Vancouver-based developer Hollow Tree Games has come a long way since its first Kickstarter for Shape of the World in 2015. It's exciting that new IPs such as this can be realised with the right practice, and the studio's hard work over the past three or so years has largely paid off.
Shape of the World is a delightfully quirky but short first-person exploration game, where the world reacts dynamically and procedurally around you as you progress. Your objective is to reach every triangular signpost displayed across the world, each time you pass one offering a colourful variation of your location, peppered with strange and kooky inhabitants.
These triangular signposts act as a prominent landmark for Shape of the World, as they're your only source of navigation. They're often accompanied by quick, and at times overused, mini puzzles to trigger a stairway to your next objective. Each time you do so triggers a colour shift and a slightly different environment to explore, which kept us curious as to what weird and wonderful things we might encounter next. These signposts are simple and effective, but are also used as a tool to keep you progressing through the otherwise linear narrative. There's always a goal in mind, even if your reasoning for being there isn’t made clear.
One amenity that Shape of the World has to offer is how it uses colour. It permeates through the environments and is a huge part of its aesthetic. From soft reds and inverted hues to rich oranges and yellows, its colour palette is visual and striking, resembling similar abstract qualities to games such as ABZÛ, Bound, and even Journey. Meandering through the forests and being struck by such colours and shapes is part of its pleasantness, and further accompanied by a soundtrack that adapts as you continue to explore, which makes for a generally blissful experience. In this aspect, it's a success.
You never feel ushered through Shape of the World either, as it grants you passage to wander through these environments and gives you time to soak up the scenery and explore at a leisurely pace. But, as much of a pretty game it may be, it rarely serves as anything more than just that. There are glimmers you are doing some good being there, and the small collectable incentives keep you exploring just that little while longer, but given its beautifully crafted world, we couldn’t help feeling like the experience could have been more tangible for us to really utilise and make the most of our time spent there.
With a world that is dynamically changing around you, we would have hoped you'd be able to interact with it in some way that isn't restricted to scattering seeds and interacting with boulders as a part of its level design. In the end, we were left wanting to interact with the environment with more depth and clarity, which would've enabled Shape of the World to truly thrive. Hollow Tree Games boasts these beautiful and lush environments, and its world is an inviting one, but one that feels hindered by these basic, and perhaps intended, interface limitations.
Beyond that, there's also a lack of purpose that's never fully explained or justified, and only mildly hinted towards. It may be a minor hindrance, but it left us with many unanswered questions when the credits rolled just four hours after completing our first run through, such as: what are we doing here? Why are we spreading these seeds? What are these triangular portals about? These are questions that left us pondering, and is left down to the obscurity of its world and your own interpretation to its conclusion. Unfortunately, its payoff felt a little lazy as a result.
What started out as a Kickstarter three years ago, Shape of the World is an impressive accomplishment. The end result provides a beautiful but brief escape into an obscure world, filled with colourful abstract variations and creatures to observe at your own pace. It makes for a great escapist title in between games, though we're ultimately left feeling a little confused by its mixed messaging and lack of story. It hints at something greater here, but doesn’t feel confident to make a bolder or more meaningful statement. Maybe that’s what Hollow Tree Games had intended, but we can’t shake the feeling of style over substance here.