Sound Shapes

Very few people would disagree that the Vita, while certainly a promising piece of gaming hardware, isn’t as successful as Sony had hoped. The library of games consists of mostly mediocre-to-terrible games and ports, with only a few must-have titles to keep players coming back. One title that has had a lot of attention is Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes, a musical platformer for the PS3 and Vita featuring music by deadmau5 and Beck. The game was announced a long time ago, and several demonstrations have taken place at gaming conventions, but now that the game is finally here, it raises the question: Is Sound Shapes a well-composed symphony? Or is it tone deaf?

Sound Shapes is, of course, all about music. The game gives you five different worlds which are presented as albums, each of which has three-to-five levels or “tracks.” The overall theme of each album sets the stage for each track, but every level still manages to have a unique sound and feel to it, and never once did a particular level have that “been there, heard that” feeling. The levels are set up like traditional platforming stages, where you will control a small blob-like creature from the turntable at the start to the one at the end, picking up musical note coins along the way. Each time you pick up a note, it will become a part of the level’s music, adding another bass drum hit, cymbal crash, or note in a melody. Think of each screen as a musical loop; the music constantly plays the same four measures over and over, adding the new notes as they are collected across the screen. The sound a note makes is also relevant to its position in the level, where picking up coins toward the top of the screen produces higher notes in the song, and vice-versa.

Along the way, you will encounter dangerous obstacles, such as laser-shooting cannons, stompers, and a variety of unique enemies. Where most games have you watching enemy and obstacle patterns closely, Sound Shapes will have you listening to them, as everything in the game world makes music. Using the beat of the song, you can easily navigate through dangerous territory, but those without a sense of rhythm may have a harder time getting by. While initially the stage present no real challenge to the average gamer, the difficulty increases as you progress. You won’t face any controller-shattering situations here, but be prepared to die quite a few times on your musical journey.

Each of these levels is composed brilliantly, making you actually want to collect every note coin just to hear every bit of the level’s music. The music also sets the mood for the excellently designed levels, each of which are presented in a unique art style resembling the album’s overall theme. deadmau5’s album, for instance, resembles old-school 8-bit art, while Beck’s “Cities” album goes for more of a indie propaganda feel. Regardless of which album you are playing, the game is bright and colorful, and always feels fresh.

The one downside to Sound Shapes, however, is the game’s length. Most people will be able to make it through the game in only a few short hours of play, though beating all of the levels unlocks the insanely-hard Death Mode challenges. These challenges are single-screen timed coin-collecting stages that throw tons of obstacles at you. There is one for each track of the game’s levels, and every one of them will require split-second timing and skill to make it through. However, even with the difficulty of the challenges, I was able to complete them all in an hour or two.

Luckily, Sound Shapes allows players to create and upload their own levels and beats, adding to the overall replay value. The level creator is very simple to use, though the game offers very little in the way of a tutorial. By beating levels and collecting note coins throughout the single-player campaign, you unlock enemies, color schemes, notes and beats, and obstacles to use in your own levels, adding even more to the mix. The Sound Shapes online community is already producing some incredible levels, so you’ll never run out of things to do.

Sound Shapes may be short, but the addition of an online community extends the gameplay indefinitely. The game is much more than just a music-inspired platformer, it’s a unique experience unlike any other on the market. With a price tag of only $15, which gets you both the PS3 and Vita versions, this is one of the must-have games of the year.

My fascination with video games began at a very young age. Studying film and video game design in college gave me a deeper appreciation for the inner workings of the industry, and with writing being one of my biggest passions, games journalism has always seemed like a natural move.