Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sound Shapes Review


Music games have been around almost as long as games have. From the sound creation bits in Mario Paint to Gitaroo Man all the way up to Guitar Hero and Rock Band, people seem drawn to creating music as a game. The latest in this difficult-to-define music genre is Sound Shapes, a musical platformer with new tracks from musicians like deamau5 and Beck. Has this PSN title got it right, or will it too fall like insert-musical-device-here Hero, Rock Band musician-partnership Edition, and Wii Music: Let’s All Shudder at How Pointless This is?

Sound Shapes allows the player control over parts of a song, and letting you collect components of the song as you progress through a level. This concept opens the world of a song to a player and not only lets you derive deeper meaning from the music, but feel more connected as not only are you adding to the music with your efforts, you are exploring the world of a song. In order to allow for such gameplay, DJ style music is the best fit, as different beats and tracks can be pieced together in a level and it won’t sound like a song from The Who without the guitar until you pass enough levels. Dance music is one of the few genres that can be picked apart and still sound good, since that’s how the music is generally built from the get-go.


The single most important part of Sound Shapes is the music, followed very closely by the gameplay. The music in the game is phenomenal, and covers a range of DJ-type songs from heavy techno in deadmau5 to Jim Guthrie’s demure to uplifting beats to Beck’s whatever the heck you want to call it. Each album has a concept and story to tell, which means a lot to me personally. Normally, I would say I am reading too much into this, but after a few playthroughs of user generated maps, you will understand what I mean. That’s not to say the user content is bad (it’s actually far from it), but the albums in this title were designed around telling a story, whereas user content usually consist of one-off stages and, from what I’ve seen, recreations of songs from other series.

 
The musicians working on Sound Shapes had a feeling and idea in mind when creating the soundtrack for this game, and that feeling is consistent from the level design to the art styles. In fact, my only complaint is that there was not enough music to play through in the campaign. I started and finished the title in the span of three hours, even with dying multiple times. They were a very satisfying three hours, but I wish the game had at least twice as much content to play through. But I digress; simply put, the music is the best part of Sound Shapes, but not just because of the music.

The gameplay for this title goes hand in hand with the music. That is to say, the music is the star, and the action takes a backseat. The level has a background beat, and everything within the level makes a sound to go with the song. By collecting notes, you add layers to the song, with each new screen in a level providing more notes, and progressing the music. To give you a better example of what I mean, here’s a video of me playing the first level just to demonstrate what you can control and how it works:


The instructions are simple enough to understand—jump over red things, collect notes, and stick to walls— but the levels are complex enough to make the game challenging and fun. The balance struck here is incredible, as I never spent too much time thinking about how I was going to finish one screen to forget to listen to the music. By leaving the controls simple, and instead focusing on clever level design and a killer soundtrack, the experience felt by a gamer is never broken by difficult puzzles, and is always driven forward by the desire to hear more of the song and see more of the story.
The art is also wonderful, conveying a simple and playful style that’s a delight to view, especially on the Vita’s screen. The story of each album is conveyed through the music, but that message is clarified in the art. Nowhere is this more prevalent than Jim Guthrie’s album with art animated by Superbrothers. The small attention to detail and pixel characters were eye-catching, even if the dull grays of the office conveyed a different message.


Travelling from the office to the pits, and experiencing the message of how office work dulls your senses and music sets you free was astounding. Though no words were uttered, the journey was as clear as if Morgan Freeman narrated the entire thing. Admittedly, the art looks less crisp on a big TV as some of the fonts look a bit blurry and some of the nice round shapes look a bit choppy, but the Vita’s screen makes all of that go away. I’m not sure if it has to do with the fact I was playing in 720p or what, but the Vita just made the game pop that much more. Perhaps it was designed for the smaller screen and the PS3 compatibility was an afterthought.

This title is also the first I’ve played that featured the cross-play functionality. I bought the game for Vita and ended up downloading it to my PS3 as well. After cloud syncing my files from my Vita, I turned on my PS3, pulled the save down, and had trophies unlocked, as well as all unlocking all of the stages I had completed. It was easy, fast, and there was no hassle involved. I hope to see this in more mainstream titles as well, because it just feels so cool to see a fresh game populated with things you did on another console. Very satisfying to feel like my progress remained in the game, no matter the platform.

Verdict: Sound Shapes is a marvelous, innovative game for the music genre. The music is ideal, the gameplay is fun, but out of the way, and you can play it on your 32” LCD TV, or the 5” OLED display of your Vita. Though the length of the game is a shame, and the community levels mirror those of Little Big Planet in that there are some real gems, but far too many homages to other games, it’s a solid game and a must play for the Vita or PS3. If you like simple, fun platformers like Journey (albeit with one less dimension), or just enjoy a good tune, Sound Shapes is well worth your money.
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