Music envelops you like a warm blanket. The rapid tap of a snare drum provides the delicate rhythm, while an ethereal harp exudes a peaceful melody. Songs spring forth unabated, sprouting organically in the environment from the beaks of chirping birds, the engines of zooming missiles, and every other singing object you come across. Creating music as you leap through abstract worlds draws you in from the first moments, but Sound Shapes goes much deeper than its incredible soundtrack. Platforming is at the heart of this downloadable offering, and the various jumps you perform demand precise timing and exacting dexterity. Sound Shapes deftly blends its intoxicating musical composition with intricate platforming challenges to create an enriching and delightful experience.
Strip away the clever musical backbone and the eye-catching visual design, and Sound Shapes resembles a typical platformer. You control an amorphous blob in a world populated by all manner of dangerous traps and enticing collectibles. Jumping, climbing, and sprinting make up your limited moveset, and you use your humble repertoire to navigate treacherous obstacle courses to reach the hallowed beat box at the end of each stage.
Basic mechanics create a welcome accessibility but don't hinder the potential of Sound Shapes in the slightest. This is an expansive adventure that expertly uses the core tenets of platformers to create an experience that continually redefines itself. Jumping and climbing hardly appear novel at first glance, but the game overcomes this apparent simplicity early on by using an exquisite music creation system to make you care about your actions. Collecting floating notes adds layers onto the soundtrack, giving you a tangible reason to nab all the dangling goodies. Guitar may be added onto a percussion backdrop, or a bass may set the rhythm, and it's a great feeling seeing your moves have such a powerful impact on the mood.
Notes aren't the only parts of the environment that add to the sonic delights. Just about every element has some effect on the sound, creating a living, breathing world in which the many fluttering beings have a song in their hearts. Soaring projectiles utter a pleasing tinkle when they shoot from the wall, benevolent creatures beep when you bounce on their heads, and scurrying spiders squeal when you leap on their backs. Sound Shapes expertly combines these disparate elements into a cohesive whole, avoiding a chaotic cacophony that could have arisen with all the competing effects.
And this musical system isn't just a silly gimmick, either. Enemies attack and platforms move based on the rhythm, so you could time your jumps with your eyes closed if you wanted to. Red missiles in the city move with every strum of the bass, and watching them dance in the air is delightful enough to distract you from their potential for evil.
Stages are composed of a series of single-screen challenges. The music slowly builds as you progress through the world, adding instruments in each new screen you visit. Hearing the music morph from a simple melody into a vibrant, bursting song is an empowering feeling that never dissipates. Each of the five themed worlds has a different composer and artist, and the varied styles offer enticing variety. Cities by Beck is particularly impressive. As the music builds, it shifts from a background element to something that has a more immediate impact on your experience, giving you new appreciation for the many pieces that make up the incredible song. Sound Shapes has an extraordinary understanding of how to pace each stage. Peaceful sections stripped of enemies let you enjoy the music you put together, and then the difficulty ramps up so your fingers can receive as much pleasure as your ears.
And that's the real beauty of Sound Shapes. It's easy to look at the serene aesthetics, listen to the catchy soundtrack, take in your modest moveset, and assume Sound Shapes is built on artistic delights rather than cunning action. But that couldn't be further from the truth. A large part of the reason Sound Shapes is an excellent game is its impressively constructed stages. The rules are simple enough. Anything painted red kills you with one touch. It doesn't matter if it's a protruding piece of wall, a skirt of leaves worn by a birdie, or a pointy spike; if it's red, it'll finish you off in a flash. Plentiful checkpoints ensure backtracking is kept to a minimum, and infinite lives keep you plugging away, but the suddenness of death means you could find your progress halted at any time. Thankfully, the happy little ball you control is imbued with a stickiness that makes climbing a cinch. Any object not outlined in black can be latched onto, letting you scurry up walls and across ceilings in a pinch.
The trickiest part of this simple scheme to master is the sprint ability. By holding a button, you move faster, and this is necessary to clear certain jumps or avoid patrolling enemies. But you can't grab onto a surface when you're running. It's a tough rule to wrap your head around because there are many instances when speed is imperative while you're grabbing onto a vertical surface, and you momentarily forget that tapping that tantalizing button will send you spiraling down into the abyss. Once you come to grips with how to properly navigate, smoothly alternating between the buttons provides an agreeable feeling as you dash through the environment.
