While discussing N.E.R.D.'s third album, Seeing Sounds, Pharrell Williams seemed surprised when he learned not everyone experienced synesthesia. Blending senses and seeing colors instead of sounds came natural him, and I'm willing to bet the same line of thought applies to Queasy Games and their short list of collaborators for Sound Shapes. Sound Shapes (as well as Queasy Games’ 2007 title Everyday Shooter) maintains this seemingly effortless dedication to intoxicating the player's senses through sight and sound. Call it distilled bliss or displaced affection, but there's an explicit sense of euphoria waiting to be collected through Sound Shapes' rich presentation. Not coincidentally, like Everyday Shooter, there's also a pretty good game here too.
Sound Shapes adheres to the form of a 2D platformer. A little circle is the avatar under your control. It can jump and stick to any surface that isn't colored black. Holding a button to go faster is also an option, but it won't stick to anything while it's running. Anything colored red, be it an innocent looking platform or vaguely sentient being, will kill you. You're going to die a lot in Sound Shapes, but it's not an entirely punitive or unpleasant experience. Checkpoints are in frequent supply, and, outside of your place on the time-ranked leader boards, there doesn't appear to be any penalty to using them. Sound Shapes certainly has its fair share of challenging sequences, but none come at the cost of your experience playing the game.
What separates Sound Shapes from its peers is its confidence in making its soundtrack a part of your experience. Each level is comprised of a sequences of individual screens, most of which are equipped with a bunch of collectable notes. Collecting notes builds and adds to that particular level's soundtrack, andhe more notes you collect, the more you'll notice the movement and pattern of each level's challenges blending into the music and aiding your timing. You aren't required to do any of this and, beyond slightly compulsive collection tally at the end of each level, it’s not even measured. Compared to most games, there's not much of a traditional reward in Sound Shapes. Your prize is enjoying and absorbing the themes buried within each level. It's ironic that a game primarily about music is utterly indifferent to whether or not you choose to engage or enjoy any of it, but that's precisely what's going on in Sound Shapes. In this regard each screen of every level feels like a verse from a song that’s builds toward completion until the level ends. Surprisingly, this method of song writing highly effective at expressing the mood and underlying message of each level.
Those themes I briefly mentioned above are the heart and soul of Sound Shapes, and what better way to explore and cultivate its mission than to let a bunch of like-minded creative forces in on the fun? Sound Shapes' design is separated into five "albums" each containing a set of levels from different graphical artists and soundtrack composers. I assume Queasy Games ultimately handled the sequencing and level design, but the influence of their collaborators couldn't have made each level appear and feel more distinctive.
The album CORPOREAL, for example, features music from Jim Guthrie and art from Superbrothers. Highly evocative of their recent opus, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, their levels feel more like puzzles than traditional platforming and broadcast underlying themes of the perils of corporate culture. For example, you'll conk desk workers on the head to manipulate elevators or develop tricky methods to ascend filing cabinets. The black and olive green color scheme, reminiscent of vintage appliances, and percussive instruments that create beats centered around sipping coffee add a palpable flavor to CORPOREAL’s apathetic sterility, making your inventible escape feel like personal triumph. Sound Shapes benefits from Guthrie in particular, as I'm now convinced that he is some kind of video game music savant primed for a breakout of proportions previously exclusive to our favorite Japanese composers.
Deadmau5, a man with Shigeru Miyamoto's autograph tattooed on his arm and no stranger to videogame composition, also feels like a perfect fit for Sound Shapes. His D-Cade album features visuals by the folks at PixelJam, the aesthetic of which calls to mind the hot and hazy nights spent in an 80's arcade. Each level declares a burning fascination with Space Invaders and Arkanoid by pumping the player through a myriad of highly challenging, timing based sequences. D-Cade is chalk full of laser spouting towers, angry pixel aliens, and dissolving platforms. It's here that twitch junkies might get their fix, and the crazy base synths at the end of each level seem to compliment that sentiment nicely.
I'll admit, when I heard Beck was composing a set of levels, I thought it was a poor choice. So how wonderfully ironic is it that his three levels ended up being my favorite? Beck's prodigious and detached monotone falls right in line with Pyramid Attack's dystopian, comic-like artwork. "Cities" starts slow, but slowly incorporates vocals (some of which literally spill out onto the screen) that seem to encourage the player to rise and shine out of the urban pandemonium spilling out of the streets below. Hearing Beck's passive howl of "AAHHHHHHHHH," seeing those words appear on screen, and being able to physically traverse that word created a sympathetic admiration of ”Cities” tone and atmosphere. It really struck a chord with me, and ultimately stood out as my favorite part of the Sound Shapes.
The other two albums have their strengths as well. I appreciated the Beyonder's extension of gameplay mechanics by allowing your little ball to inhabit other objects for underwater sequences, and the insane art on Hello World's level "Rowdy Cloudy" carries some of the best, most inventive 2D artwork this side of Patapon. Every level feels like a timeless sequence designed to be replayed and enjoyed on a purely experiential level, like someone would listening to their favorite song. It was under this same pretense that I appreciated Everyday Shooter, and would replay levels constantly just to take in the music and atmosphere.
Through no fault of their own some players probably won't appreciate those relatively intangible aspects of Sound Shapes' design, and that's fine. There's plenty more "game" to be enjoyed upon completion of Sound Shapes' 20 level campaign. Death Mode isolates a single screen from a level, ramps up the intensity, and challenges the player to collect a set number of notes in a very short amount of time. Success seemed to be a little too dependent on the luck behind the random note placement, but Death Mode remains fairly successful at adding some gamey meat to Sound Shapes' plate. Another post-game offering is Beat School, which challenges the player to match a sequence of beats by placing their notes in appropriate areas of the gridded screen. I have zero musical ability so I found these sequences pretty challenging and, for a while, completely mystifying. If nothing else Beat School made me appreciate how much thought went in to note placement in each level.
I usually don't burn review space with thoughts on achievements or trophies, but Sound Shapes’ implementation of those typically flaccid features merits special mention. Like Dyad, all (but one) of Sound Shapes' trophies are earned through modes other than the campaign. There's one for beating all of the levels, and the rest are earned through Beat School or Death Mode. This allows the experience of Sound Shapes to be absorbed without potential corruption from trying to earn an otherwise arbitrary congratulations. Instead Trophies appear as they should, as an extraneous means of accomplishing a challenging task outside of the core experience.
Sound Shapes also features a full blown level creator that incorporates design pieces earned in the campaign. I played through the tutorial and fiddled around to create what could best be described as a bumbling mess, but I learned long ago that my enjoyment of these features doesn't come from creation, but rather consumption. In this regard Sound Shapes' is sort of hit and miss. On one hand I had a blast with all of the user levels people were talking about on NeoGAF, mostly appreciated the beats people managed more so than their level design. On the other hand the user interface for finding this stuff was less than intuitive. The search field on my Vita only worked sometimes, and when it did searching for and finding a desired user failed to list his levels. I also couldn't figure out how to access my levels queued at this site, though I did manage to eventually find and play all the levels that were recommended. In any case one will hope the bugs are eventually worked out, and Sound Shapes' swelling community cranks out some memorable content.
It's also worth mentioning that a single purchase on either platform enables Sound Shapes for download on Vita and PlayStation 3. It follows the MotorStorm RC connectivity feature where progress and trophies unlocked on one platform can sync and unlock on the other. With its beautiful screen and through a nice set of headphones I enjoyed Sound Shapes significantly more on my Vita, but playing it on a PlayStation 3 is by no means a pitiable option.
Note: all screenshots were collected using the Vita’s handy screen capture feature.