Sound Shapes review: pet sounds

Sound Shapes starts with a simple beat, but an increasingly interesting melody makes all the difference.

Game Info
Platform PS3, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer Queasy Games
Release Date Aug 7, 2012

Sound Shapes is a excellent example of the wonders of great execution. New ideas are good. Visual flash can be fun. A message? Sure, why not? But execution is where most games live or die. It's how we separate intent from success. Sound Shapes' developer Queasy Games and their various collaborators seem to understand this more than most. While Sound Shapes doesn't have a surplus of new ideas, exactly, it does have a clear objective in mind. Combining melodies of ever-increasing complexity with well-concepted, unique art styles that evolve and develop in fun and surprising ways over the course of each album, Sound Shapes takes you on a journey through each level like hearing a song you love for the first time.

Structurally, Sound Shapes is a platformer of sorts. You control a ... small ... blobby ... thing, that rolls along the ground — on walls and ceilings. By default, the blob sticks to certain surfaces, but holding square or the right bumper will cause the blob to become heavy. This keeps you from sticking to surfaces, but can get the blob substantially more momentum, allowing you to jump just a bit further.


Sound Shapes diverges from the platformer formula in some ways though, the most obvious being the absence of meaningful death. While you can "die" in Sound Shapes by touching anything colored red, you'll immediately reappear at the last checkpoint you touched, ready to try again. Levels aren't your adversary, so much as a race course to be finished as quickly as possible, while still grabbing all the coins scattered throughout.


Artist Cory Schmitz worked on Sound Shapes — per his portfolio site, he contributed "artwork for Queasy Games' upcoming musical platformer Sound Shapes. Designed menus, main character, logo, in-game items, and more."

Sound Shapes developer Queasy Games contracted with a number of higher-profile indie teams and personalities for the game, including Schmitz, the Superbrothers, and Capybara Games.

Schmitz also provided design work for Polygon, developing our logo and font selection, as well as our color palette.

As Schmitz did design work for Polygon on a freelance basis, we felt that this did not present a conflict of interest in reviewing Sound Shapes.

Even the coins are there for a different reason than your average screen-to-screen jumpfest. Since death isn't an issue, coins are present as a means of building up Sound Shapes' experience. Similar to musically inclined puzzle games like Lumines and Chime, a kind of note bar runs behind each screen to the beat of a basic piece of music. As you grab coins and activate checkpoints, new notes are added and the melody of each song is developed. As levels become more complicated, enemies and pieces of the environment contribute as well.

Sound Shapes' platforming balances the easy successes of simple jumps with more Rube Goldberg-influenced sequences that fall into place like complicated arrangements of dominoes. Each collection of levels — with music composed by one artist and labeled as an "album" — starts with a few basic level design elements which are recombined and rearranged. The learning curve is handled well, and it feels like Sound Shapes wants you to finish it (some sadistic, almost Super Meat Boy-style nightmare sections notwithstanding).

While the "campaign" is short-ish at five albums of four to five songs each, every level is crafted so well around very specific concepts that it's hard not to get caught up in them. While I particularly enjoyed the Superbrothers and Jim Guthrie collaboration and Beck's section — a surprise to me, since I'm not generally a huge fan — there's not a bad song in Sound Shapes.


In fact, every piece of music is good or better, and each level is so well suited to the music — again, particularly in the Beck levels — that Sound Shapes builds into a very particularly engaging musical experience.

I have a hard time imagining someone not enjoying the campaign, but I could understand wanting more. Sound Shapes stops short of the masochistic life-grind that other platformers aspire to, and while that does make for a more consistently pleasant game, it never quite reaches the intersecting nirvana of technique and perfect timing that a Mario or Super Meat Boy does. And, for those who want more from the campaign, the leaderboard integration is the only place you're likely to find it. Finishing the campaign does unlock "Death Mode," a set of challenges for each level. But these depart from the musically motivated main levels and emphasize twitch platforming, which feel at odds with Sound Shapes intent.

For the more creatively minded at least, the included creation suite is one part level editor and one part music sequencer. At the time of this writing, there is already a fair amount of new levels for players to check out, and I expect that the musical nature of Sound Shapes' editor will be the impetus for thousands of new tracks. That said, the initially simple interface of the creation tool quickly gives way to some very complicated concepts of both level design and music theory, and after completing the campaign, there are hundreds of tools and pieces unlocked.


I can't fault Sound Shapes for the breadth and depth of its level creation tool — over time, the potential in all that complication will likely make for much more interesting user-generated content. But given how inviting the rest of the game is, it's a little disappointing that the barrier to, if not entry, then sophistication, is so high.

Wrap Up:


Even without the content creation mode, Sound Shapes would be something unlike anything else on the Vita, or even on consoles. While some might complain about Sound Shapes' willingness to be finished and enjoyed, I dare anyone to go through it remaining non-transfixed by exactly what Queasy and their musical and artistic partners have assembled. Sound Shapes is video game pop music, and those don't need to be dirty words.

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