Modern games generally trend towards mature themes, like gun, lollipops, and women of questionable virtue. Sometimes, though, you just want to just relax, surrounded by soothing noises and sucking on pacifiers…well, maybe not so much pacifiers, but if you’re looking for a really chill game, Sound Shapes is right up your alley. As you might infer from the name, Sound Shapes is all about sound and shapes. Also, death laser-wielding security guards, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Gameplay is fairly standard two-dimensional platformer fare: roll your little ball along, collect musical coins, and get to the exit. In places where your ball’s admittedly poor jumping skills fail you, you can stick to certain surfaces to get past obstacles. The only things that pose a threat to your round companion are red objects like lasers, which kill you instantly: not to worry though, the game is very generous with checkpoints, and you have infinite lives. Sound Shapes introduces new gameplay mechanics and obstacles slowly, so you have time to play with and more or less master the tools you have at your disposal before being confronted with new challenges. Other than jumping, the only thing you can do is sprint, but while you’re sprinting you can’t cling to surfaces. It’s not a hard concept to grasp, but mastering it is critical to your progress in later levels of the game. Some levels put you in control of a ship or a cloud, and there a few puzzles sprinkled throughout, but for the most part it’s just you and your ball.
The music is the main focus of the game, and the way it’s woven into gameplay is simply gorgeous. Each coin is a beat or a note, and as you collect each one you’ll gradually fill in the background music. Actually, calling it BGM is kind of a disservice, because listening to audio cues in the music can be important in gameplay as well; for example, some clouds in the environment helpfully labeled AHHHHHHHH only appear when the singers in the background are ahh-ing as well. It can be an unpleasant surprise when you’re navigating a tricky series of jumps and the cloud you’re jumping to disappears into thin air. Overall, though, the intermingling of gameplay and music is almost therapeutic in a way. More than once, I stopped at the end of the screen just to hear the composition I’d pieced together. You don’t have to collect all the coins, but they’re definitely an important part of the whole experience.
There are five worlds or albums to play through, each with its own distinct musical and visual aesthetic. Some levels take you through a warped cityscape, while others see you navigating through a maze of office cubicles. My personal favorite was the Beck album, with pretty unique level designs and probably the best music in the game. The deadmau5 album is a significant shift in both visuals and difficulty; it focuses on tricky and occasionally irritatingly difficult platforming, which kind of takes away from the experience of just collecting coins and enjoying the music. Most levels are unfortunately quite short, and you can blow through the entire campaign mode in just one or two hours at most.
Where the campaign ends, though, is where the creativity begins. When you finish the campaign, you unlock Death Mode, which is a time attack mode that requires you to collect all the coins. This mode really requires you to have mastered all the skills at your disposal. Most people, though, will gravitate towards beat school and the sandbox level creator. Beat school is a fun little mode that gives you a beat and challenges you to recreate that same beat by placing notes on a grid. It can be quite a challenge to pick out the individual parts of the beat, and simultaneously you get to hone your creation skills for the sandbox.
The level creator is incredibly daunting at first glance, given the sheer number of unlockable tools and objects at your disposal; however, it is entirely possible with a little practice and trial-and-error to make really awesome levels, something that the community creations attest to. When you make a level, you can post it online for other users to play through. This is where the replayability of Sound Shapes really resides; while the campaign is quite short, you can spend hours and hours testing other peoples’ creations, including cool things like pinball machines and blockbreaker games. While the map quality definitely varies, there are a surprising number of really interesting levels that are as good as or even surpass some of the developer levels.
There’s not a whole lot to Sound Shapes at first glance, but the more you play, the more immersive the world becomes. Gameplay is fun and rewarding when you get down a particularly inventive platforming sequence, and filling in the music as you go along is nothing short of blissful. Musical platforming has been done before, but the way that Sound Shapes draws you into its world puts it in a class of its own. With a community churning out maps every day, this is one game that you’ll find yourself returning to months down the road just for the sheer enjoyment of creating and playing through your own and others’ soundscapes.