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Sound Shapes Review

Sound investment?

I really wanted to love this game. From the moment I stumbled across it by accident at Gamescom last summer, while waiting for a go on Escape Plan, I've been thrilled by the potential of Sound Shapes.

And it is an inspired idea: a fascinating cross between a platform game and a Tenori-On music sequencer. Not only are you rolling and jumping towards a goal, you're collecting notes and beats which slowly build and layer into a complete composition.

As I said, I really wanted to love this game. And for 30 minutes last night I did. In the section soundtracked by Beck - the campaign is divided into 'albums', each built around music from a specific artist - Sound Shapes' conceptual planets align to produce some of the most inventive, ingenious gameplay I've experienced all year.

Let me give you an example: there's a type of platform tied to a specific lyric, which transforms with each verb: "Move a little [sways side-to-side]/Turn a little [see-saws]/Break a little [its blocks come apart]/Hurt a little [it turns a deadly shade of red]". I'm playing an interactive pop song. Amazing.

From stomping kick-drum boots to singing suns, you can't fault Sound Shapes' artistic ambitions - but they never quite disguise what is, underneath, a run-of-the-mill platformer.

If only it were all of such quality. The campaign isn't a long one - there's five albums' worth, each offering three-to-five stages. And while the novelty of the title is hard to resist at first, only for so long can it mask what is a pretty simplistic and occasionally awkward platformer underneath all those dazzling sights and sounds.

You control a blob with a beady eye that rolls along surfaces, some of which it can stick to and move around. There's a jump button and a speed-up/unstick command and, sadly all too rarely, the odd set-piece where you can pilot a spaceship or swim through water.

The only thing you need to worry about is the colour red. Touch anything that shade and you're toast, although there's no limit on tries and the game is very accommodating with the positioning of respawn points.

From the maraca crackle of flames to the bassline stutter of a cluster of missiles, Sound Shapes is never less than an artistic triumph. But the level design is, for the most part, basic in the extreme. All the really smart thinking is invested into a structure wedded to beat and pitch.

The Edit mode is where the longer-term fun resides, which is fun to muck around with even if you have no intention of designing a full level.

The inevitable problem with such an approach is that your delight in the gorgeous, clever little touches won't last forever. More disappointingly, I found too many sections were a chore to navigate on my first play-through - and the realisation hits you like that sobering moment when the lights come on in a club at closing time and the spell is broken.

Sounds Shapes' campaign is fragmented by design, so it's no surprise to find it's patchy, but that design also opens up the tantalising prospect of further artist-specific content via DLC. I really hope that happens, as it's the one of the most refreshing developments in music games for a long time.

And for all the shortcomings of the supplied content, its saving grace may be the Edit mode, which doubles as a grid-based music sequencer and level design tool. If you're still wondering how these things work and you have an iOS or Android device, download Beatwave: it's free, and a brilliant time-sink.

What's clever about this type of software, replicated in Sound Shapes, is that you can knock out impressive-sounding beats in seconds without the slightest musical ability. Edit mode lets you adjust basic parameters such as tempo, key and scale type (major, minor, chromatic or pentatonic). Select pentatonic, for instance, and it's effectively impossible to play a bum note, even if you don't understand why.

Sound Shapes is yet another indie oddity funded by Sony Santa Monica, which dares to take creative risks where few other major publishers would.

Progress in the game is screen-by-screen, each an 8x16 grid (so you have the range for a full major scale), with notes and beats played on a left-to-right, endlessly repeated loop. In gameplay, all notes and beats (aside from the AI) are activated by 'collecting' them from their correct place on the grid.

As a budding designer, then, you may set yourself the challenge of structuring the level in such a way that the player builds the melody and rhythm, note by note, in exactly the order you want. That was the 'grand concept' of my first (rubbish) attempt: the player isn't supposed to know it's the opening jingle of Super Mario Bros. until they've grabbed all the coins. It's a dumb idea, but I was able to make it work in minutes rather than hours.

Art and audio assets from each album are included in the edit mode to be mashed up, resized, rotated and pasted however you see fit. To be clear, it's no LittleBigPlanet, but there's enough flexibility to lose a few hours to happy tinkering. And as you'd expect, levels can be shared online, which should ensure a decent supply of fresh community content.

Beck's contributions are the undoubted highlight, but other artists featured include deadmau5.

Indeed, the best way to think of Sounds Shapes is as a slick, interactive musical toy - as with the matrix sequencers of its inspiration, what it sacrifices in depth it makes up for in accessibility. It's just that underneath all of the cleverness is a pretty average game.

And if you're looking for a compelling adventure in a similar genre, Vita already has a shining gem in Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack. Drinkbox Studios' title is clearly superior as a game, with masterful level design and mechanics throughout, and it's several quid cheaper than Sound Shapes.

But it also doesn't let you unleash mechanical spiders across a cartoon cloud of "Aaaaaaaaaaah" while an 8-bit satyr plays the jazz flute, space invaders spit down lasers and a tiny blob darts around setting off the opening bars of EastEnders. Yes, I've done that too.

Sounds Shapes is not a brilliant game, but it is a bold, often beautiful experiment that stands and sounds apart. And in one of the driest, dreariest periods for console gaming in memory, that's music to my ears.

7 / 10

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Sound Shapes

PS4, PS3, PlayStation Vita

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About the Author
Johnny Minkley avatar

Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.