Sounds Shapes is a music game that was supposed to be a launch title for the PS Vita, but which got delayed until this month. Like Gravity Rush, it was the kind of game premise that made me sit up and take notice of the system. Since Gravity Rush ended up being a huge disappointment for me due to the lousy writing, I had lowered my expectations for Sound Shapes too. But I didn’t need to, because even my originally high expectations have been met and exceeded by this gem of a game.
First of all, there’s no story to get in the way of game play. You play as a sticky rolling ball that collects tokens in one side-scrolling platform after another. Collecting tokens will add notes to the backing track, but everything makes some kind of noise to add to the music. Some enemies hiccup and hot-box, and some shout “come on” in a rhythmic pattern. Some non-harmful character slurp coffee, and kitties rumble purrs and meow. Everything making a sound is on a timer in synch with the main track, and to play most of the levels and survive, you just need to get the timing right. I say most because there’s a glaring set of exception which I’ll get to a bit later.
Before I cover what drove me nuts, I want to talk about the stuff I loved. Yet before I get there, I have to cover the tutorial and Hello World levels. Okay, you need to at least know the basics to play and have a good time, so these levels do accomplish that function of acclimating you you to game’s core concepts. But there’s nothing great that reaches out and grabs you. Had I played the albums in order, I might not have been as impressed.
But the game lets you choose what order to play the levels, and groups of levels are organized by themes into albums, which are stored on “vinyl” records. Being a huge fan of Beck, I chose to play Cities after a few levels from Hello World. WOW. It’s like the difference between night and day. While the Hello World levels are merely adequate, The Cities album is full of great music so inspiring that I frequently set my Vita down and just listened to the song. This is music good enough to put headphones on for, so you don’t miss any of the notes. Merge this with fantastic level design that requires precise timing, and you have something that transcends the definition of a game and pushes into a genuine work of art. I could see playing these levels over both for the challenge of trying to beat my own best times and for the awesome music.
The albums Corporeal and Beyonder are just as good, and each one offers you new concepts to play with, like inverted levels, tractor beams, or a UFO-like submarine to pilot through watery levels. There’s some bubbles that you ride in for other levels, and a lot of cute little additions that should bring a smile to your jaded faces. And what I love is how these level designs are simplistic, yet still detailed enough to distract me from just running through to collect coinage.
I wish I could say there wasn’t a single bad level, but there were many bad levels, all on the same album. I really don’t know how the game makers could put the D-Cade album on this game, because it’s completely “out of character” from the rest of the albums.
The music in D-Cade sucks. I need to clarify: I love most music, and will listen to anything; Rap, Rock, Pop, Blues, Funk, Punk, Techno or even Classical. I think John Denver is cool, and I just got done listening to One Direction and gave them a passing grade. So when I say something sucks, I’m not being a music snob who only listens to one genre and everything else is just crap to me. And seriously, the music on this album sucks hardcore.
Yes, the Deadmau5 tracks still keep a beat, but they’re music in the same way that the old Doxodan jingle about being regular is music. It follows the rules enough to earn the definition, but it’s no more inspired than a twenty second song about not pooping right.
The worst offense isn’t the bad music, or that the design of the levels are butt ugly. They are butt ugly, and they look like someone went to an 80s arcade to rip off a few characters here and there. In every level is this ugly 8-bit mouse to remind you of which godforsaken musician is assaulting your ears with mediocrity, and the levels assault your eyes.
But the worst offense is that timing has nothing to do with beating these levels. In many cases, it’s blind luck that you hit a bounce pad at just the right angle to make it to the token tucked in the back corner. In no other level did I lose my temper over dying. One of the Beck levels, I died on the same sequence something like 20 times in the same way over and over. And when I died the 21st time in a new and novel way, I reacted with deeply amused laughter. But the D-Cade levels had me growling “FUCK YOU!” with every death because the level design feels cheap. I can’t see going back to play these levels, and this album stands out as a sore thumb in what is otherwise a shining example of a great game with a simple premise.
The game is not without other flaws, but the most memorable is a tendency for the game to lock up when you get to a new screen. This makes no sense, frankly, because the game just isn’t that graphically intense. There’s no 3D burning off clock cycles, so the lag is noticeable when you step in it. The music never stutters at least, but for two to three second, nothing on the screen moves. It’s not a frequent problem, but when it happens mid jump, it’s really, really fucking annoying. Also irritating is the very long level load times, but as this is common to a lot of Vita games, I’m willing to let this slide.
This game is already impressive when you consider that you’re only paying 11 euros for what feels like a AAA game. But you also get a music editor to make your own levels, and beating the game unlocks a Beat School to help you learn how to make your own levels. You can upload your musical masterpieces online, and you can play countless new levels from other musically inclined players.
I still haven’t gushed about the retro references to vinyl records, or to the cassette wheels that pop up in the game backgrounds to the beat of the music. The save icon is a floppy disk! I can even see some young’uns asking, “What’s a floppy disk?” It was a royal pain in the ass, kids, and it’s a dinosaur that needed to die. But even saying that, I giggled the first few times that floppy disk icon popped up. The levels start and end on vinyl turntables, and if you look around, you can find cassettes, records, and CDs hidden in the game and game menus. As I said before, the level select screen is a record on a turntable, and it’s all nicely retro.
Once you beat the game, it unlocks Death Mode, which bears the warning “These levels are insanely hard and may melt your face!” You toggle Death Mode with the left shoulder button, which flips the album to the B side. Unfortunately, like the B-sides of old, this is where the less good ideas go to hang out. I imagined the same levels but with more enemies or a faster beat to make progress harder. Instead, Death Modes are single screen levels that all have the same challenge of collecting X number of tokens in X amount of time. They aren’t “insanely hard” so much as inanely stupid. And I doubt any of these challenges is going to melt my face, but they might just meh it off.
Setting aside this snafu and the D-Cade fiasco, what you get for the price of admission is definitely a great bargain. I think Sony may have even doubted themselves and charged too cheaply because this is “just an indie game.” But honestly? If more indies made games this pretty and this fun, the gaming world would be a much more diverse arena.
I give Sound Shapes 4 stars. I really want to give it 5 for the many awesome level found in Corporeal, Beyonder, and Cities. But D-Cade and the lag problems sometimes drag my enjoyment down to RAEG, and that’s going to cost Sound Shapes one star. But 4 is still a good game, and I recommend this to any PS Vita owners looking for something to play after the tracks in Lumines: Electronic Symphony get stale. As an added bonus, Sound Shapes is HALF the price of Lumines, and it offers music fans even more creative options after they’ve played through the levels. So, are you a music fan? Does Lumines make you bop your head and lose track of your tiles? If yes, then you need to look at Sound Shapes and help support an indie gaming company with some original ideas in their portfolio.
Have I gushed enough? No, but I will shut up and leave y’all alone to make up your own minds.