-bit Office Space hell, which is interesting but becomes a bit repetitive by the end. The PixelJam-designed levels featuring Deadmau5 tunes (“D-Cade”) offer the game’s most devastating platforming challenges paired with nods to classic arcade titles Galaxian, Breakout, and Space Invaders, but they also demonstrate the potential for annoyance inherent in Sound Shapes’ mechanics — the player’s avatar constantly sticks to walls at the least opportune moments.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Pyramid Attack-designed levels featuring music by Beck (“Cities”) that best embody the real potential of Sound Shapes — “surprisingly,” because for once the content by a famous contributor isn’t simply an attempt to grab headlines. Rather, these stages beautifully combine the building layers of tunes with play elements that operate in time to the beat, reflect the lyrics in interesting ways, and also create a sort of self-contained narrative packed with unique hazards and challenges. Deadly bombs shuffle across the sky in sync with the rhythm track; explosions slowly fill the screen one pulse at a time; special platforms made of word blocks morph to reflect not only the current lyrics but also the meaning of those words. At “hurt,” it sprouts deadly spikes; at “turn” it rotates to pitch the players in an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, deadly objects fill the screens in patterns reminiscent of a bullet curtain shooter. The brilliance present in these precious few stages easily justify the price of Sound Shapes; they’re some of the most brilliant examples of gaming’s potential for audio-visual synthesis you’ll ever see.
Unfortunately, that’s only two or three levels out of an already meager two dozen. Sound Shapes gives you a dazzling taste of its potential, but then it just as quickly comes to an end, handing players the keys and letting them do as they will. As such, Sound Shapes right now, at launch, feels incomplete. I see the potential for some truly incredible experiences emerging from the Sound Shapes player community in the coming months, but at the moment that’s all it is: Potential. Queasy Games has sketched the outlines of something truly extraordinary here, a game that could well define the Vita… but until players start coloring in the lines, Sound Shapes offers only a tantalizing hint of what it might be.
I’ve reviewed a handful of games over the years that I feel everyone needs to play, and Sound Shapes belongs among those rare ranks. Like those elite peers, it brings a fresh, new experience to the table and defines the creative and collaborative concepts that make video games such a unique medium. What’s different about Sound Shapes is that everyone needs to play it for a second but perhaps more important reason: Until you do and unlock the promise hidden in its level editor, the game simply isn’t complete. It’s a single-player game, yet its future rests in the hands of its community.
In reviewing this game, 1UP editor Jeremy Parish designed a few levels. However, they’re not available to play lest he end up on trial in the Hague for inflicting terrible war crimes upon humanity. Learn more of his nefarious ways by following him on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Pinterest.