Sound Shapes box art

Box art for PS Vita

Music is an incredibly important part of the games that we play. It creates ambiance, heightens emotions during powerful scenes, and can pump you up for epic feats of badassery. Whether or not you actively pay attention to that music, you would absolutely notice if it was no longer present. Video games need music to help keep you engaged and invested in their world.

“Sound Shapes” is a bit of a different beast, as it tries to incorporate music directly into the gameplay and blend the two into a satisfying amalgamation. It wants to ensure that every movement you make, every enemy you encounter, and every set-piece you see becomes a part of the game’s soundtrack.

From the mind of Jonathan Mak, who created “Everyday Shooter”, and electronic musician Shaw-Han Liem, comes an attempt at creating a simple platformer. Like “Everyday Shooter”, this game wants to be one that synthesizes gameplay and music and produces a near seamless fusion of the two.

In “Sound Shapes” you play as a blob (let’s call him Steven) that perpetually sticks to almost every object he comes into contact with. Steven can jump, cling, climb, and shed his ooze-like exterior to move faster and gain more momentum. These are your tools for surviving the harsh environment Steven is confronted with.

What a harsh environment it can be. Everything colored red will kill Steven. This makes it easy to immediately discern what is hazardous on every screen. The game starts off bright, colorful, and cheerful; but, as it progresses, the color palette grows darker, more ominous, and more red. This game wants you to die and you will… a lot.

Ooh, ahh, that’s how it always starts. Then there’s running and screaming.
© 2012 Sony

Fortunately, there’s a very generous checkpoint system. Nearly every screen has one as soon as you enter. a screen. This makes extremely difficult sections manageable and far less frustrating than if you had to start the stage over again. While individual sections may be absolutely brutal, the difficulty will never match that of “Super Meat Boy” or “N+”.

For most gamers, casual or otherwise, the biggest draw will be aesthetics. Simply put, this game is beautiful. Each of the game’s five worlds, called Albums, has a distinctive art style all designed by different artists. Vic Nguyen from Capy (of “Super Time Force” fame), PixelJam, and Superbrothers all get in on the artgy (a combination of ‘Art’ and ‘Orgy’).

This extremely varied sense of style really serves to make the game fresh all throughout. I was always excited to see what the next level was going to look like. You’ll traverse minimalist takes on nature, tear your way through worlds inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e paintings, become a drone in a pixelated corporate hell, bleep and bloop through levels resembling Atari games, and try to survive a burning city being rained on by bombs.

Of course, since the worlds are referred to as Albums, each one also has a different musical style. Using the same approach as the visual style, each Album has a different musician supplying beats. Utilizing the talents of Jim Guthrie, deadmau5, and Beck, the music perfectly accompanies the art. If we could stop here, this game would be brilliant and one of the most appealing games to ever grace our senses.

But we still need to know who Steven’s daddy is. Did game and music successfully mate?

In a way, yes. Certain elements of the game do seamlessly blend with the music. As you progress through the levels, the song gets richer and fills in with more layers. This is helped along by collecting coins, as each coin represents a note and will become a part of the song when picked up. Also, each object you interact with will make specific sounds or even play in time with the track, to further enrich the experience.

However, the biggest melding of the two has to be the enemies and environmental hazards. Enemies and hazards will move in time to the music, almost as if they are creating the notes themselves. This creates an incredibly intuitive way to deal with the challenges in the game, as you have a very effective method of learning the timing to get around these obstacles.

Not everything is perfect, though; there are moments when you become fully aware that you are just playing a game. Steven often feels sluggish and unresponsive. This is partly because of the controls when he is clinging to something but it’s also because it can be incredibly difficult to build up momentum. This is especially true if you’re sticking to a rounded surface and you need to make a large jump. You have to hold down a button to let go, try to build up enough speed, jump, and let go of the button to stick again. Oftentimes, you end up rolling right off the surface or you didn’t get enough momentum or you just didn’t stick to the next surface. The game’s physics are at least consistent, but they’re consistently mediocre and Steven always feels very heavy.

Sound Shapes screenshot 2

Yeah, Steven, shape up. What are you, some kind of blob?
© 2012 Sony

Also, while the game legitimately does have fantastic music, you never really feel like you’re listening to a whole, cohesive song. Just as you start to really feel a groove with one section of the track, it will suddenly shift gears and sound entirely different. This makes for a disjointed experience. The game’s brilliant music is often relegated to small bites instead of whole meals.

Still, the game does have some fun to be had and it still remains compelling, even after you’ve finished the campaign. At that point, you will unlock two new modes, Death Mode and Beat Mode. These will offer up two challenges distinct from the main campaign, something trophy hunters will strive to complete.

In Death Mode, you have to go through each stage again, collecting a certain amount of coins within a time limit. It only takes place on one screen and each attempt takes less than a minute. This mode is very arcadey and does bring a fresh challenge to the game. However, it’s not exactly a fair challenge.

See, the coins will pop up in predetermined locations in the stage. This isn’t an issue. The issue comes from the fact that those coins will appear RANDOMLY throughout those locations. You’re often given a very short time limit and if any of those coins appear too far away from you, then you might as well restart because you’re not going to win. There were at least three stages where I literally had 0.0 seconds left on the clock when I picked up that last coin. Those felt like perfect runs, too. It’s nerve wracking.

The other bonus is Beat Mode. This one is for the music lovers, as you’re given a beat to duplicate. Playing more like an audio puzzle, it can be a lot of fun to slowly build a beat, piece by piece, by ear. It’s played in the game’s Editor Mode, where you can make your own stages and your own music. However, the Editor Mode controls are unintuitive, slow, and overly complex. Deleting things is a special kind of chore where I just can’t figure out why it’s so complicated. This is especially frustrating in Beat Mode, where you’re going to be constantly putting down and deleting notes. It just takes too much time.Verdict: Crossroads

There is a surprising amount of depth and flexibility in Editor Mode; it doesn’t come close to rivaling “Little Big Planet” but functions well enough and has a lot of potential. Once the game’s community really gets the hang of this mode, I think you’re going to see a lot of creative stuff here. At the moment, it’s nothing but poor attempts at recreating video game music.

Still, despite some issues, “Sound Shapes” is a great experience, albeit a mediocre game. If you’re looking for something with a lot of visual and audio style, then it’s a great game to pick up. If you’re looking for a solid platformer, keep on looking.

“Sound Shapes” really belongs in an installation at a contemporary art museum; its function as pure art affected and enthralled me more than it did as a game.