It seems disingenuous to review Sound Shapes in a distinctly non-audio medium such as this. The real meat of the game comes across, as the name implies, through its sound design; something that the written word has never been that great at expressing. Nevertheless, rest assured that Sound Shapes sounds good, regardless of its context.
Straddling the line between rhythm-action and platformer, Sound Shapes taps into that special melodic mood that video games are so fantastic at providing, and yet so few developers fully tap into. Games such as Rez or Vib Ribbon provide gameplay that is fundamentally tied to the sounds you’re hearing, either by fully incorporating gameplay mechanics into the sound, or by linking your actions to dramatic changes or swells of the music. Sounds Shapes isn’t quite like that, and it would actually be possible to play the game while muted, but you would be depriving yourself of all the fun by doing so.
In Sound Shapes you control a small ball that has to navigate a landscape (or, more fittingly, a soundscape) and reach the end. So far, so Super Mario, but the differentiator comes from picking up Notes, which add new parts to the soundtrack. As you collect Notes, the track starts to fill in, gently building until the full composition is finally revealed. Everything in Sound Shapes makes a noise, from the crushing pistons that move to the beat, to trees that sing melodically when you touch them, to missiles that only move to the stutter of the bassline. Traversing this trippy topography is often more about your own musical timing than it is about platforming skills.
The main campaign goes a stage further with the music theme. With the likes of Deadmau5 and Beck (amongst others) providing a smattering of tracks, each level is divided into a series of stages, or as the game presents them, albums and tracks. Each LP consists of its own level design and art assets, so playing stages scored by Jim Guthrie for example will both sound and look unique. There is no narrative, nor does there need to be. Take Beck’s Cities for example, where a particular platform alters its properties based on the lyrics. When the lyrics say “move a little” the platform sways slightly, and when it says “hurt a little”, you’d better not be stood on it. Superb touches like these help to tie the gameplay and sound design together in an artistic fashion.
In addition to the music, Sound Shapes also includes a few visual shortcuts to help you understand what is happening. If you touch anything red, you die. If you touch anything grey, you’ll stick to it, allowing you to travel on top of or underneath certain platforms. You can also perform a roll which makes you detach from sticky surfaces, and then speed up, which is useful when it comes to timing. Despite the fact that each set of stages has its own art style and assets, these cues will help you identify helpful and harmful objects from each level almost instantly.
After completing the campaign there are also a series of Death Mode challenges to work through, offering a rather intense test of your abilities. While these challenges are meant to be tough, they do serve to highlight the unwieldly reality of controlling a sticky ball, which is the games main sticking point. The campaign is serviceable enough due to the fact that the level design is usually fairly basic, but the Death Mode challenges emphasise just how awkward the controls can be. Momentum never quite feels 100% right, meaning that it is easy to under or overshoot basic jumps. In an unforgiving challenge mode, this soon gets annoying and poorly underlines what is otherwise an excellent game.
With only a small number of baked-in levels, it’s a good thing that there are a load of amazing user-created stages out there for you to play with. Sound Shapes comes with a level editor, which it encourages you to use through a handy tutorial. Whilst the design tools are thoroughly useful, the tool also doubles as a music sequencer, so it should be of interest to anyone interested in the composition side of things. Although this enables some people out there to create works of art, it does suffer somewhat from Little Big Planet syndrome. On casual observation, the creation tools are kind of off-putting, even though they are easier and more intuitive than anything Sackboy has ever offered. Personally, I found the level editor considerably less fun than downloading levels designed by the talented souls of the Internet. Their work is testament that this is a fully functional creation suite, so perhaps I just lack the ingenuity to fully utilise it. Either way, the evidence proves that the level editor is pretty comprehensive, allowing your creations to rival and even surpass anything that you would see in the main campaign.
Given that the game originally released in 2012, there is a plethora of DLC available for those digital maestros out there. The game’s recent inclusion on PS Plus is obviously an attempt to grow the player base and shift some of this DLC, but as a standalone game, and even if you blast through the campaign in an hour and never touch it again, Sound Shapes is still a worthwhile experience.
Some platforming quibbles aside, this is an excellent, artistic game.