Sound Shapes review: A live concept album

Sound Shapes review
Sound Shapes is definitely a music game, but it doesn't fit into any existing music game framework. Your movements aren't judged by their adherence to the rhythm of the in-game music, nor do your movements create the music.

Instead, the world is literally made of music.%Gallery-162054% Every object and enemy makes a sound. Missiles will boogie across the screen in time to the bass sound they make. A diamond-shaped hazard will shoot out Beck's voice as it shoots out waves of bullets. Every level design is also a song design, each arranged as part of an "album."

The campaign mode is a leisurely stroll through these synaesthetic soundscapes, with each screen adding or recombining elements from that "album" into a unique piece of music. Along the way, you collect coins to add recurring elements to the music, so it slowly builds into a full composition screen by screen.

I say these trips are "leisurely," though the individual challenges of jumping your little circle character through all the obstacles can be tricky. Each screen has at least one checkpoint on it, usually more, and death simply results in a respawn at the last checkpoint. It's a frustration-free approach that lets you learn the ropes and experience everything. The challenge here comes from trying to keep your time down to hit the leaderboards. And if you want more challenge than that, you can find it. More on that in a bit.
Sound Shapes review

Each of the five "albums" has a different musical and visual theme, from Jim Guthrie and Superbrothers' pixelated corporate hell, to Beck and Pyramid Attack's line art cities. In addition, each album has a slightly different gameplay focus. There's a lot of tricky bouncing in one Deadmau5 level, commensurate with the Arkanoid theme, while Superbrothers gives us experiences involving hitting switches at the correct time to engage moving platforms and open doors.

It won't take you more than a few hours to get through the five albums, though I wanted to go right back in and replay them all, partly to improve my times but partly to soak in the lovely intermingling of striking, clean visuals and catchy music. But even if you decide you don't want to replay the campaign right away, there's still plenty to do.

In fact, thanks to the level editor and the simple uploading of community levels, there is an infinite number of things to do. The editor is an easily configurable, valuable tool for making Sound Shapes levels, with more objects from the stages unlocked as you complete them in the campaign. You can place items (and, of course, notes); design color schemes, string screens together in any direction. With relative ease, you can even do things like record the rhythms of enemy actions by tapping them out – so your volcanoes spit out fireballs to whatever beat you come up with.

Though I'm having a good time composing in the level editor, it's even more valuable to me as a way of understanding how Sound Shapes' musical world works. From the first time you try the editor tutorial, the secret at the heart of the game is revealed: the world is a sequencer. Your placement of items and coins on the screen corresponds to their tone and sequence: put something higher up, and it'll have a higher pitch. Sounds play from left to right. Not only is this instantly intuitive, it also means level design and music design are the same exact thing. The arrangement of your platforms and hazards is also the composition of a song.

That's pretty cool.

Completing the campaign unlocks modes that ramp up the difficulty to crazy levels, both for the platforming and the musical level design. Death Mode adds a new challenge for each level, in which you have to pick up a certain number of coins within a time limit. While the main game is breezy, these challenges are anything but. Expect to fail dozens of times per level as you try to avoid enemies and rush around the screen. I'm glad these are here, but I'm not necessarily keen on marathoning them as I was the main game. My heart can't take it.

Beat School plays a sequence of beats, and then challenges you to recreate it from your palette of notes. This is insanely hard in a totally different way, requiring precise attention to rhythm and tone (or the patience to place and move notes over, and over, and over again). These two modes will keep dedicated players busy for hours. They'll also sharpen the skills needed to create brilliant, yet potentially painful, levels.

Though the extras and the level editor add endless variety and replayability, Sound Shapes would have stood just as well as a brief, but intensely creative, platforming campaign. It's an experience I intend to play repeatedly, wearing out the virtual grooves in the metaphorical albums. The extra modes make for a satisfying encore, though.


This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation Vita version of Sound Shapes, purchased by the reviewer. The PlayStation 3 version was also tested.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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