The PlayStation Vita had, by modern standards, a hugely successful launch. The games were varied, interesting, and most of them were actually really good.
Since its launch, however, the Vita has had quite the down period. Releases have been few and far between, with the games that do release being underwhelming.
Sound Shapes reverses this trend, and hopefully starts what should be a fantastic rest of the year for the Vita.
Sound Shapes impresses right away, with its bold visual design that changes its color palette from screen to screen within a single level. Each level has a unifying theme, and that theme informs everything about the level, from the color of your avatar, to the backgrounds, and even to the enemies you face. The color red is the only thing that can hurt you, and developers Queasy Games and their collaborators find clever ways to use it throughout every level, including environmental damagers, lasers, and even words on the screen (“hurt,” being the main one, of course). The only downside to how much activity and color there is on the screen (and it can get crazy) is that occasionally the Vita cannot keep up, and the framerate will obviously drop. It’s not unplayable when it happens, but it does hamper the experience.
A game like this hinges on its music, and Sound Shapes does not disappoint. Featuring music from the likes of Jim Guthrie, Deadmau5, and Beck, Sound Shapes uses its music to an extent never before seen. Simply put, everything in the game produces a sound, and every sound is composed and designed to fit the song being played. Platforms crumble to the sound of a record scratching, pistons crash and create thunderous kick drums, and saws conspire together to deliver hi-hats that flavor the music. Peppered throughout the level are coins which further the melody, and when the tracks crescendo it is a staggering accomplishment both aurally and visually, as the sound appears diegetic, even though it’s composed. Some tracks are incredibly funky (the Aquatic level stands out), and once you get to the section that Beck worked on, you’re treated to his lyrics being treated as on screen platforms that fade in time with the music. It’s incredible.
Without the gameplay to back it up, all of this would be for naught. Fortunately, Sound Shapes is a tightly-controlling, if somewhat easy, platformer. You progress through the level as a small blob that has the ability to stick to certain surfaces. You can decouple from surfaces via the Square button, which allows you to roll and gather momentum. You jump in a way that is consistent, with a proper jump modeling system (unlike some other platformers). Occasionally the sticking mechanic gets in its own way, and you may find it difficult to decouple in exactly the way you want. Other than that small complaint, Sound Shapes controls like a dream.
The menu systems in Sound Shapes are amazing. Presented in the same simple, bold colors as the game, the menus stay out of the way. Little touches such as the ability to scratch the record that plays the sample song for the currently selected level, as well as being able to actually move the needle to select levels, demonstrate that this is a game that will go out of its way to impress users.
Sound Shapes is not a very long game. The typical playthrough is around four hours, although there is full leaderboard support, which can add longevity to the main game, if that’s your kind of thing. After beating the game, a Death Mode is unlocked, which sets up a series of tough challenges for you to try to conquer.
However, the main meat of the post-campaign game will be found in the level creator, which of course also offers user-generated content for your perusal. For the musically inclined, the level creator is awesome. It allows you to combine elements from all of the different level packs, and you can customize all of the sounds, including how often different elements trigger, creating your own “drum patterns” that you can use wherever you want, whether or not you choose to make a level that is focused on music, difficulty, or some combination of the two. The learning curve is unfortunately steep, with no easy way to identify elements, or to sort them in any customizable way. Thankfully, there is a “Beat School” mode that unlocks after completing the game, which slowly walks you through the level creator.
If you fall into its clutches, it would be easy to lose yourself in Sound Shapes for weeks, if not months. As long as the community stays active, there’s no telling what people will be able to create.
Sound Shapes marks the first salvo in the Vita’s war for long-term relevancy. By fostering development of original, exciting games like it for the Vita, Sony can position its handheld as the place for creativity and daring. Even if it’s not a massive success as a system, that’s a worthy goal.
A copy of Sound Shapes for the PS3 and Vita was provided to us for the purposes of this review.