Though there's a smorgasbord of audio pulsing through it, Sound Shapes won't make a musician out of you. What it does is more esoteric and impressive than that. This new PlayStation Vita game lets you feel what it's like to live inside a song.
At its most basic, Sound Shapes has you playing your way through platformer architecture that throbs with the sounds of music. Almost everything you can interact with harbors a unique sound and those tones sync up with the grooves and beats of the level. Each set of levels is presented as an album and they're all open at the start so you can play whichever you want to first.
All you need to do in Sound Shapes is roll the little globular avatar from the turntable at the beginning of a level to the one at the end, jumping over gaps and hazards along the way. You can stick to and climb certain surfaces in the game or press a face or bumper button to speed along more quickly. Anything red in the game can kill you. Once in a while, traversal gets switched up radically like when you're gliding through a thick suspension of stars or floating skyward via a swath of bubbles.
Abstraction rules the day in this tightly-crafted little game, just as it did in Mak's 2007 PS3/PSP release Everyday Shooter. In the last game that came from Mak's Queasy Games studio, players shot their way through trippy landscapes learning how various elements in each level interacted with each other. The focus on music is stronger than in Shooter—where the levels played out for the length of a song—but there's less aggression.
While Sound Shapes allows for tactile play with music, it also layers specific rules on top of that play. The beat is your master and you need to adhere to rhythm's rules if you want to make it to the end of each level. Along the way you'll encounter chanting clouds, vocalizations you can zoom across and tiny spaceships that flirt with deadly red geometry. There's also antigravity bubble streams, angry 8-bit sprites and dreamy icescapes. Sound Shapes abounds with little touches that make the whole game exponentially more charming.
A tickle of discovery gets interwined into the classically structured platformer mechanics. I chuckled every time I got introduced to the different elements in a set of levels, even if I'd met their look-different, play-the-same cousins minutes earlier. Hey, you can ride those happy-faced projectiles. Oh, the elevator music fades in and out when the doors open the Superbrothers/Jim Guthrie levels. Those burpy-frog-looking things I can bounce off of make funny noises and get me over barriers, too. It all feels charmingly holistic, with the net effect of tweaking your perceptions ever so slightly. You begin to rely on your ears—and not just your eyes—to tell you the right moment to jump between a crossfire of laser beams.
All that psychedelia is even prettier for how it highlights the intricate structures holding the experience together. Sound Shapes never evokes the response of "I'm wigging out and this makes no sense." Rather, it's "I'm wigging out because this makes so much sense."
The game's synaesthetic mechanics don't stop it from being a good platformer, though. Each album is peppered with leaps that seem impossible to make and moments that push you to the brink of giving up. The DeadMau5 themed levels in particular are aggravating twitchfests where reflexes will win the day. But even those sections delighted me with the way I could happen upon weird little homages to old-school gaming while trying to stay on beat and survive.
The biggest downside to Sound Shapes is how short its campaign mode is. Including the short tutorial, you get five albums, each with three to five levels each. However, there's already dozens of user-generated levels for players to bounce through on day one of Sound Shapes' life. And crafting your own tracks in the level editor—where you can use the enemies and elements you unlock in the campaign mode—is invitingly easy. When you make a level in Sound Shapes, you're also making music. Like LittleBigPlanet or Trials Evolution, Sound Shapes is the kind of game that's going to need a passionate community to help it expand in new and weird ways. Thankfully, the base experience is one that's worth getting passionate about.
When I'm listening to music, I'm a shameless gesticulator. Maybe it's pent-up desire to be a musician clashing against the laziness that stops me from learning any technique. Maybe it's the fact that I missed out on my paternal grandfather's dancing genes that my brother and sister got. Whatever the reason, I've always done this. And, yeah, I get a few worried looks from strangers when I let myself get carried away in public.
Thank goodness for Sound Shapes, then, which lets me turn the physical joy I get from music into something grander than just disturbing looking gestures. Motions that would turn into taps, strums or drum fills in another life get turned into rolling, jumping or steering actions in Jonathan Mak's innovative new platformer. Sound Shapes feels like MTV must have in the early days of music video: a program of bizarre visualizations tethered to music you heard every day. You get a unique sort of interactive listening in Sound Shapes, one that highlights how a good game can cross-pollinate your senses to make you feel alive in a different way. It's that electric sensation—fleeting yet lasting at the same time—that makes Sound Shapes worth your time.