Music has always had the power to enhance your video game experience. A well-crafted soundtrack can lighten and darken the mood at will, raise your heartbeat as you enter a ferocious battle, and tug at your heart strings when a hero falls. In Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes music is the game; it’s what drives the whole experience. Unlike a rousing orchestral score though, the ambient soundtrack serves to absorb you in its gameplay rather than pull your emotions in different directions.
On the surface, Sound Shapes appears to be a fairly standard 2D side-scrolling platformer in which players control a blob through five themed stages, leaping from platform to platform, avoiding dangerous obstacles, and picking up coins. But beyond its simplistic outer-shell, the toe-tapping, head nodding soundtrack, clever level design and in-depth editing tools totally revitalises this age-old genre in what proves to be one of Vita’s finest modestly priced (£9.99) offerings so far.
Each of the five themed stages play host to a different soundtrack from the likes of Jim Guthrie, I am Robot and Proud and Beck. Ambient trance, trippy beats and deep bass-lines merge with a variety of musical styles throughout the stages and completely encompass your senses. Each level begins in silence and as players interact with objects and collect coins the audio experience builds. The coins collected are actually notes and the higher they appear in the level the higher the pitch of the tone that plays, and vice versa. The more coins you collect, the richer and fuller the soundtrack becomes.
Sound Shapes takes things a step further than just soundtrack building though because every object you interact with makes a sound that adds another layer of audio. The firing of a laser or the stomping of a piston, for instance, has its own unique sound that complements the musical track. Furthermore, the sound that some of these objects make serves as an audio clue to help you judge when to make a jump in between a set of lasers or when to time your dash under a piston. By the time we’d reached mid-point in most levels we found ourselves engrossed, nodding our heads and tapping our feet in time to the music.
The highlight in Sound Shapes musical journey is a stage called Cities, with a synthesised soundtrack written by American singer-songwriter Beck. Cities is the only stage that features singing, which is also woven impressively into the gameplay. As the words “Move it, break it and Turn it” are sung, for example, suspended platforms react accordingly, shifting, disappearing and twisting, adding a new challenge to completing the level.
Without the music, Sound Shapes is a fairly rudimentary platformer in terms of mechanics, though level design is extremely impressive. The blob is controlled with the analogue stick, ‘X’ allows you to jump and there’s also the ability to curl up in a ball to dash, which also gives you extra height to make bigger jumps. Each level uses colour to give you visual clues as to what you need to avoid and what you can use to navigate the levels. Red objects, for instance, will kill you, but sticking to light-coloured objects allows you to carve a safe path through the red-tinted environments. Typically, it’s a case of timing runs and jumps to avoid projectiles and obstacles, though there’s also a small degree of puzzle-solving in some levels.
Though the graphics aren’t cutting-edge, level design is strong with a variety of different environments to navigate from snowy levels complete with platforms made of ice that break under your feet to water-themed levels where the blob can float around obstacles and utilise jet streams for extra momentum.
Among the highlights is the Cities stage where the level design steps up another notch and the dream-like environment suits Beck’s music perfectly. Our favourite stage however is the Superbrothers Corporeal levels which boast some great art design with its high rise buildings and corporate environments. Here, you navigate offices filled with servers and jump on the heads of briefcase-carrying workers to activate doors to take you to the next area. There’s a degree of puzzle-solving in this stage too as you shift boxes around to leap to a higher area or use them to trigger a portal. Gameplay flows nicely and it’s really all about collecting as many coins as possible and finishing the levels in the shortest amount of time
The main campaign doesn’t take that long to finish and it isn’t particularly challenging. Each of the five stages consists of five levels and each level takes around five minutes to complete. We’d completed the whole campaign in under three hours, though completionists will find replay value in collecting all the coins on each level and trying to beat the top scores for the fastest times, set by players from around the world.
Just when we thought that the game had come to a rather premature conclusion though, completing the campaign unlocked some new game modes, the Death Mode Challenges and the Beat School Editor. This is where the real challenge begins as Death Mode is incredibly hard, but incredibly addictive as you strive to beat the tasks set. You get new levels and new tasks, such as having to collect ‘X’ amount of coins in a certain amount of time, and music once again plays a significant part.
The Beat School Editor is equally as challenging. The initial task, for example, calls for you to listen to a piece of music and then utilise a grid (musical editor) to try and replicate the exact sound in order to unlock the next stage. It also gives you a taste of the level editor, which is the jewel in Sound Shapes’ crown.
The level editor is what elevates Sound Shapes to the next level and makes its £9.99 price tag an absolute snip. Here, players get to tinker with the tools that the designers had to create levels and music. Each time you finish a level you unlock all the objects and music from within them, so by the time you’ve completed the campaign you have all the tools at your disposal. Though there’s a tutorial, creating levels isn’t as simple as it could have been. Sounds and objects are shown as a picture, but having a word underneath relating to that noise, such as “high hats,” would have helped immeasurably.
Nonetheless, in the same way that LittleBigPlanet’s editing tools appeals to those hardcore fans who have the patience and creativity to spend time creating a masterpiece, Sound Shapes gives you everything you need to make levels just as impressive as those in the campaign, thanks to a good variety of terrains, decorations, colour themes and objects. The real magic here lies in the music though, and layering your creation with a sound that fits is great fun. Vita’s front and rear touchscreen are used effectively too, allowing you to manipulate objects and place notes anywhere you like.
Without headphones, Vita’s speakers don’t quite do the game justice, but with a decent set of headphones Sound Shapes is totally absorbing. The music isn’t just a background filler but an integral part of the gameplay and really what makes this platformer such a memorable experience. The level editor could have been explained a bit better and we’d love to have seen more campaign levels, but once complete Sound Shapes is firmly in the hands of the community. And it’s the PlayStation gamers that have the power to turn Queasy Games’ methodical masterpiece into a long-running classic.