And you need to master how to use your sprint ability because Sound Shapes doesn't hold back the difficulty. Timing is paramount to success, which ties in beautifully with the rhythm that follows you wherever you go. For instance, you may find yourself swinging precariously from a chain. Red frogs spring forth from the lava down below, and you have to time your swing so you can safely reach the other side. Or maybe you find yourself bouncing chaotically on the back of an alien creature. Ricocheting to higher ground while avoiding the laser that's tracking your movement takes a bit of practice, and it's so rewarding when you pass through these dangers unscathed.
New elements are continually introduced. However, Sound Shapes doesn't halt the action to explain what each new object and enemy does. Instead, it presents them in a punishment-free way so you understand their capabilities before their dastardly potential is unveiled. One early example of how smartly designed the difficulty curve is crops up in the first world. Blue missiles flutter across the screen, and because they're a color that means safety, you grab onto one and ride it to a new section. The next time you see a missile, it's red, meaning you should avoid it at all costs. Finally, blue and red missiles mingle on the same screen, forcing you to jump from one blue missile to the next without making contact with the deadly projectile swarming dangerously close to your backside. Sound Shapes introduces and then builds upon a number of unique objects throughout the adventure, continually forcing you to think in new ways as you make your way through to the end of each world.
Platforming is always at the forefront, but sometimes you have to put a bit of thought into how to progress. The second world introduces puzzles, and though these are far from head-scratchers, they add another layer in a game already bursting with ideas. This world takes place in a bureaucratic establishment full of ordinary office workers in need of a change from their dry routine. Bumping into these lackadaisical people may cause them to open an elevator door or lower a floating platform, and figuring out how to trigger these actions is eminently enjoyable. At one point, you scare a cat, causing it to run through a tiny hole and into the back of a person nodding off. The frightened worker drops his remote control, opening a path to the next room. It's moments like this that show just how willing Sound Shapes is to get creative with its core elements.
Plowing through the five included worlds takes only a few hours, and though every second spent climbing and leaping is enjoyable, a couple more albums would have been welcomed. But don't think this is a short game just because the campaign doesn't last long. Once you finish that last level, a harder mode opens up that puts the previous challenges to shame. Built upon the foundation of previous levels, Death Mode forces you to collect a specific number of notes as quickly as possible. All the platforming tricks you learned during the campaign are used to their fullest here. Knowing when to sprint and when to lay off the gas is paramount if you want to complete these tough objectives, and the smooth controls ensure you never have to worry the game was at fault for your frequent failures.
While Death Mode tests your hand-eye coordination, a separate unlockable mode called Beat School hones your hearing. Here, Sound Shapes gives you a song and you have to place notes to match the rhythm. It's a simple concept, but one that meshes beautifully with the overall experience the game is trying to provide. Remember, Sound Shapes isn't a passive adventure. You craft the music while you play, and Beat School pushes that idea even further. By accurately placing the notes, you slowly begin to understand the basics of music composition, which is an indispensable part of building levels in the editor.
The editor is an extraordinary tool that lets you quickly create and share levels with the world. And if you play through Beat School and Death Mode first, you have a great understanding of how to craft a level that both sounds good and plays well. As you complete worlds, you unlock dozens of parts you can use. Snapping together your own stage takes only a few minutes because the tools are so easy to use. Choose what instruments you want to use, place notes along the screen, and then lay down a few obstacles to slow down your progress. When you're done, upload it so the community can check out your hard work. The powerful editor lets you create anything seen in the campaign, so if you spend a few hours building a level, you can make something truly special. And because it's so easy to share levels with the community, there's a never-ending stream of new content to check out.
Sound Shapes is cross-platform compatible, so you only need to shell out the $15 one time to play this on your PlayStation 3 and Vita. The created content is shared between the two versions, and there's little difference in how they play. Touch-screen note and object placement on the Vita is replaced by an analog stick for the PlayStation 3's creation mode, but otherwise, these games are virtually the same on both systems. No matter how you choose to play, Sound Shapes goes beyond its inventive musical premise to keep you invested. The platforming is just as well executed as the score, and the flexible editor lets you extend the life of this game indefinitely. Sound Shapes is an impressive adventure that's as much fun to play as it is to listen to.