Sound Shapes wastes no time introducing you to its mechanics. As soon as you boot up the game, you’re greeted to a minimalistic environment, a turntable, and an adorable, sticky blob that you control. As you are prompted to jump to the next section of this tutorial stage, you see a coin-like object. Once you make contact with it, it emits a single note, and then you discover something: the more of these tokens that you obtain, the more a song is formed. Eventually, enemies and various environmental objects will contribute to the slowly developing chorus of catchy music. But with a campaign of songs to hear, an editor to make your own music, and a community where you can share and play user-created content, does Sound Shapes give you reason to put it on repeat, or will you end up hitting stop on the title to play something else?
The gameplay is, as indicated already, much like an average platformer. The blob that you control must jump and roll around to collect coins, but there’s a bit more to it than that. The sphere has a coloured, gelatinous exterior that can attach to surfaces of the same hue, which allows it to defy gravity by traversing upside down and up walls. But this ability can be relinquished while pressing the square or R1 button; the blob can retract its outer residue – which will make you lose that ability to stick – to jump further and move faster when needs be. This opens up the opportunity for situations where decent timing and precision are required when switching between these two forms.
However, Sound Shapes is an easy game overall. Besides other, minor mechanics that you use on rare occasions like an aquatic, UFO-like submarine and cranes that allow you to lift and swing the blob around, these features aren’t utilised often and don’t offer much depth to the gameplay. Yes, there are a significant amount of varying enemy types and obstacles in the campaign, and the 360 degree movement can prove to be a bit challenging at times to master (the left analogue stick must be pointed in specific directions to move effectively), but most of the time, the levels pose little difficulty and can be 100 per cent completed on the first run through.
Each level takes about five minutes to finish, and during that short time, it’s incredible to hear a song develop with layers of unique sounds and instruments. There’s this seamless harmony between the music and the level design, which is how the game works underneath the hood because a lot of what you see serves a part in the song. For example, pudgy enemies that you can bounce on emit a note that sounds like a bass guitar, which is integrated into the beat of the music. In other words, what seems like a normal platformer is, in fact, a chorus of things working together in harmony, which made us stop at times to appreciate just how complex some sections of the levels must have been to create.
In turn, the audio itself is crisp, diverse, and just about perfect. Songs such as Beck’s “Cities” and Proud’s “Hypoglacia” are excellently composed and an absolute joy to play along to. While some of the songs are a bit weird or underwhelming, the majority of them are more than worth experiencing. Outside of this, typical sound effects are almost nonexistent. The coins and checkpoints produce sounds when you touch them, which are actually played through the DualShock 4’s speaker, but there is hardly anything else, which is absolutely fine. The music takes precedence and is the selling point of the game.
What’s nearly as appealing as the music are the graphics. With an overall style of minimalism composed of organic and geometric shapes, the game pops with visual flair. But while this may be the core art, the game plays host to various other styles that are layered on top. For example, the developer Superbrother created levels using its signature 8-bit graphics from Sword & Sworcery EP. There’s even neon, Space Invaders-like visuals to accompany content made by deadmau5.
However, the wonders of the campaign are short-lived, as it takes less than two hours to complete. While this may be disappointing for those looking for a longer solo experience, the Death Mode unlocked at the end offers some much desired difficulty. With unique, small stages themed after campaign levels that require you to collect a certain amount of coins within a specified time frame, there’s plenty of reason to give this exciting mode a chance. You can also check out the Beat School mode, which provides blank canvases and a part of a song that you must recreate with coins placed in the right spots. It’s fairly compelling, especially for those looking to hone their skills in the Editor mode.
This is where you can tell that the game is primarily geared towards creativity and community. Right from the get-go, you can delve into this area and create your own levels. This is accomplished with a toolbox with an assortment of objects, enemies, and coins that you can place on a blank stage to unleash your musical and artistic genius. It’s best to wait until you’ve played the campaign first, though, which unlocks dozens of new things to use. Or you can go ahead and purchase downloadable content that offers fresh sound packs – like the acoustic or 8-bit themed offerings – for your creativity. There’s a learning curve to figure out how to create a compelling stage with fun platforming while trying to make all of the sounds come together, but if you feel enticed to take a couple of hours to experiment with this mode and even more time to make something truly unique, you'll be well on your way to creating community hits.
You can check out other players’ levels, too, as well as stages curated by the developer or even people like Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida. In the end, only a few of these stages held our attention, but for those looking for, if you will, a musical LittleBigPlanet, then Sound Shapes is the game for you.
Across all platforms – it's also available on the PS3 and Vita – the game is largely the same with minimal differences. Besides the PS4 version being ever so slightly visually sharper, there is no reason not to play it on the other systems instead – in fact, the touch controls in the handheld release ensure that it's still the definitive version. Even if you upgrade to the next-gen console, though, the game works cross-platform, so you will be able to play it for free on all three devices, no matter where you end up buying it first.
Sound Shapes looks and sounds beautiful, and boasts gameplay that works in perfect harmony. Those of you that don't get hooked on the ambitious Editor area may find a lack of meaningful campaign content, but the Death Mode and Beat School options augment a little longevity. If you're the type of person that enjoys user generated content, then this will definitely be your jam – and even if you don't, the clever concept and cross-buy compatibility still make it a sound investment.