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Sound Shapes Review

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(PixelJunk/Queasy Games/Sony Santa Monica)

Note: Check out our compilation of the social media reaction to Sound Shapes’ release, from people in Toronto to around the world – including the growing community of level creators.

Toronto’s Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem have finally released Sound Shapes, their attempt to further blur the line between video games and music. We’ve already spoken with them about how the project materialized and heard about Mak’s possibly surprising opinions about building a game with traditional platforming at its core. But how does the game actually… shape up?

Sound Shapes, at its most basic level, is a platformer. Your character, a strangely endearing circular blob, can stick to most surfaces, but takes fatal damage from anything red. The rules of the game are straightforward and nothing anyone who’s played a video game in the past 15 years will be unfamiliar with. Over the course of the game you’ll have to deal with lava pits and laser beams, hit switches to turn on moving platforms, and sometimes navigate multiple paths to get to the turntable that marks the level’s end.

The real reward comes from collecting the small circular notes or coins scattered throughout the screens. Each collected adds a single note to the song you’re currently listening to. At the end of a screen, after you’ve collected all the notes that now reverberate in synch to the rhythm, you realize that you’ve just created a mini-symphony. Whether it’s grounded in strings or steel drums or bluegrass twangs, it’s hard to resist the urge to just sit there without advancing on to enjoy the songs – much to the chagrin of the speed running crowd.

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That doesn’t mean things don’t get hairy once in a while, though. At its most intense the platforming in Sound Shapes gets absolutely chaotic, demanding precision by the player not unlike in Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV without going to those games’ absurd extremes.

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(Superbrothers, Inc./Queasy Games/Sony Santa Monica)

That is, until you get to Death Mode. Somewhat mirroring Toronto comrade Dyad’s remix mode, completing every level in the original albums unlocks a new suite of challenges that makes the main campaign look like a walk in the park. You’re tasked with collecting randomly appearing notes in the midst of a hellish screen filled with hazards, all in an abrasively short time limit. Mak and Liem warn players that they “might melt your face off!” and they’re serious (if not entirely literal).

Sound Shapes’ design follows some of the most classic tropes in the genre, although it’s mostly to make sure that nothing feels unfamiliar from a gameplay perspective while it bombards you with its sensory artistry. Levels are organized not into worlds, but “albums,” each with a signature visual style and soundtrack contributed by both Liem as “I Am Robot and Proud,” Jim Guthrie, Beck and Deadmau5.

While the art and music styles look disparate at first glance (who on earth would have this particular collection of records?), each album is drastically different in style, hitting a unique and totally disparate note in the gamer’s vocabulary.

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Sword and Sworcery’s Guthrie and Craig “superbrothers” Adams join forces once again for the CORPOREAL album, painting an oppressive office atmosphere filled with bored security officers and mountains of ominous paperwork. While all five albums have their distinctive styles it’s the most surprising of the bunch and the biggest departure from the usual “reimagined retro” vibe we get in the indie game scene.

Speaking of retro, there’s Deamau5 and PixelJam’s D-Cade. While you might be used to 8-bit-style visuals in the indie scene, it’s rare that the pixels are brought further down to Atari 2600-style resolutions. Here blocky clouds and murals are so low-fi I thought for a second that successive layers were still loading as if I had just loaded a shooter with the Unreal engine.

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(Colin Mancer/Queasy Games/Sony Santa Monica)

Beck’s album feels more like a collection of songs than any of the others, thanks to some incredibly clever integration of the lyrics into the levels’ designs. Verbal cues alter the landscape in surprising ways that keep you alert, listening for when the lines repeat to your advantage.

It’s also the most poignant album: a wrecked urban landscape crumbles as a result of war in “Cities,” while cardboard boxes sit neglected in an old attic in “Spiral Staircases.” And as for “Touch the People,” well… I hazard a guess that it’s the best representation of an acid trip on the Vita so far.

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While its variety and substance will surprise and delight you the first time you go through the campaign, Sound Shapes’ main campaign only lasts about two to three hours. The real meat of the game – hopefully – comes from the level creator mode. Using the notes, graphics, enemies and other gubbins collected by completing the levels in the existing albums, players can create their own levels and then upload them to the game’s servers, Little Big Planet-style.

The real treat to the creator mode is that you’re not just making a level, you’re making a song. Every screen’s foundation is built on the notes you set according to a musical hierarchy – the higher the note on the screen, the higher the note’s pitch. A week into launch, the servers for user-generated content was unreliable at best, but hopefully it will stabilize in the near future. Spotty connection issues aren’t keeping people from flexing their creative muscles, with some inspiring work appearing already. Why wouldn’t you want to dance to music while rolling around a giant Darth Vader head?

Short of the Bit.trip games, I haven’t played anything else that integrates music, beats and rhythm into its core gameplay with this amount of laser focus and… intent, I think is all I can call it. You’re bringing both together in a way that few other games have tried, and I think that’s in the spirit of what video games can do as a whole. Sound Shapes taps into gaming in its purest form, working with multiple notions of play at the same time.

Patch Notes

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  • You can’t help but smile at the nods to older technology in the presentation. The floppy disk save icon and cassette images for your created levels fuels the game’s charm. It’s like building your own mixtape back in the summer of ‘92. Just don’t try to label your Vita’s screen with a permanent marker.
  • Speaking of the Vita, the level creation mode makes use of the oft-forgotten rear touch pad in some clever ways. Rotate, shrink and enlarge the assets from the back, allowing you to see your levels take form without your fat fingers in the way.
  • Take a look around the maps for some very cool secrets. Detours leading to callbacks to Queasy Games’ earlier projects and some amusing in-jokes abound for those willing to figure out just what’s up with the out-of-the-way screens you run into once in a while.
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