This may be obvious based on its name, but Sound Shapes would be just a moderately entertaining romp without its soundtrack. As it is, this latest effort from Toronto indie prodigy Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) is not just a game, it's a minor musical masterpiece.
At first glance Sound Shapes is just a side-scrolling platformer for PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 that has players moving a blob from left to right through series of short, single-screen levels while trying to collect coins and avoid crimson obstacles and enemies.
It has an appealing, minimalist aesthetic composed of simple two-dimensional shapes and stylized drawings. Regardless of whether you're meandering through fantastical landscapes or zipping through cities under nuclear attack, it has a visual flair most players won't soon forget.
It also sports an unusual gameplay mechanic that sees the player's blob automatically stick to certain surfaces and fall away from others. Problem is, the sticking system is a bit finicky. Players need to make quick thumbstick movements to follow jags in and move smoothly over sticky terrain. Plus, it's all to easy to press the roll button – which makes your blob faster but unsticky – when you're in a hurry but need to remain attached to a surface to keep from falling into a hazard. Even minor mistakes usually lead to quick deaths as players work to get a feel for the controls.
However, this doesn't result in the sort of merciless difficulty for which indie platformers have become known of late. Checkpoints are generously distributed through most levels, which means players are rarely stuck in one area any longer than it takes to figure out how to work their way around a single obstacle.
The office-themed Corporeal maps, which are more puzzle-y in nature, are particularly enjoyable, but the action never quite reaches the standard of some of the superb run 'n' jump indies (Super Meat Boy, VVVVV, N+, Limbo) we've seen in recent years.
Luckily, there's a second component to the game that largely makes up for some of the shortcomings in platformer high jinx: Music.
Mak worked with Shaw-Han Liem of local electronic act I Am Robot and Proud to develop the game's musical component. They also brought in several other musicians to provide additional tracks, including alt pop star Beck and Canadian singer/songwriter Jim Guthrie, who authored the music in last year's iOS hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
The music supplied by these collaborators is broken into its constituent layers and assigned to objects in the environment. Touching these elements – coins, most often – activates new notes, resulting in an evolving soundtrack that grows and becomes more multifaceted as the level progresses. Collect every coin and by the end of the level you'll be listening to a beautiful, nuanced, emotional melody that enriches the experience in the sort of way that only great music can.
And the the music doesn't stop there.
As players progress through the game they unlock elements that can be put to use in a brilliantly simple but remarkably robust editing tool designed to let users create levels that double as musical tracks. These elements create specific sounds, and placing them at different elevations changes their pitch. With a large and growing library of sounds and the ability to control everything from tempo to scale, players can create impressively complex melodies in just a couple of minutes.
As in the campaign, the platforming action in these user-generated designs is generally passable but rarely truly challenging, and ends up taking a backseat to the music. In the first week of release it's become obvious that many players are more interested in making interesting music than difficult game levels. Takes on well-known ditties ranging from the theme from Kingdom Hearts to Somebody that I Used to Know rank among the most popular user-authored content shared within the game's bustling community.
Long story short, you'll come for Sound Shapes ' impressive pedigree and the promise of some classic 2D side-scrolling action, but wind up staying for some great music and the ability to create and share your own.
Release: August 7, 2012
Platform: PlayStation Vita (reviewed), PlayStation 3
Developer: Queasy Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment