To put it bluntly, Soundshapes sold me on the Vita. Yeah, I know it’s strange to want to plunk down $250 just to play a simple looking downloadable platformer that can be beaten in a day, doesn’t push the hardware capabilities of my new system at all, and is even available on a system I already own, the PS3. Still, the first time I saw this game in motion I was awestruck…there is simply nothing else like it.
At it’s core, Soundshapes is an incredibly basic 2D platformer with very minimal gameplay mechanics. You control what kind of looks like a sentient fried egg from one end of the level to the other. You roll around, you jump, you can stick and unstick to some surfaces, and you avoid things that are red. That pretty much sums it up.
I forgot to mention one little thing, though. You are actually making music while doing this. You see, each level in Soundshapes is a song, and I don’t just mean the background music. The level is the song you are hearing. Objects, obstacles, and even background details emanate beats and melodies as they pulsate in rhythm, and clearing a level successfully means timing your movements to the rhythm to avoid death. The music-making comes from collecting notes, loops, or drum beats in the form of small circles that add sounds to the level when collected. You move from screen to screen, and each screen introduces new sounds that are layered on top of the old ones, thus building up a song piece by piece. Once the music starts going, the levels literally dance before your eyes in bright, crisp visuals that look great on the Vita’s OLED screen. Words really don’t do this game that much justice; the whole effect really needs to be seen in motion to understand just how cool it is.
Soundshapes takes a no-frills approach to it’s presentation and user interface, putting very little clutter in the way of getting things started. You can swiftly choose to begin the single player campaign, go straight into the level editor, or explore community levels, all with the swipe of a tab. In the campaign mode, there’s a short tutorial explaining the basics, and you can select any one of 20 levels grouped among five “albums”. Each album has music created by a different artist alongside a designer in charge of the theme and aesthetic, and I was quite surprised with some of the names developer Queasy managed to pull for this game. Well-known artists such as Beck, deadmau5, and Jim Guthrie have created some really great work here, made even more memorable by the unique visual design that pairs brilliantly with the music. Beck’s album “Cities”, for example, melds his unique brand of urban funk to a perfectly fitting backdrop of hand-sketched burning skyscrapers, and Jim Guthrie’s levels take the sounds and stylized pixelated visuals from last years excellent Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and throw them into a modern-day office setting, complete with humming servers, copy machines, and bubbling water coolers. All of the music here is genuinely really good, and I often found myself putting off completing a level just to stop and listen for a while.
It’s almost necessary to play through the campaign before exploring other modes, as completing a particular level rewards you with all of the tools used to create it in the editor mode. Creating levels is something that anyone who owns this game simply needs to try, and Queasy has made an incredibly intuitive, user-friendly system to ensure that anyone can. Soundshapes is better on the Vita because of it, since it makes great use of the touch screen to let you simply touch and move objects or sounds, and you can resize, rotate, or cycle through shapes and objects with the rear panel. Constructing your own beats and melodies is as simple as choosing a sound you want from any of the albums and placing it on an 8 x 16 grid. Notes will move up or down on a classic eight-step scale (you can choose major or minor keys), and sounds change depending on where they are put vertically along the grid. Anyone with even a tiny shred of musical ability will be able to put together something listenable in seconds, and Queasy has even included a “Beat School” mode for anyone who needs some extra ear training. Personally, I found this mode useless, feeling more like a set of half-baked exercises than anything else. As a musician I learned more and had much more fun by diving in and experimenting, and I’d encourage anyone, regardless of musical training, to do the same. Sharing levels is incredibly easy; if you feel like your level is ready and your signed into PSN, simply hit the publish button in the editor main menu and it’s up in an instant.
What I really love about the editor is that behind it’s simplicity lies a remarkable amount of depth, evident in levels created by the Soundshapes player community. The creativity on display here is simply astounding, and quite nearly makes the game worth the price of purchase alone. Many creators have already gone well beyond what the developer-designed levels do, like making branching paths, environmental puzzles, or using the backdrops to tell stories. Aspiring level designers will have no shortage of inspiration here, and Queasy keeps the community going with theme-a-week contests and other fan interactions. The Community mode offers almost all the basic functions – you can immediately find the newest or most popular levels, search by creator or level name, and follow specific creators and save levels to a list of favorites. You can also see who is following you or added your levels to their favorites, so anyone who spends a significant amount of time on it will certainly make some connections. The only thing I would like to see is the ability to comment on or add tags to levels, which I sorely miss after seeing it in Little Big Planet Vita.
Soundshapes is also among the handful of cross-play titles for the PS3/Vita, so progress in any mode can be saved to the cloud and synced with your other device. One of the wonderful things about this game is that it feels like it couldn’t have happened on any other platforms; levels are short and perfect for quick sessions on the go, and being able to continue creating in the editor mode from your Vita to the PS3 is an awesome function to have when inspiration strikes.
One thing I can’t forget to mention is Death Mode, which is an unlockable mode that opens up for each level after beating the campaign. Here, music takes a backseat to tough-as-nails platforming, as you are placed in a single screen and tasked with collecting a certain amount of notes within a time limit. I didn’t spend much time on this, but it’ll add a lot of longevity to the game for trophy-chasers and masochists (they don’t call it “Death Mode” for nothing).
Soundshapes is one of the crown jewels in the PSN library in a year that has already seen some of the best releases for the service yet. It offers tight, challenging platforming bundled in one of the most innovative sensory experiences to come out of the medium in a long time. The game itself is a celebration in visual and musical creativity, and creating one’s own levels is satisfying, deep, and incredibly easy to do. The excellent community features and inspired player-created levels will keep gamers coming back to this game again and again. If you own a Vita or a PS3 and care anything at all about music, creativity, or an awesome platforming experience, you owe it to yourself to get this game.