Friday, August 10, 2012

REVIEW - Sound Shapes.

Sound Shapes is more aptly-named than I first suspected.  It didn't help that no trailer or developer walkthrough or preview article properly communicated just what this game's deal was, but here it is; it's a simple platformer with a very unusual artistic gestation.

The process seems to begin with music - between three and five tracks each from musicians like I Am Robot and Proud, deadmau5 and Beck, with about twenty stages in total.  The music is then broken down into its component parts and handed off to artist groups in the hopes that a profitable pairing will occur.  In many examples, it does.

Jim Guthrie and Superbrothers team up once again on four tracks, presenting a grey, pixelated office from Hell.  deadmau5 is paired with the artists of indie game studio PixelJam, while Beck's music is visualized by design house Pyramid Attack.

It works like this; the only reason the blocks above spell the word "break" is because that's the word that's being sung in the song at that moment.  As the lyrics go on, the blocks move and tremble as the word changes until Beck finally says "hurt a little" and the blocks turn red - insta-killing your rotund little avatar, if it's touching them.

This is a music game that's not a music game.  It's a game designed around music - with artists attempting to visualize the sounds in the musicians' songs.  It's a game where a "whoosh" sound is interpreted as a deadly rocket that repeatedly zips across a stage, and you make the tunes richer by picking up coins in the environment, which add more of the original notes to the track - but it's not procedurally generated, and you don't really need a sense of rhythm to defeat its challenges.

The game's success - on all fronts - varies.  Some tracks are a bit headache-inducing, some are a bit boring, and the level design regularly leaves one desperate for a greater challenge until you're into deadmau5 and Beck's albums.

Regularly the art direction merely feels like a means to an end, but sometimes... sometimes it's absolutely amazing.  Seeing a half-dozen bombs bop their way across the screen in time with a bass line beat, jumping vertically up an infinitely-falling pillar of anthropomorphized pills representing notes of music in a pastel Eden is just... remarkable.

Sound Shapes, then, lives up to its name.  It begins with sounds which inform shapes which occasionally - not regularly, but often enough - manifest moments of pure gaming pleasure.  When this game nails it, it is something very special indeed.

I absolutely love this level.

It's an interesting artistic pursuit.  It's an unusual, original, playful concept.  It's a piece you stare at in an art gallery for three minutes, then say "hmmm" at, then walk away from - promptly forgetting it when the next Interesting Thing happens.

There are moments when it strums at the very strings of your soul - but such moments are fleeting, and not representative of the whole.

If you've been aching to play something that takes advantage of Sony's willingness to support The Weird Stuff, Sound Shapes is worth checking out for its unusual presentation alone.  If you're willing to roll the dice that you can actually log in to the game's servers (no luck on that front for me, yet), you'll have access to a potentially infinite number of user-generated levels in keeping with the publisher's Play Create Share idea.

There are a lot of very cool components here, but they rarely crystallize into an original, uniformly pleasurable experience for the player. Sound Shapes, then, is somehow less than the sum of its parts.  It has striking, affecting art direction and a really, really cool soundtrack - but it's also just a little platformer that's merely decent.

Honestly, I had just as much fun with Mutant Blobs Attack last week, if not more.  And this costs twice as much.

  • purchase the game once, get it for both PS3 and Vita
  • a very cool, original idea
  • often great music
  • there's a huge variety in art direction thanks to the various studios that contributed, which allows each new album to feel like a new, refreshing twist
  • the controls are spot-on
  • it has a good half-dozen moments of absolute gaming joy
  • a potentially-infinite number of user-created levels to enjoy, if you can get it online
  • I like how it will introduce new environmental mechanics with each album, even if they aren't exactly paradigm-shifting
  • wonderful checkpoint system
  • deadmau5 and Beck's levels are (often) nicely challenging
  • it only uses motion controls for the level editor, thank God
  • the first three albums are kinda' boring, in terms of gameplay
  • while it's occasionally brilliant, it's regularly meh
  • how many times should I have to try to get online with this game?  (Answer: one.)
  • if it weren't for the level creator, this game would be nowhere near worth fifteen dollars
  • Forcing me to use motion controls for the level editor sucks.  Way to suck, Queasy Games.
While occasionally brilliant, delectably original and generally not-bad - its not really great, either.  Wait for a price drop.


  1. What happens if you play with the sound off? :P

  2. It becomes a mechanically-decent, visually-interesting little platformer. It's still entirely playable, but yeah - it's made from the ground up to be heard while you play.