Ever since we first played Sound Shapes last year, we've not been able to shake off the feeling that something special was inbound. And here it is. Sound Shapes is inventive, imaginative and creative. It melds music, visuals, simplistic gameplay and robust creation tools into a package that's exactly the sort of game that Vita needs to set itself apart. You may get the PS3 version included in the price, and data can be synced between the two at any time, but the level building side makes it clear where Sound Shapes' home really is – in between your hands, at the tips of your fingers.
Sound Shapes is a 2D platformer that relies as much on its presentation as its platforming, mainly because it's often the audio aspect that shapes play. You're a little ball: your abilities are to roll about, jump, roll a bit faster and stick to surfaces that aren't pure black. In each level you've got to whiz from the starting point to the safe record player at the climax of the stage. Knowing what to avoid is easy: touch anything red and you're dead. This uncomplicated approach gives Sound Shapes room to put together the odd difficult sequence, though it never becomes overbearing due to very frequent checkpoints. It's debatable that there are actually too many checkpoints, but the point of Sound Shapes seems more to keep the flow fairly constant rather than pose too tough a challenge.
But to boil it down to these simplistic terms does Sound Shapes a great injustice; looked upon as a pure platformer it's pretty basic, and without the sound focus it probably wouldn't sustain you for more than a single playthrough of its few-hours-long campaign. But while these worlds are constructed in similar ways to other platformers – you hop around, collect coins and ultimately make your way from A to B – they're unique in that every action you take builds upon the soundtrack. Snatch the coins from the air and they play looped notes for the next three screens, the sound produced dependent on the treasure's position on the screen: grab ones up top for high notes, delve into deep bass at the bottom.
Hazards, such as pneumatic presses, stomp, hiss and puff in time, compositing into a beat. Surfaces and objects tinkle briefly as you touch them, adding one-off samples to the tunes. Background objects add their own flavour: it's unlikely you've played many games where coffee slurps are part of the soundtrack. It compels you to explore more, even though the paths are rigidly set. You find yourself pushing against the levels' constraints, examining as much as you can on each screen to find any hidden audio delights. Only once you've played through each stage in this fashion does it feel right to dash through in time attack style to claim your rightful place on the online leaderboards.
The campaign consists of five 'albums', with three to five levels in each. Part of Sound Shapes' appeal is the variety of levels, as each set is created with a different theme in mind and most have been put together by different artists. Jim Guthrie contributes a corporate themed set, complete with piano-playing filing cabinets and a descent into the underworld; deadmau5's album pivots around the videogames of yesteryear, with familiar space invaders and block-breaking games making appearances. Elsewhere I Am Robot and Proud – Sound Shapes co-creator Shaw Han-Liem's band – shows off beautiful, nature-inspired lands.
All are fabulous, and the presentation elevates the action to ensure you'll replay your favourite stages of Sound Shapes again and again, in the same way you would your favourite tunes. But the real highlight is Beck's set: a move through city, psychedelia and clouds against funky tracks, the vocals splaying across the screen and in some cases forming ever-morphing platforms. They're close to perfection, utterly absorbing mixes that get utterly entrenched in your ears. Nevermind putting out his new album as sheet music; we want Beck's next release to come through Sound Shapes. This is one game where we definitely would like to see a decent smattering of downloadable content from a variety of artists.
Burn your way through the campaign – and you will, very quickly – and extra modes become available. You can take on Death Mode versions of the stages, which plops you into single screen versions of each campaign level and dares you to grab a certain number of notes within a strict time limit with a single life; it earns its moniker, as the tasks are ridiculously hard.
There's also Beat School, which gives you a blank canvas and plays you tunes – your task is to listen carefully and build that exact track yourself. You have to work out which parts of the screen play what notes and instruments by tapping about, then plonk down notes to try to recreate the audio. Playing the template again tests your progress, marking up correct and incorrect notes so that you can adjust your placements and try again. It's quite challenging and supremely satisfying once you complete a tune – as long as you don't cheat by looking up the answers online or indiscriminately blanket the screen with notes to find the right ones.
Finally, but perhaps the area you'll spend the most time with, is the creation mode, which lets you build your own stages from scratch and share them with the world. With many blank screens at your disposal, you can create levels as little or as large as you like. Everything — from basic layout, obstacles, coin positioning, start and end points, visuals, beats-per-minute, colour schemes – is yours to customise, and it's easy to create the level of your dreams by selecting pieces, instruments and fancy bits from a pop-up menu. The spread of objects is quite basic at first, but you get plenty more as you complete campaign levels.
You can add what you need to by picking the appropriate item and holding down on the Tenori-on-style grids until it's placed. Objects can then be shifted about by selecting them and dragging into a preferred position, and sizes or angles can be adjusted too. On Vita it's all about touch, with the front screen used to select or place and the rear touch panel used to modify. The front touch control is great, but the back panel is a bit awkward. If it's not to your liking you can use the sticks and buttons instead for the same purpose, as you do in the PlayStation 3 version, which feels much smoother: left stick to move, right stick to twist and resize.
It's pretty user friendly, and with a bit of effort you can create some great levels – and tunes, of course. Once you've made something to be proud of you can upload it to the community. Accessing the user-created level database is easy, and shared levels are quick to load after they're selected. There are options to follow users you like and favourite any stages that you're fond of – there are bound to be some great contributions in the future, and we've already spied a few that we really like.
Sound Shapes fits in very well with the Play, Create, Share mantra that Sony has been fostering over the last few years and, while it plays, looks and sounds great on PlayStation 3, it really finds its place on Vita with a good set of headphones. The handheld is perfect for the game's creative aspirations: the built-in levels are short and perfect for a portable, and it's easy to hop into the creator, mess around with something and save quickly whenever inspiration takes you. Mashing up audio, visuals and interactivity into a wonderful experience, Sound Shapes should definitely be on your playlist.