Thursday, 14 February 2013

REVIEW - Sound Shapes (PS3 / Vita)

"You and I we'll climb so high"

As we all know music is an important part of the gaming experience. Without a decent soundtrack to accompany the action it leaves you feeling unsatisfied. A killer soundtrack can make the difference between a good game and a great game. Merging the music further into the experience by creating gameplay linked to sound is nothing new, and I am not talking about all the dance mat and plastic guitar based shit. We have had so many music based shoot-em-ups and action games of late I can hardly keep track. The Bit.Trip series is an obvious highlight, effortlessly blending genres such as platformer, breakout and pong clones, and even a 2d on-rails shooter of sorts (it's hard to explain). Then you have your blasters-cum-puzzlers such as Rez HD, Auditorium, Symphony, Child of Eden, Lumines and Chime. Now we have another music based game on Sony's Playstation 3 and Vita. It was initially intended as a launch title for the Vita, but was delayed as Queasy Games produced a PS3 version to be released simultaneously.

A 2D platformer at heart, Sound Shapes is all about getting from A to B while collecting circles that add layers to the music. Simple and effective. You guide your spherical character across the flick-screen stages avoiding anything red (spikes, lava, lightning, projectiles etc) in order to reach the final screen containing the record player that works as an exit. Your ball has a thick outer layer that grants you the ability to stick to all but the black surfaces, meaning touching a platform on any side will glue you to it, allowing you to move around it as you please. Holding down the run button (well, roll faster button) ditches the thick layer, making you faster and capable of longer jumps, but also denying you the ability to stick to anything, so controlled use of this is important. Reaching the next screen often requires the use of trampoline or moving platforms, swinging cranes and even switches that open doors or move elevators. Some sections put you in a submarine vehicle for some Thrust style action, these are great fun and break up the standard jumping parts but are, unfortunately, few and far between. Collecting the circles (called coins for some reason) adds new components to the song being played. As more are collected old, more chilled out, elements of the song are dismissed in favour of more lively parts such as extra beats and percussion, synth melodies or guitars. You can actually go through the level without bothering to collect the coins but this makes for an aurally dull, unchallenging experience and goes against the whole point of the game, so why would you?

The first thing that strikes you is the excellent presentation. The menu system is clear, minimal and to the point, keeping things neat and easy to navigate. Each of the five game worlds are represented as albums, complete with vinyl art sleeve. Entering the album allows you to choose from the three to five stages available in each, unlocked as you complete the previous one. They are represented as postcards with a record player next to them, the stylus moving on the 12” record as you make your selection. Each album has music from a different composer as well as different art from various creative types, for example, the Cities album has music by reknowned musical nutcase Beck, with some gorgeous hand drawn style artwork by Pyramid Attack. The graphics are gloriously high definition and remain interesting throughout, from the aforementioned hand drawn look, to the colourful pixellated retro shoot-em-up look of PixelJam's D-Cade stage, and the crisp snow covered peaks and underwater caverns of Colin Mancer's Beyonder album, all look exquisite.

The music, for the most part, is very good indeed, as one would expect from a music orientated experience such as this. Deadmau5 throws down some electro house, while I am Robot And Proud showcase their eclectic electronica fused with acoustic guitars. Beck is on hand to provide us with three slices of aural madness as only he knows how; Live drum breaks mix with strange electronic noises, live instruments and the vocal stylings of the man himself, to produce three of the weirdest, yet captivating tracks in Sound Shapes. The Cities stage also contains some of the most ingenious and smile provoking things I found during my time with Sound Shapes. The vocals appear as platforms as they are sung, and change depending on the word, so when Beck sings 'turn' the platform spins around, upon uttering 'lose', it disappears and on 'hurt' it turns red, killing you. The clouds that appear each time 'Aaaaaahhh' is sung are the icing on the cake.

There are some technical hiccups along the way, though. Sometimes when you enter a new screen the music can change quite dramatically, spoiling the flow of the song. Dying restarts you from the last touched checkpoint, but sometimes the sound glitches in order to get it back in time, again ruining the flow of the music. There were also some performance issues where songs would lag, as though listening to a stream on a dodgy internet connection. This didn't happen too often but really broke the immersion when it did. The albums do tend to sound quite similar too, both in tempo and style, and it would have been nice to have had some more upbeat and faster tempo tracks included. Some drum & bass or kickass breakbeat tracks would have been welcome, just to break up the constant glitchy electronic that makes up the majority of the soundtrack.

Sound Shapes can be quite a challenging game, with tricky jumps required as you desperately try not to touch any of the red hazards. Combine this with the multiple projectiles and disappearing platforms of later stages and you often find yourself playing something akin to Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy. Maybe I am exaggerating slightly, the game never reaches those dizzying heights of difficulty but it can be very frustrating, especially when you get stuck on a screen with the same short loop of high pitched instruments repeating over and over. Once you have gotten used to the way the ball moves and begin to use your ears as much as your eyes to predict the movements of enemies and obstacles it becomes slightly easier, indeed you can breeze through the entire single player campaign in under 3 hours, probably collecting every coin on your way there. It is a shame it is such a short experience as I was left wanting more. Thankfully there is more (I bet I had you worried there!) in the shape of unlockable modes, and user created levels online. That's right, you can use the in-game editor to create your own masterpieces (or shoddy abominations) and share them with the world. Creating these levels can be pretty time consuming, requiring correct placements of platforms in order for the player to be able to obtain the coins and build the song as you go. It's certainly simpler than other level editors I have attempted (e.g. Trials Evolution) and with some practice I am sure you will get the hang of it. There are already some pretty good levels to download so these will extend the game's lifespan no end. There are also online high score tables for all the campaign and user created levels, resulting in more replayability as you try to beat some of the ludicrously fast times already posted (good luck with that).

The unlockable modes are slightly different. The first, Death Mode, is a nightmarish test of patience that will have you grinding your teeth as you try to obtain spawning coins in a single screen plagued with things that kill you. The second 'Beat School' is much better, requiring players to reproduce a loop of music using the very simple music creation tool. All it asks of you is to listen closely, then enter dots in the correct places to replicate the drums, melodies, or both that are played to you. It is engaging and a nice break from the platforming, though sadly over far too quickly. All bar one of the game's trophies are included in these two unlockable modes, so if you are into collecting virtual shiny objects then be prepared to get seriously hacked off with Death Mode. Magpies among you will also be happy to hear that both the PS3 and Vita come at one price for both, and you can carry your saves over from one to the other, meaning earning one trophy will grant you two.

Overall, Sound Shapes is a fun, creative and experimental title, which should always be encouraged lest Sony and other big companies stop taking risks producing or funding them. It blends cool music with some solid platforming action. Sure, if you stripped away the memorable art styles and audio it would be a pretty average effort, but as it stands it is a unique and enjoyable experience. There is not much depth to it, but sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. It can be frustrating and irritating at times and is short, but the amount of extra content make it worthy of your £9.99. The community will, hopefully, continue to grow with time so you certainly won't be short of levels for as long as the game holds your attention.

The Good

  • Wonderful and varied art styles
  • Well implemented music mechanics
  • Enjoyable back-to-basics platforming
  • Extra modes, high scores and downloadable levels add longevity

The Bad

  • Short single player campaign
  • Can be quite frustrating
  • Death Mode is extremely difficult
  • Occasional technical glitches

Developer : Queasy Games
System Reviewed : PS3
Also Available on : Vita
Price : £9.99