Sound Shapes

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Released in September of 2012, Sound Shapes was a critical darling for the PlayStation Vita. Collaborative developers Queasy Games and SCE Santa Monica Studio received a monumental amount of praise and reward for their experimental efforts. However a year is a relatively long time in regards to video games as a medium. Both fans and games themselves have ever wandering eyes, shifting, looking, and always awaiting the next thing. So while Sound Shapes may have been awarded on its ability to be experimental upon its release, I am here to study whether the chemistry is still just as explosive today.

The first rule of Sound Shapes.

When you first greet Sound Shapes it immediately pushes you into a pair of tutorials. The first tutorial introduces you to the games controls and fundamental gameplay mechanics. You play as a Bob the blob – well not quite; in actuality you have no name at all, you’re just a blob. Like I was saying, you play as Bob the blob and as such you are able to roll, jump, and most importantly stick to a multitude of different surfaces. Your stickiness knows no bounds as you can pretty much stick to object or piece of environment that isn’t painted black; or more importantly red.

You see the first rule of Sound Shapes is don’t touch anything that is red or you will watch Bob suffer an untimely demise. The distinct coloration is a simple yet ingenious mechanic which always allows you as the player to know what is dangerous, which is extremely helpful considering the plethora of objects that can appear on screen in later levels. It’s not all sticking to surfaces for Bob though, by pushing either the square or right shoulder button he can turn into a (less sticky) ball. As Bob the ball you do not stick to surfaces at all, instead you are able to roll quicker and jump higher.  The abilities you learn in the tutorial may seem like relatively basic compared to some of the games side-scrolling, platforming peers; however there is a surprising amount of depth that can be found when using all the tools in harmony.

Using your newly honed skills, you are encouraged to collect coins. While the concept of gathering objects (and of all things coins) isn’t exactly original, the twist is that each coin represents a beat of a song. As you progress through levels and collect coins you will gathering additional beats which flesh out the stage’s soundtrack.

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Behold the wizard behind the curtain.

The second of the Sound Shapes tutorials offers you an introduction to the game’s level creator, as well as offering you some insight as to how the coins are implemented into each stage. Behind the background of each stage is a musical scale. Positioning notes either higher or lower on the scale changes the pitch of a note. Using the Vita’s front touch you will navigate menus as well as post up notes and objects on the grid. It is however the Vita’s rear touch that is the star of the level creator. Using the rear touch you will position your creations, shifting and rotating them into position.

While many games attempt to utilize the Vita’s unique rear touch to little avail, Sound Shapes manages to give the input purpose and implements it with a sense of organic purpose. Brief as the level creation tutorial may be, you will begin to understand the sheer extent of options afforded to would-be designers.

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Once you have completed the tutorials you are thrust into the world and asked to choose from the seemingly infinite amount of modes. From the very start you can dive into the Campaign, Community creations, and the Level-Editor.  However while Sound Shapes may offer you free will, it all but begs you to delve directly into its phenomenal Campaign. Each of the games gorgeous four worlds (presented as albums and containing playable stages) are original and drawn by a separate visual artist and scored by a respective musician. It is the masterful collaborations that lend each of the games albums a vastly unique feel from the last. For example, when playing through a stage from the album D-Cade ( Music: deadmau5 | Graphics: PixelJam), your experience will be much different than while you play through the album Cities (Music: Beck | Graphics: Pyramid Attack).

The one constant through all the albums is the masterful game design. In each of the games 20 stages you will avoid enemies, navigate treacherous obstacles, and make incredible leaps of faith all in the name of both reaching the end as well as mastering the corresponding music. By collecting  each of the stages coins and navigating its landscapes without failure you will turn a once fragmented tune into a thematic song that permeates your every movement.  When everything is going correctly, and your movements are in harmony with the music, the game can be satisfying  and in some cases even become emotional.

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During my play-through of the stage Spiral Staircase from the album Cities, I can recall  finding myself feeling truly emotional for no discernible reason. Being entertained is a common experience, but a true sense of sorrow or joy being caused by a video game is a rare occurrence for me.  How did this happen? It happened because the developers allowed it to.

Other than reaching the end of a level (marked by a mysteriously placed record player) the aspirations and motivations behind (Bob’s) your character is never made clear. Even death is of little consequence as you are free to respawn at a multitude of checkpoints at any moment of failure.

Free from context and plot you as the player are able to soak in the beautiful presentation while interpenetrating your journey whichever way you choose. As abstract as that stage, and Sound Shapes may be on a whole; I connected to a piece of it on a personal and intimate level. Each of the games 20 stages are a joy to play and resonated with me on a level that not many games have. Ever compelled to continue my voyage I played continuously for  five hours, burning through the campaigns entire catalog in a single night.

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After finishing the campaign you unlock a few more modes that cater to those in search of a challenge, as well as those who covet trophies.

Death Mode takes each of the games stages and turns them into single screen trial by fire. Your goal is collect a set number of coins within an extremely tight time limit on a distorted and much more difficult version of each level. The catch? Unlike the Campaign there are no checkpoints, if you die both your time and coin count are immediately reset.  It should also be noted that only one coin appears at any given moment, randomly regenerating after you have collected it.

Where the campaign could be described as charming, emotional and even relaxing – Death Mode will make you curse the names of each of the developers individually. With the time-to-coins ration being so thin, one early slip can doom you in the end.  Often success comes down to two equal factors; your platforming prowess and luck.  You can play your very best but if coins appear at opposite ends of the map, you are all but screwed. On the other hand, you can hit the jackpot and have multiple coins show up right beside one another – it’s essentially a lottery.

Why would all but the most masochistic players attempt these challenges? Trophies… tons of trophies.

If you complete a single stage on Death Mode you are rewarded with a silver trophy. That’s a potential twenty trophies from this one mode alone.

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Beat School puts your ear to work, asking you to recreate twelve original beats from within the games Level-Editor.
Difficult in a completely different way, the mode challenges you to slow down and think rather than rely on twitch muscle memory.

Correctly solving the each of the 12 puzzles will not only reward you with a dozen silver trophies, but it also rewards you with knowledge.  Beat School is really just bait to entice players to get more comfortable with the games robust level editor, teaching you the basic principles along the way.

Much like LittleBigPlanet, the level editor allows you to use objects and materials you earned during the campaign to construct your custom levels. After you’ve completed you’re unique creation you are free to upload and share it with the rest of the Sound Shapes Community.

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With the main campaign lasting a mere five hours, I would understand if someone were to refer to it as “too short”. Thankfully for those individuals there is an abundance of wealth to be found in the aforementioned Community mode. Not only are you able to play the thousands of levels that are shared by other players, there are also (currently) eleven more albums created by special guests for you to explore.

Found in the Community Milkcrate, these eleven albums feature levels designed by the likes of Gamespot, The Verge, and Queasy Games themselves. Free to play online or download , these levels heavily extend the length of the game. Using the Community mode offers a near infinite amount of replayability, as there is always something new.

The only knock I could perhaps put on the Community mode is that while many levels are great, they never quite reach the excellence found in the games campaign, but given the talent that went into creating those talents it would be very difficult anyone to match.

However with the wealth of content, and  cross-play/cross-buy support, there is just too value to ignore; even at its current price of $14.99.

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Sound Shapes is a game every Vita owner should have in their library, for the simple reason that it has something for everybody.  Whether you look to games for a challenge, art, creation, or Community; it’s all there in Sound Shapes. A year after its release the game has not missed a beat, truthfully it has only gotten better. Proof that it is not only music and albums that can be timeless, video games can be too.