5 out of 5
Five years ago, an indie developer named Jonathan Mak brought Everyday Shooter to the PlayStation Network. These were the decidedly early days of PSN, and downloadable games in general hadn't become nearly as elaborate or interesting as they are today. And yet something about Everyday Shooter has endured with me over the years. I still go back to it from time to time, just to play a level or two and enjoy its off-kilter art style and bedroom rock-inspired music.
I suspect I'll be doing the same thing with Sound Shapes, the latest game from Mak and his team of collaborators at Queasy Games. Speaking in indie game terms, Sound Shapes is to Everyday Shooter what Journey was to Flower. It's an evolution of design that's more self-assured, more cohesive, and frankly just a hell of a lot more fun.
Sound Shapes explores the idea laid down by Everyday Shooter, namely the idea of creating an intrinsic connection between the action on the screen and the sounds you hear. This is a music game, but as with Everyday Shooter, the soundtrack is built almost entirely by the things you do in the game. By playing Sound Shapes, you build the soundtrack around you.
You do this by controlling a rolling eyeball...thing. The eyeball has the ability to attach itself to any light-colored areas of the environment. Jumping up to a ceiling, for instance, will let you stick and roll around. Round objects let you roll around in circles, and so on. Along the way, you'll be collecting coins, which are essentially musical notes. Collecting them adds notes or sections of notes to an existing track built out of the level.
Levels are broken out into "albums," which contain musical compositions created by artists as diverse as Superbrothers' Jim Guthrie, to Beck. Yes, that Beck. Each album has its own unique visual accompaniment. Guthrie's, for instance, uses an art style similar to Sword & Sworcery while depicting a desperately bland corporate environment, while Beck's levels flit between everything from flaming cities to giant, unidentifiable oceans of green stuff that your eye guy can swim through.
Though art and musical styles are varied, the mechanics of the game don't evolve too far beyond "jump on things, and don't hit red things." Red stuff kills you, which is where Sound Shapes gets tricky. Levels are generally tricky in ways that you won't recognize right away, though the checkpoint system is such that you'll rarely have to backtrack much, if at all. Sound Shapes is far more interested in you being able to see a song/level to completion than you mastering some insidious bit of platforming sadism.
To that end, Sound Shapes won't take too long to complete. There are only five albums in the game--six if you count the tutorial levels--each with between three and five levels. After a few hours, you'll likely have tried all of the levels at least once, but that's not really the "end" of the game, exactly. Leaderboards keep track of your level scores, and honestly, even if they weren't there, the levels are fun and trippy enough that you'll want to play through them a few times, at least. I certainly did.
And then there's the matter of Sound Shapes' level creation tools. Completing levels gives you access to the various pieces of scenery, enemies, and other aesthetic elements to use for your own creation purposes. Level creation tools in games typically just give me a headache, but Sound Shapes employs a clever, easy-to-learn system that makes placement and design relatively easy. I was able to craft a few musically un-terrible levels in relatively short order just by playing around. If the early community levels I've toyed with thus far are any indication, those with more creative minds are bound to create some brilliant stuff.
The level editor is perhaps the one area where the PSN and Vita versions of the game differ. In some respects, the Vita's editor is easier, in that you can use the front touch screen to just tap and drag items around the layout screen. The flip-side is that you also have to use the rear touch screen to shrink and expand objects, which I generally found pretty awkward. Otherwise, the two versions might as well be the same game. In fact, you get both versions with a single purchase, and your saves (theoretically) can sync up via Sony's cloud service. I say theoretically because I've had a nightmare of a time getting the cloud syncing to work thus far. Supposedly it will work at some point in the future, but not at the moment.
That glitch aside, little of Sound Shapes did anything but put a doofy grin on my face. This is a game where visuals, audio, and mechanics sync up in a way that feels effortlessly organic. I'm sure the work put in to making it that way was anything but effortless, but it paid off. Sound Shapes is a reminder that great, creative things can be done in the music gaming genre.