Developer: Queasy Games, SCE Santa Monica / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
Everyone has a mental list prepared for the question: Hey I just bought an Xbox / PlayStation / Wii / PC, what games should I get for it? Mine’s at the ready, and it’s rare that I can go back and add another game in. Sound Shapes earned a slot in the must-have PlayStation 3 list right next to Journey and Super Stardust HD, which means you should grab it right away if you’re on the fence.
GAMEPLAY AND CONTROL
Sound Shapes is deceptively simple. Every level is a 2D side-scrolling challenge in which you navigate your squishy blob dude through a pulsing soundscape of varying visual styles. That’s pretty much it, though putting it in such deconstructed terms neglects the game’s soul. Every screen in a level represents one measure of music that loops as long as you stay on that screen. An invisible sequencer runs from left to right across every screen that does nothing at first, but every “coin” you grab activates a note (drum hit, synth blast, etc) that plays when the sequencer crosses it. By collecting notes, you gradually add notes to the music and end up constructing a song one instrument at a time. It’s a technique seen in games like Rez, and it’s every bit as effective here.
My only complaint (and I do mean only) is with the actual platforming physics. Your blob dude in Sound Shapes moves unpredictably in many situations. For example, most platforms in the game have rounded edges. Since you are round as well, you tend to slide off any platform if you’re near the edge. Worse yet, if you jump while on a corner, you’ll pop off at an angle rather than straight up. Air momentum is wonky too — you can be flying at full tilt through the air, and tapping the opposite direction almost stops you completely rather than just shaving off some forward motion. This results in a lot of jumps that seem trivial but take many, many tries to stick. Learning and harnessing the control quirks does raise the skill ceiling of the game considerably, especially if you’re one to attack leaderboard clear times, but I prefer games about music to feel more free and precise than Shapes does.
Platforming is only half the story here though. Sound Shapes comes with one of the best level editors I’ve used in any game ever. With just a few prompts from the game, I was placing objects and notes in seconds. All of your notes are quantized to the background sequencer and bound to a single scale of notes, meaning that you have to try pretty hard to make a stage that sounds like disconnected jumbles of notes. It couldn’t be simpler; the X axis on the grid determines when the note is played, while its Y position determines the tone played. The power of this editor is already evident in the levels the community has made — some of the better ones equal the quality of the packed-in levels, and manage to avoid that LEGO brick look that most UGC content has. Even if you’re not interested in making your own levels, the brilliant level editor means you can enjoy a nearly limitless amount of content from the community.
The music in Sound Shapes is as integral to the experience as the controls, and the Queasy Games didn’t hold back in partnering with talent like Beck, Deadmau5, and Jim Guthrie of Sword & Sworcery. Every set of stages, cleverly organized as tracks on a vinyl record, presents different styles of music that range from minimalist ambient electronica to the… whatever the hell fusion Beck makes nowadays. Some stages get really out there, reminding me of Aphex Twin’s more bizarre music, but most of the stages are so catchy that I’d buy an arranged soundtrack without hesitation if it were available.
The level editor also has the potential to produce incredible compositions. While the community levels are full of the usual awkward sound-alikes for games like Metroid, there are levels that made me stop and just listen to a few screens because of the incredible creations. Just as the created levels don’t look like LEGO bricks visually, the editor also gives creators subtle power over the music to create genuinely unique tracks.
I generally balk at indie-darling visuals, and though some stages look like animated Wes Anderson DVD covers, I was absolutely charmed by the art assets in Sound Shapes. Each set of stages is incredibly unique, varying from the aforementioned Juno credit sequence to pixilated cubicle offices designed by SuperBrothers and subterranean factories with giant floating gears and slamming pistons. This is about to get real hippie, but the stages really do feel like some sort of musical primordial soup where melody floats and gradually takes form.
With the exception of quirky platforming physics, there’s nothing to not like in Sound Shapes. Fantastic pre-made levels and a profound level editor make the game a great value as well. Whether you’re academically interested in the more experimental line of games on the PSN or you just want a unique and enjoyable platformer, you can’t go wrong with Sound Shapes.