Review: Sound Shapes
Sound Shapes is an interesting mash-up of nail-biting, hard-as-balls platformer and quirkly rhythm title with some awesome and funky tunes. At first, I was a bit put-off – how did this all work together? How do the “notes” you pick up during the course of the platformer in any way shape the music itself?
The idea is that you are controlling this little ball and must guide it through the various platforming levels. There are but a few rules in this game of life and death for our little friend, the ball. First – anything that is red is bad. It will destroy the ball in one hit. That, as it would seem, is the most important rule.
The little ball also has a couple of abilities of its own to help it avoid the red portions of the stages. This leads us to the second rule of Sound Shapes – many surfaces are sticky. While the color, shape and texture of the “sticky” surfaces changes depending on the stage you’re on, when that surface is available it’s usually pretty obvious. The ball can stick to these surfaces to maneuver upside down and around things that will destroy it.
In many cases, these surfaces aren’t necessarily safe in themselves, either. Sometimes they have electricity coursing through them, sometimes they are literally thin ice, that will crack and drop you into oblivion if you aren’t fast enough.
This leaves us with the third rule of controlling our friend, the ball, in Sound Shapes – “turbo boost”. It isn’t actually called that in the game, I just call it that because that’s what it is. You can speed up the ball by pressing R (or Square). This allows you to get a running jump to leap wider gaps and, by tapping the “turbo boost” button of your choice, you can also temporarily unstick yourself from whatever surface you’re stuck to. Naturally, that’s useful in dropping down or falling in a controlled fashion when the time is right, so as to, as always, avoid death.
When you combine these three rules you get just about the entirety of the ball’s experiences throughout the game – both the campaign and whatever challenges you throw at it in the build-a-level mode.
The stages themselves naturally get more challenging as you progress. In addition to just getting through a level, you’re judged by both the amount of time you take to get through it and the amount of musical notes you pick up, which are in the form of little stationary (and less handsome) balls placed precariously throughout each level.
These musical notes, when obtained, add to the song that is being played throughout, so that, best case scenario, at the end of the stage you’re listening to the song in its entirety. The interesting thing is that these stages, in and of themselves, are sometimes difficult enough to get through without the notes to collect, so the notes just add in an extra challenge.
I will also say that there is quite the variety in the levels – which each correspond to a different album. One stage will be a very organic, flowing trek through the forest or underwater, and the next one will be a very mechanical expedition with grapple hook-type contraptions that you can ride on and swing from. There’s also a very alien level, which reminds me a lot of Space Invaders. It is just a very spicy selection of level design that is really one of the highlights of the campaign (and also may give you a lot of great ideas if you decide to tackle building your own level).
All this platforming is wrapped up in a healthy dosage of swanky tunes, which provide the underlying current, so to speak, of these levels. While the soundtrack is fairly epic – including music contributions by the likes of Beck and Deadmau5 – I do have one issue with this entire package that, no matter how much I try to shake it off, still grates at me – there seems to be a disconnect between the platforming and the music. While I get the idea behind the game, I don’t really get what these two things have to do with each other.
I understand the fact that the idea is to conquer these platforming levels while picking up the notes, and thus the notes add to the music and, by the end of the level, you’ve assembled the entire track. I get that. However, there’s no jumping to the music, no moving to the beat, no rhythm other than the music track itself. Often times you have to pause your ball to wait for a danger to pass, a platform to come into range or a grappler to pull you up to the next screen in the stage. All the while, the music plays along in the background. Something, to me, just feels “off” to the point of the music feeling like nothing more than the background audio in any old standard platformer. Sure, I got a little surge of joy each time I added a note to the music, but beyond that, it really didn’t do anything for me.
Aside from the campaign mode, you can also build your own levels. Each time you clear a stage in the campaign, you’re given more things to play with and add to your own level creations. I have an issue with many “build your own level” modes in many-a-game. That issue is that there is just too much trial and error to perfect anything remotely resembling something that is already built within the game. This issue came up in LittleBigPlanet, Portal 2 and many other games that allow you to construct your own levels.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to fiddle around with things and there are definitely those gamers out there who will spend unending days perfecting their levels and uploading them for everyone to see. I’m not denying that. In fact, in the level construction portion of the game I’ve found some of the best-designed, most intuitive use of the back touch-screen on the Vita to date. You use it to rotate, re-size and move objects that you place onto your level, and that actually brought a smile to my face in the couple hours I played around with it.
One last thing I’ll mention is that Sound Shapes is available both on the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita. I played the vast majority of the game on the Vita version. You can enable cloud saving and swap between the two platforms if you wish to pick up where you left on on the road, or vice versa. It works fairly seamlessly, if I do say so myself.
Overall, while I did enjoy my time with Sound Shapes, I do think the premise didn’t quite work out as expected. Queasy Games and Sony Santa Monica Studios did a great job with the platforming itself, no doubt. The levels are varied, intuitive and a rather fun experience. However, the combination of music and platforming didn’t quite mesh for me as well as I would have thought, considering this is a game completely dependent on that one concept.
In summary, the two disparate parts of the game are amazing on their own – the platforming and the music – but the combined experience didn’t live up to my expectations