Every now and then, there are games that put a smile on your face. Sony Santa Monica and Queasy Games' Sound Shapes is one of those games. This was one of the first games to be announced for the Playstation Vita when it was first revealed last year. However, this is not just for the Vita but also for the Playstation 3 via the Playstation Network. Sound Shapes, in a nutshell, is a music-based platformer where the soundtrack dictates the environment and your movements. It is not a description you will see at first glance, but once you play through the game, it is truly a beautiful thing to see and experience.
You control a rolling ball in Sound Shapes. The ball can stick to light-colored areas of the levels and move through them while traversing through certain obstacles. The goal is simple: to navigate the ball from point A to point B, a turntable finish line. There are moving platforms, which move the ball in circles as long it is attached to them. As you travel through these levels, you collect musical notes to make the track feel more alive. The gameplay premise is simple to understand, with touching anything red on the level resulting in death, but the checkpoint system is typically generous throughout the campaign. At some levels there could be two or three checkpoints on the same screen. In other words, Sound Shapes is pretty forgiving whenever you’re stuck in a spot. The platforming itself is also not that hard, which I love because it doesn’t make the game stressful to beat. It is not to be meant that way since it is music-based, but you get a more calm, relaxed experience out of it. Being such a relaxed experience is a major reason why Sound Shapes is one of those games that you’re smiling through the whole way.
The campaign itself is not that long--being two to three hours long with five albums to choose from in any order. These albums have a set of levels to beat with their own theme. The themes are based on the music artists featured in the game. Superbrothers’ Jim Guthrie, I am Robot, Deadmau5 and Beck were some of the artists chosen purposely for the game, and their levels really cater to their personalities. The Deadmau5 levels, for example, are in a retro game setting with 8-bit sprites. Beck lends some vocals to his levels, and they are arguably my favorite levels in the game. Seeing some high-profile talent in Sound Shapes is remarkable and shows how music can be blended into such an artistic game. I hope to see more artists get involved if Queasy Games decides to make a full-fledged sequel or downloadable level packs.
After beating the campaign, the game is not over yet as more modes are unlocked. "Death Mode" is playing through a portion of a level from the campaign, collecting notes within a time limit to get most of the game’s trophies. This mode reminds me of one of the bonus mini-games in Donkey Kong Country 3 where you have to collect 15 bananas at random spots in a certain time. Like that mini-game, collecting these notes comes down to luck more than skill in terms of how they’re spawned. This is also where Sound Shapes becomes more of a game than an experience because you can get easily become frustrated if things don’t go your way in "Death Mode." "Beat School" pertains to the game’s level editor, which I will talk more about later. This mode will test your rhythm skills in terms of making beats. It is also helpful when making good levels, if you want to have a catchy beat.
What players will spend the most time in Sound Shapes, besides the main single player modes, are in the level editor and the user-created levels. The level editor is easy to learn in minutes as there is a tutorial to get you accustomed when you boot up the game for the first time along with learning the basic gameplay mechanics. As you beat the campaign levels, more objects are unlocked to be used in the level editor. Even though it takes minutes to make a short and easy level, more time will be needed to make something truly impressive. As with games that have the play, create and share formula, you will see lots of levels that reference other video games, mainly the Nintendo ones from what I seen so far. I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with months after the game's release.
Sound Shapes is a beautiful music-based platformer to see. The art style of the game reminds me of the Pikeljunk games. That is because Jonathan Mak, who created Pikeljunk Shooter, is one of the main men behind the game. Graphically, this is also one colorful game with diverse environmental themes in relation to the featured music artists. One album takes place in an office where you have to jump on workers to solve certain puzzles. If you’re a fan of the music artists that are in the game, you will love how their music is integrated into the levels. They truly become their own character when things go smoothly. Some of the specific moments during these levels are definitely some of my favorite gaming moments this year so far.
If you had to add another game to the “games as art” category, Sound Shapes deserves to be on that list. It is one of most cleverly designed games I played in a while because of how amazing the music, visuals and gameplay are implemented together into the levels. The platforming gameplay is fun and simple that anyone can pick up from beginning to end. This is also one calm, relaxing experience that is so refreshing to play through compared to most games today. I wish there were more campaign levels since there are only five albums, but that is a nitpicky fault. At least the user-created levels and level editor will keep players busy for weeks and even months. "Death Mode" makes Sound Shapes feel more like a game and ends up as an afterthought because it relies more on luck than skill. If you want to be challenged, this mode is the way to go. For those with both a PS3 and a Vita, you can set up cloud saves so you can continue your progress on either system. Sound Shapes is definitely one of the Playstation 3’s best downloadable games this year that is worth both your money and attention.