Sony Santa Monica and Queasy Games have done an interesting thing with the humble platformer, mostly, because they had to.
Today, a straight platformer without a hook would be an exercise in programming, marketing and releasing a game that no one would play.
Next, consider that this game was meant to be a PS Vita-only launch title, and it becomes obvious that the developers had extra impetus to get this right. Luckily, two studios have found a sweet spot between the social, creative vibe of LittleBigPlanet, the audio nerd joys of mucking around in Ableton, and the solid jumping action of every other quality platformer you could care to name.
The basic premise of a typical Sound Shapes level is to guide an amorphous blob from one record player to the other through a dangerous world filled with deadly pitfalls, razor sharp edges and drifting, creeping bad guys. Most importantly, Sound Shapes adds a new element to basic platforming gameplay: the player’s actions are set to a metronome back-beat which can be added to by collecting discs and coins, and each one contributes a new musical sample to that builds throughout each level to create a full track. Musicians such as Beck and Deadmau5 have composed the tracks, and each level is a visual representation of the artist’s work. The player must time the blob’s jumps to its various musical components in order to pass through these sound-worlds.
The placement of musical flourishes in the physical space is inspired. Nailing a perfect sequence of jumps, runs and swings and having the sound of triumph build with each beat is as gratifying a reward as any platformer can offer. When the blob dies – something that happens swiftly and incredibly frequently at first – the respawn is instantaneous, reducing the frustration that can come with tricky sections of the game.
The graphical design of Sound Shapes is an integral part of the experience. Each level has a carefully chosen colour scheme to fit with the overall theme of the album being played. Some levels feel a little like Lemmings, while others invoke Mario, Pitfall or even Canabalt. In spite of initially being developed for Vita, the animation is fluid and never appears to falter, looking very much at home at high resolutions. The menus, transitions and effects are clearly and subtly designed, making navigation and getting on with playing the game a snap.
Collecting musical notes across five albums – collections of levels that comprise the core of the game – knocks off a few achievements, and opens up two extra game modes. The incredibly challenging Death mode can induce waves of rage, as sections of the already-conquered levels are re-worked to be much more challenging. Meanwhile, the more zen-like Beat School gives more hardcore audiophiles a platform to shine. Building and adjusting a perfect symphony to jump and swing to is a novel and rewarding feature, and well worth unlocking by completing the fairly easy normal mode.
As the player finishes levels of gently increasing difficulty, game elements are unlocked for use in the level builder. This is where Sound Shapes will find its longevity, as user-created maps and tunes are uploaded, rated, shared, and conquered. Even this early on in the game’s lifecycle, there are dozens of amateur attempts at making platform levels that are both challenging and musically interesting. There is also a large number that are not, which makes the fact that maps are streamed to the PlayStation 3, rather than permanently stored, start to make sense. The level builder does require some practice, and many players might find the concept of building content unappealing. This is the main flaw with Sound Shapes: the desire to create musically interesting levels is a necessity to get the most from it.
Nonetheless, Sound Shapes a brilliantly conceived and well executed platformer, with enough aesthetically, musically and socially pleasing innovations to warrant a purchase. The game has a unique charm, held up by a slick and polished interface and solid controls. Sound Shapes adds plenty to a classic formula, and takes nothing away. Try it.