Platforms: PS3 | PS Vita
Developers: Queasy Games | SCE Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
It takes less than a minute. After busting through the two tutorial levels of Sound Shapes - one that explains how to play, and one that teaches you how to create and share - I'm less than one minute into the first level when a smile begins to take control of my face.
Guiding a little gelatinous blob through a dazzlingly colourful landscape that proves highly reminiscent of Q-Games' work on the PixelJunk series, the aim is to pick up the floating blue orbs littered about the place as one moves from A to B. Each orb corresponds to a musical note or beat, and so, as I gobble up the musical debris, the background aural ambience begins to swell. Synths and strings are layered on top of one another by my actions, with the landscape and the items and enemies dotted about it forming a base tune that shifts in elements as you progress from frame to frame.
The creation and manipulation of music, through the medium of good old-fashioned platforming, is what forms the heart of Sound Shapes. Even the various levels in the game are collected into "albums", with three or four tunes per album, and five finely-crafted albums to start off with.
Each of the albums has its own distinct personality, and that's down to the creative cocktail of talent at work here. Queasy have collaborated closely with a number of artists to create a series of soundscapes that moves from angular electronica through into the smooth ambience of Sworcery's Jim Guthrie, with hints of psychedelia later on, the pulsating basslines from Deadmaus and the broken beats of Beck rounding off the show later on.
The platforming elements change with each album too. Every object has a musical corollary, and every item and enemy can be touched to trigger a new sound. The colour schemes are simple, with palettes of only five for each level, and visual signifiers everywhere. Red is bad - touching anything red will instantly destroy you, and send you back to the last checkpoint that you passed. Surfaces that correspond to the goo surrounding your controllable blob can be stuck to, as can some of the game's more unique items. The first album, for example, sees you hopping across stylised, sticky flowers, bending and waving in a musical breeze. Later on, you'll use suspended sticky circles to shield yourself from lasers on three sides, move out of the way of bullet-hell projectiles, and avoid hazardous spikes from above and below whilst riding a conveyor block shaped like a Space Invader.
Indeed, Queasy aren't afraid to play around with the mechanics. As everything makes musical sense, it's not long before you're using the aural atmosphere to guide your timing, especially when making potentially dangerous leaps of faith. But occasionally the 2D side-scrolling platform formula is ditched in favour of other styles. Deadmaus and PixlJam's album, for example, provides a taste of retro gaming history, with the 8-bit-flavoured levels featuring sections of gameplay that evoke memories of Asteroids and Arkanoid and plenty of SHMUPs along the way.
It's Beck's Cities album that stays with you the longest, though, with an eclectic mix of instrumental elements accompanied by smatterings of vocals. AAAAAHs literally hang like clouds in the air before flickering into nothingness. A five word progression of "lose...move...turn...break...hurt" sees a platform respond to those instructions, burning red on the last word. Bulbous bundles of red missiles stutter about the skies, providing Beck's characteristically jagged basslines, swarming over crumbling cityscapes littered with chimneys that blast you into the air, as you frantically try to weave your way between rockets and lasers and strange ancient totems that fire blistering red death.
It's all rather unique, thoroughly engrossing, and over a little too soon. Thankfully, though, Sound Shapes doesn't end there.
The five albums that make up the Campaign are merely examples of what might be achieved through the game's creation suite, and besting the various levels in the game delivers an array of graphical delights and musical building blocks for players to create their own soundscapes and then share them online. Even at this early stage, the results are hugely impressive...though not from this writer, whose first level was an utter mess (titled Orbit, if you're interested).
Your blank canvas takes the form of a rectangular grid, with each square symbolising a note. The higher you place a musical object or orb, the higher the note. The grid itself encapsulates a looped bar of music, with a line moving from left to right to indicate the passage of music and the tempo at work. Designing and arranging your soundscape is a simple matter, and here the Vita's bells and whistles are used to the fullest extent. The touchscreen selects items, and holding down on the screen deposits them onto your grid, whereupon they can be moved, resized, and rotated by using the rear trackpad. It's a process that often requires you to move your hand position, and one wonders why they didn't just do it all on the front touchscreen, but it works very nicely indeed, and in having separate pads for selection and manipulation, you never have to worry about inadvertently shrinking the wrong thing.
If there is a criticism to be made, it's that there's not a huge amount of labelling in the item menu, and it can sometimes difficult to determine the nature of the pieces you're placing, making the process something of a lesson in trial and error. However, the nature of poking and prodding your way around the creation suite is so engrossing that such experimentation never feels like a chore, and unwanted objects can be discarded in milliseconds. It may be a daunting area for some, with the tutorial only really explaining how items can be placed, rather than offering up tips on musical creation and how the grid placement of various objects might relate to one another. In this sense, at least, it's easy to see how some might be deterred from spending too much time creating their own levels. But then, there'll be plenty of others who'll embrace the system with open arms and feverishly study the arts of soundscape creation.
Sound Shapes, then, could not have arrived at a better time. My Vita has been sat gathering dust since I finished Gravity Rush, with little incentive to turn it back on, but now Queasy and friends have breathed a near endless stream of life into it. The joy of having another addition to the Play. Create. Share. initiative is that sense of limitless potential and unbounded replayability. Like the very best games, the core premise of Sound Shapes is a simple one, but its execution is damn-near perfect. For under a tenner, you can craft a level on your Vita on the bus, that you can then play on your PS3 at home, and vice versa. This is a reason why Sony, let alone the rest of us, should still be excited for their portable, and a highly accomplished example of a fresh take on aural synesthesia. Brilliant.
- Makes fantastic use of the Vita's strengths, particularly when it comes to creation
- Play. Create. Share. makes for endless replayability
- Simple, yet utterly absorbing premise
- Level editor icons could do with in-menu explanations
- Rear trackpad controls can sometimes be a little fiddly
- There are only three Beck levels
The Short Version: Sound Shapes is fantastically engrossing, utterly captivating experience that brings music and platforming together in a beautiful synthesis. But by putting the tools of creation in players' hands it goes beyond simply being a pleasant curio and becomes an inexpensive mine of limitless potential. If you have a Vita, you need this game.