It’s sad to think that, for many people, the thrill of creating music is something they may never truly enjoy. A beginning guitarist may string together a sequence of simple chords; a novice pianist may stumble upon a particularly pretty grouping of notes; even wannabe drummers could accidentally hit upon a crazy rhythm that sounds like nothing else. But to create a full piece, something that is expressive or takes the listener on a journey… That’s a whole different level. In this digital age, though, we’re surrounded by tools that let anyone play at being a composer.
GarageBand’s Smart Instruments allows for complex patterns and lines to be woven together with a few clicks or taps, while incredibly basic sequencers can create killer loops in moments. And in Sound Shapes, we have a game that taps into this very notion, allowing players to dabble at composition while at the same time trying their hands at level design – platform gaming that creates music and quite literally takes players on a journey. And you know what? It’s wonderful.
But before you dive into the user-friendly editing tools and start trying to re-create Sonic with sonics, the campaign is the perfect showcase for what this impressive piece of software can really do. Each ‘album’ consists of several tracks from a duo of artists (one musical, one visual) and has its own theme, and from the tricky pixel art electro assaults of the Deadmau5 stages to Beck’s chilled-out lessons in synaesthesia, they’re generally superb. As in LittleBigPlanet, each stage is clearly made with the packaged editor – there are no tricks or gimmicks beyond those you yourself could employ with a little inventive thinking, and again like Media Molecule’s games, elements of these might even inspire you with how some of the tools can be used. Which is handy, since clearing a stage gives you access to all of the elements that featured in it for use in your own creations.
The best part, though, is the way the music and the gameplay interact with one another. While at its most basic, it’s a case of collecting coins to trigger notes, beats, samples and phrases, every little element also has its own audio signature. Cogs clunk around with rhythmic industrial drones; hazards become active or safe not as the beat dictates but in unison with it, forcing players to do more than follow the track; even some types of platform have their own musical layers, which is often altered when the player interacts with it. As such, it’s a tricky balancing act at first – focus too heavily on making the perfect tune and your level will suffer, but think platforming first and it’s unlikely you’ll have much of a soundtrack beyond a wall of noise.
From a platforming perspective, Sound Shapes’ simplicity is its greatest strength. It’s a simple two-button setup – one to jump and one to move faster – and your little round dude will automatically stick to any surface that matches the colour of his aura. It’s nowhere near as floaty as LittleBigPlanet and is a more precise platformer as a result, and it needs to be. Avoiding the red stuff – touching anything red is instant death – can be tough, and some of the traps and hazards are devilish in their offbeat patterns. There are even a couple of vehicles that alter the gameplay. The tiny UFO is capable of free flight and quick upwards movement, while the swarm simply affords speedy freedom around the map in question – it’s often employed in levels where the music has been deemed more important than the gameplay by the creator.
But frustratingly, that’s not where Sound Shapes is at its best. It really shines when each of the single-screen challenges that makes up the whole level slowly builds the soundtrack, each phrase and individual note added slowly as you traverse the world, interact with objects and grab multiples of that gaming staple, the trusty coin. It’s not a system without drawback even so, though – samples aren’t exactly isolated brilliantly or cut particularly well, so collecting coins slowly or in the wrong order can result in an awkward, fractured soundtrack, which is also evident in the transition between different screens. And since rhythm, BPM or even the entire track can change from screen to screen, moving on can be quite a jarring experience.
The preloaded levels are over and done with in the space of an hour or two, though completionists might feel the need to return to a few to round up the missing collectables, after which a duo of new modes pop up to add some degree of longevity and also the bulk of the game’s Trophies – Queasy Games rather sensibly elected to leave those out of the main campaign so as to preserve it as an experience and not push players towards playing in a certain way in search of those lovely, meaningless accolades. Death mode takes a single screen from each of the tracks and refits it with a particularly challenging task, often involving instant death, no restarts and a strict time limit. Random generation of collectables here does make it more luck than judgment at times, though it’s a welcome addition all the same. Beat School is far more interesting, hiding away in the creation menu and tasking players with matching a particular beat by ear. It’s effectively a mini sequencer, with correct and incorrect notes flagged up when you’re ready so that you can tweak and alter the pattern to get it just right.
Sound Shapes will ultimately live or die by its community, which at the time of writing is in dire need of a sonic boom in terms of both users and quality levels. With support, it’ll grow into something glorious. But even without, it’s yet another novel and wholly entertaining reason to get a Vita. But you probably still won’t.