My joy for music began at young age, but it wasn’t until I joined the geeky ranks of my junior high marching band where I found my outlet. As a percussionist, I remember learning and mastering the various syncopations and techniques and coming up with new cadences for our drum solos and flag salutes. Flash forward to college where I rediscovered my love of music composition with my former prog-metal band. While that joy has been somewhat buried beneath time and responsibilities, I rediscovered that “joie de vivre” once again in a little title called Sound Shapes from Queasy Games, the same developer that brought us the musically inclined title Everyday Shooter.
At its core, Sound Shapes is a side-scrolling, puzzle-platformer that puts you in control of a semi-amorphous “blob” as you traverse five very unique environments or “albums” as they’re depicted in the game. Lacking any narrative whatsoever, your goal is classic platforming: move your character from screen to screen, avoiding obstacles while collecting various coins until you reach the end of the level, signified by collecting a tiny little record player. It’s really up to you in interpreting the character’s intentions, though the game has its share of metaphors throughout. A tutorial at the beginning of the game does well to introduce you to its very simple yet elegant design. Aside from basic movements like jumping, your character can cling to light colored surfaces; pressing the right trigger allows your character to sprint while temporarily disabling its tackiness; anything red will kill you. It sounds simple enough and the main campaign never really gets frustrating with numerous checkpoints along the way.
What makes the game unique is not only its creative art direction but the way music is incorporated into the game. Each of the five albums has its very distinct flavor both visually and musically; rightfully so, as each album was created by a different graphic artist and music composer. Composers Jim Guthrie, Deadmau5, Beck, and Shaw-Han Liem (He worked with Jonathan Mak on Everyday Shooter) have lent their musical talents to the game with each resonating well with the unique artistry and level design of their respective albums. Levels begin with few ambient sounds or a basic beat; as you collect coins the background music and sounds become progressively more robust. Each coin gathered adds another layer of musicality, whether in the form of an additional guitar riff, bass beat, high-hat, musical sampling, etc.
What results is a progression of sound that mirrors your progression through the level, giving your movement through the level relevance despite the games complete lack of dialogue or story. Simple platforming and music at the beginning becomes more difficult and complex, respectively, as you progress through to the end of the level. Some of the platform elements and obstacles move in sync with the soundtrack, allowing you to time jumps simply by listening to the beat of the music. It’s very compelling and makes gathering every coin to unlock each element of the musical composition paramount to just simply completing the level. It gives the impression that you’re building the soundtrack to the level; that you’re breathing life into art that would otherwise feel less impactful.
The main campaign is rather short, and shouldn’t take you more than a few hours to complete. But the campaign is only but a portion of the Sounds Shape’s experience. Upon completing the campaign, you’ll unlock two additional modes: Beat School and Death Mode. Beat school serves as a sort of introduction to the level editor and is a collection of different challenges that has you placing beats and sounds on a grid to mirror a provided musical sample. You’ll need to mirror the sample’s tonality and syncopation in order to net the corresponding trophy. While beat school is short and not terribly difficult, it’s my favorite thing about the game and I wish there was much more of it.
Conversely, Death Mode is evil, and my least favorite thing about the game. Aptly named and accessed through the main campaign, Death Mode is a “B side” to each album, with challenges that have you collecting a certain number of coins within a specified amount of time. The mode is strictly for completionists and platforming junkies as the challenges are unforgiving and thus, lacks some of the charm of the other modes. Patience and persistence is required as a near perfect run can result in an accidental death before grabbing a final coin, forcing a complete restart, which can lead to anger, anger which can lead to hate, and well, you know the rest.
The included level editor is the mode that has consumed most of my time, has driven my girlfriend crazy (I need to remember to pause the music during long editing sessions), and will give the game longevity. Be sure to complete the main campaign before jumping in; completing levels will unlock different elements that can be used within the level editor. If you’ve a creative mind and a hankering for building musical progressions, consider this your new home. I had way too much fun putting various beats together, layering samplings and rifts, and creating a platforming level that helps tie the musical progression competently. In fact I spent four hours straight working on a “magnum opus” of a level I’m certain I’ll never finish. However, I’ll leave the “real” level creating to the Sound Shapes community, which has already crafted a slew of pretty amazing levels.
As an added bonus, purchasing the game gets you both the PS Vita and the PS3 version of the game. You can sync saves to either and doing so will grant you separate trophies for both versions. Both play just fine, but I much prefer playing it on the PS Vita as it’s the kind of title that thrives on get up and go play sessions. Sounds Shapes is a gem on PSN and at $15, it’s a no brainer for gamers looking for a unique and compelling platformer, those looking for an outlet to showcase their talents in music composition and creativity, and those who want to rediscover the profound effect of music in their lives.