Sound Shapes (PS3/PS Vita)
Developer: Queasy Games
Release date: August 7, 2012
With the advent of DLC, DRM and all other manner of so-called advancements in gaming, many assume that our future will be mired in creative stagnancy and money-grubbing. But they're wrong—and Sound Shapes is all the proof anyone should need.
The hype train for Sound Shapes never really left the station, in part, I think, because it's so difficult to do the game justice in trailers and press releases. On paper, it's another quirky-indie-surrealist platformer with a tacked-on soundtrack full of big names like Beck and Deadmau5.
But Sound Shapes is so much more than the sum of its parts. It's more like the amplification of them.
Here's how it works: electro-house guru Deadmau5, indie rocker Beck, Sword & Sworcery-composer Jim Guthrie, and Canadian electronic artist I Am Robot And Proud each composed a three to five-song "album" (in the case of I Am Robot, two of them) for Sound Shapes. Then graphic artists and level designers Vic Nguyen, Superbrothers (also of Sword & Sworcery fame), Colin Mancer, PixelJam, and Pyramid Attack shaped unique platforming levels around each track. The whole thing was orchestrated by Queasy Games' Shaw-Han Liem and Jonathan Mak, creator of the 2007 indie PlayStation Network hit Everyday Shooter.
The result of all that collaboration between visual and musical artists is a near-perfect synesthetic experience—it marries sound and visuals in such a way that the two senses are nearly indistinguishable from one another. You see every sound and hear every object in the game. Nothing moves without adding to the general cacophony, yet somehow it still works to create some truly lovely pieces of music.
A beautiful marriage
More importantly—given Sound Shapes is a video game in addition to an art project—it's a much better platformer than I thought it would be.
You control a small, nameless blob, a pathetic-looking entity at the mercy of its world (think LocoRoco). In the words of the game, red things hurt it. The little orb can stick to certain surfaces and scrunch itself up to gain speed and drop from walls and ceilings onto platforms below. Unlike in LittleBigPlanet, another creative Sony platformer, the controls here are pitch-perfect on both Vita and PS3, and the platforming is challenging, but never frustratingly so (until the Death Mode levels that are unlocked after the campaign is complete).
Navigating the physical manifestations of songs from Beck, Deadmau5 and the like allows you to experience those sounds in new ways, not least because you'll be able to influence them directly. In place of the obligatory coins/gems/rings/insert-other-platformer-trope-here, scattered liberally around each level are…well, they call them coins, but they're more like sound loops that are activated as you collect them.
Think of each level's many separate screen-cells as bars of sheet music. The coins represent the notes, their shapes indicating different instruments and sounds. As you collect them, their sounds are added to the song in a loop that only ends once you've advanced a few screens past them.
It's unique in a platformer to have such an immediately tangible reward for picking up those "coins." And each song becomes iterative, constantly building and shedding noises as your movements and actions add and subtract elements of the mix.
So what does any of that have to do with the future?
Flying cars, etc.
What the great minds behind Sound Shapes understand about the future of gaming is that it will be ruled by players, not by companies.
The PS3 and PS Vita versions are nearly identical (besides some excellent touch controls in the Vita's level creator). That's going to happen more and more often as the technological gap between consoles and handhelds narrows. But instead of capitalizing by charging for both, Queasy Games is doing the decent thing and offering both for a single purchase.
Further, these two versions are connected to your PSN account, so you share trophies and progress between them via cloud saves. And there's no risk of overwriting one with the other—manually syncing your progress is as easy as navigating to the settings menu.
Sound Shapes also comes with the perfect blend of creative and social features. The editing tool allows you to compose songs and design levels using basic shapes and sounds and objects from the existing campaign, and once all the Kingdoms Hearts, Mario and Zelda rip-offs are removed from the community level browser, it'll hopefully be easy to discover the game's user-created "greatest hits" (in the game's own words).
The level editing tools are robust enough, though there's no doubt they could be more so. Any such system is bound to have some limitations, though, and in my time with it I've already created something I'm rather proud of.
Buy this game
Sound Shapes is the genesis of something remarkable—the interactive album—yet it's still totally accessible. Its combination of modern, surreal and pixel art with stellar tracks from some incredible artists is truly distinctive, despite it wearing its influences on its lovingly-crocheted sleeves.
I'm hardly fazed by minor complaints like an inadequate community hub or a lack of multiplayer (missed opportunity of the year); and the relatively short length of its campaign is mitigated by Death Mode's difficult challenge levels, Beat School tutorials and the level creation and sharing tools.
And what is there can hardly be described to anyone who hasn't played it. Each level reacts to your every input in countless unpredictable and wonderful ways. Volcanoes spit out arcing fireballs with a noise that sounds like a kid blowing a raspberry. Square spiders double in speed and let out a "coo" when you jump on top of them, and moles wrapped in cabbage hiccup in time with the beat.
Menacing cameras follow you through the Superbrothers levels, which look and play like the touch-control masterpiece Sword and Sworcery would if it was a platformer—and set in a futuristic, Matrix-like office complex built on a demonic computer burial ground.
Beck's lyrics manifest on moving blocks whose properties are altered when the "Loser" singer croons the words "hurt" or "lose." Deadmau5's first track is like a game of Space Invaders on acid, and the rest of them only get crazier from there. Do yourself a favor for this one and hook up a subwoofer.
Kudos to Queasy Games for not squandering this wonderful opportunity by half-baking any aspect of it. The tracks themselves will make a stellar soundtrack album when it's inevitably released, though I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stop picturing Beck's "Aaaaahhhhh"s as fluffy, blue clouds.