Sound Shapes Review
Game: Sound Shapes
Developer: Queasy Games & Santa Monica Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 3 and PS Vita (Cross-Compatible)
The Vita has a ton of excellent features and is a seriously impressive piece of kit, yet I keep asking myself: Where are the bloody games? Months have elapsed since I first took possession of the blighter, yet every time I walk past the Vita games section in my local supermarket, the same old titles occupy the top ten. The platform is in desperate need of something special to make it indispensable once again, like the halcyon days I spent utterly hammering Rayman, Katamari, Blazblue and all of those other wonderful early bangers.
Perhaps somehow aware of my whining, SCE decided to provide the perfect solution to my Vita blues, serving up something very special indeed. I am not fond of the term “Killer App”, however, what Santa Monica Studios and Queasy Games have done here is the perfect shot in the arm for Sony’s wonderful gadget, a sensational title which deserves nothing but admiration. For just under a tenner, Sound Shapes is as good a game as you can find for your Vita and as an added bonus, you can play it on your PlayStation 3 as well.
Music and gaming are two of my biggest loves, so when they are combined to winning effect it particularly floats my boat. I recently helped put together a brace of podcasts during which myself and my brother from another mother (and fellow member of staff here at GodisaGeek), Mr Colm Ahern looked at the games and their soundtracks, and the use of licensed music in our beloved pixellated artform. Over the course of our discussions we mentioned such visionary titles as Rez, Lumines and WipEout, all of which are rightly famed for incorporating excellent audio that has a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the gameplay. Sound Shapes is more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as such exalted company.
Queasy games are no strangers when it comes to incorporating music into their games, Jonathan Mak’s twin stick marvel Everyday Shooter featured procedurally generated music as you gunned down enemies, sparking off all manner of guitar riffs. Sound Shapes takes things one step further, in that the entire game world is related to the soundtrack, which evolves as you progress. It also features a customisation aspect which is tantamount to turning your console into a crazy digital synthesizer.
Controlling a nondescript blob that looks a bit like a cross between a fried egg and an eyeball, you move around some strikingly designed environments, which include levels designed by the likes of PixelJAM and Capybara. Learning the rules is pretty straightforward, thanks to a handy tutorial. Your gelatinous avatar can jump, roll into a ball to move more quickly and stick to some of the scenery. Just like in nature, red spells danger. Touch anything red and you’ll die. These are the parameters that govern the simple platform gameplay with the aim to reach the goal, collecting the musical items in each stage along the way. Each item collected will make a change to the current musical accompaniment. Everything pulses to the beat, enemies move in time to the music. You can learn when it is safe to jump by paying attention to the rhythm. At times the game utterly astonishes to the point that it is less of a platformer and more of a heady musical trip with gaming taking a back seat.
The choice of music is, to put it bluntly, absolutely stellar. Mak collaborator, Canadian indietronica dude Shaw-Han Liem, is back on board, providing some superb work in his I am Robot and Proud guise, joined by Canadian scene alumnus Jim Guthrie who also puts in a good shift. But the stars of the show are undoubtedly the two genuine A-listers who have been roped in. They really deliver something special here.
Beck Hansen has been a musical trailblazer and favourite of mine from his One Foot In The Grave days onward. Along the way he has had mega radio hits from his Odelay record, pretended to be a funkified white-boy Prince, and slipped into introspective acoustic melancholia. This is not the first time Beck has got his alt-rock ass involved with video games, as back in 2005 he allowed some of his tracks to be remixed into a chiptune style for his GameBoy Variations EP, he is also no stranger to the film soundtrack, as Scott Pilgrim fans will attest. But the three joints he has contributed here are all originals, created just for the game. Beck is in more of an ambient, electronic mood here, don’t come expecting a pulsating riff, a la Devil’s Haircut or Loser.
Each track corresponds to a particular level, with the music affecting the landscape, even creating obstacles in some brilliantly inventive ways which I will not spoil here, other than to say that the Pyramid Attack-designed “Cities” level is just about the most amazing, absorbing ten minutes of videogaming I have played in 2012 thus far. Deadmau5 is the irrepressibly hip Canadia DJ who more often than not operates incognito wearing his giant mouse-ears mask. He also does a stellar job here, his highly creative dance tomfoolery creating a perfect backdrop as his three stages riff on old-school games such as Space Invaders and Galaxians. The levels get increasingly more difficult and there are some real ball-aching stages and corresponding rock-hard Trophies to match. The gameplay is far from an afterthought, with some extremely creative touches and surprises around every corner.
As much fun as the standard single player campaign is, the most impressive thing about Sound Shapes is the way you can create your own levels using the excellent design interface, which is a wonderful hybrid of level editor and bonkers space age synthesizer. Like LittleBigPlanet, you can upload your creations to the community and even play them cross-platform using your PS3. Beating the single player campaign unlocks more scenery, enemies and items to play around with and you use the front and rear touch screen to intuitively place obstacles as well as the collectable musical cues that will affect the soundtrack depending on where they are positioned. It is so much fun and genuinely innovative. You can sit there and use your Vita to design a level for your mate to play on the PlayStation 3 in the same room, how ace is that? The possibilities are endless, you have the freedom to choose whether to focus on making a tough as nails, hardcore platform level, or to try and create a classic, interactive dance anthem to boogie along to. The mind boggles at what kinds of amazing designs we are going to see once the servers are more heavily populated.
VERDICT: Dynamic use of music is not a new thing in games, I can remember how much fun I had with Vib Ribbon, how immersed and deep in a gaming trance Q Entertainment have had me over the years, even how impressed I was when the music got quicker when your vitality was low in a Street Fighter II battle! Level editors have also been around for donkeys years. Hell, I can remember designing my own shooters on S.E.U.C.K while most of you kids were still suckling from your mother’s teat. Being able to create your own music for a game, however? That is an underdeveloped concept. That Queasy have managed to deliver a game – and a bloody good one, at that – which successfully harnesses all three of these elements, is a miracle. This is one of the best games of the year so far, and I hope that it is adopted by the swathes of gamers that it deserves.