Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review - Sound Shapes

Sound Shapes is as unique a game as you could hope for after being touted so long and as loudly as it has been.  It also presents me with the unique opportunity to talk about a game that I have Platinum'd the day after I started playing it through no real large amount of effort.  As such, it left me wonder if I should review it or simply do a post about the Platinum as I am wont to do, and I sided with the former because I believe that experience has given me enough of an approximation of the game to judge it, with the fact that it took such a short amount of time being factored into that, and not exactly positively.  Not entirely negatively either, because for as short as the game is, it offers quite a lot to talk about which is certainly an impressive task if you really think about it.  And believe me, Sound Shapes offers quite a lot to think about within the confines of it's short, but pleasurable experience.

Basically what anyone who has played Sound Shapes will tell you is that it is not a music game, but rather a game designed around music which is somewhat of a rarity.....ever.  I can't think of too many games that have musical elements, and of those, it's always more that the music is the point, rather than not.  It's not a rhythm game, it's not a game where you have to hit this and this and this to hear something beyond white noise.  For the campaign side of the game, it seems to straddle that line between being a fully-fledged game and being something that you describe as less a game, and more an interactive thing (I'm avoiding saying 'experience' again) like Flower.  As such, you might find that it's a hard sell and perhaps rightfully so, but, like Flower, it's hard to imagine someone stepping away from Sound Shapes with a negative opinion of it.  Sure, it happens, but these tend to be the outliers rather than the norm, and I've yet to find evidence to the contrary here.

All of that, unsurprisingly, makes Sound Shapes a difficult game to actually sit down and pick apart since it is one of those games that you can't really judge by its parts, because doing so only paints half of a picture.  At the same time, a game is generally what it is, what its parts are and while there is room to discuss just what that does to us, what it invokes and causes, the case is usually always not "I felt so calm while playing the game" and more "The game was easy to play because the controls were thankfully simple and intuitive."  Why I make it such a big deal is because, at its core, Sound Shapes asks us to believe that it is a Platformer game with the very slightest hints of puzzle elements and it is hard to believe it until you start getting into the difficult (read:  nearly impossible) part of the game in the appropriately named 'Death Mode' which is less a full-fledged Platforming -thing- and more a series of very punishing mini-games.  So if you strip that layer away from it, what do you have?

You have something that absolutely oozes style from every single one of its non-existent pores.  Sound Shapes' Campaign is practically a work of art in every screen as you go through the fields and hills of the first album, the Pixelated land of space pictured above, and a city ablaze for the first (and best) of the three Beck tracks.  Every album has its own distinct art style and each one is so well defined, so detailed, that it almost becomes a distraction while playing.  At least, I found myself stopping every now and then to just take a look at the screen, not to think of a strategy to proceed, but just to take in the visuals that are so crisp on the Vita's wonderful screen and run at a framerate that I assume is locked, though I'm not an expert on that.  I can just say that it played smooth for me the entire time and I have no complaints there.  Which is good, since I imagine the 'wonder' might be somewhat lost if the frames started chugging away.

The music is similarly wonderful, though I would say not consistently, as there are a few things that just aren't to my taste; mostly the stuff towards the beginning that is just really laid-back and 'moody'.  Among the best things for me personally were, unsurprisingly, the Beck and Deadmau5 tracks ('Cities' by Beck is pretty much my favorite song/level in the game as is), but I admit there was a particular charm for everything, even if it wasn't in a way that didn't particularly resonate with me.  At least that aspect of the design, the sound and just the looks of the tracks, is pretty flawless, and especially so once you get into the creator and really start realizing just how much of the 'music' is made not with the notes you collect, but with the foes on the maps, the decorations, and just all the little pieces of detail that you might not give a second look to otherwise.  Whether it's the slight maraca sound the flames in the Cities level make, or the definite bass addition brought by cannons or the faulty equipment of the Industrial-like levels that fire off electric shocks.

With that, despite the complexity that it involves of all these elements creating the 'songs' of a level, it's all fairly simple regardless, which is a task that is more confusing to consider than to experience.  Everything just works because of it and I think if anything, that's what I've been trying to impress upon you most with this, is that the elements of the game are not things that are exclusive to themselves nor simply good on their own as is sometimes the case (games touted for their soundtracks above all else, if the only thing, and the like), but they all just blend together to draw you into the game for as long as it lasts. also a negative of the game, I would say, since the tracks (hell, the albums and double-hell, just the game itself) are fairly short, so where you might just be getting into a song or something, you'll find yourself at the end of the track and it's time to move on to the next one because there's nothing else to do besides...well, just listening to the music, if you so desire.  Generally at the ending points of the level, it's just a matter of waltzing up to them and finishing the track and usually, you might want to be shooting for a quick time for a high score, so lingering is not a luxury you are afforded.

The simplicity, however, lends itself to the actual gameplay as I've inferred a few times already, which is where the game starts to falter and why it's hard to throw it out there as a must-play game.  You're not especially -playing- it, so much as you are just navigating these set-pieces made of wonder and fantastic music and art, and the only real challenge presents itself later on in the Albums, but even then, death is simply negligible.  There's at least one checkpoint on just about every screen and getting to that is generally the thing you're lead to doing first, even if you're not so inclined to head for them first.  The obstacles, as they are, are generally the mid-points of screens so you'll sometimes get a checkpoint at the front and back of it meaning if you can manage it once, that's all you need.  This pretty much eliminates all of the challenge, as you might imagine, which is good for the game itself considering the theme of it, but -as- a game, it's generally not a thing we applaud completely.  There are exceptions, of course, but Sound Shapes offers itself as a platformer, as I said, so you generally expect it to behave like one.

When it -does- start behaving as a platformer, however, you generally want it to stop, because this is where it kicks into the aforementioned "Death Mode" which only unlocks after you complete the entire campaign.  This is because Death Mode takes one section from a level (sometimes two) and makes a little mini-level out of it by sealing off the exits.  You are given a set amount of time and a set amount of notes to collect and the goal is simply to collect that amount of notes in under that time while not dying.  If you die, you are treated to the rather passive-aggressive message as seen above and given the chance to just try again.  You can and will lose a lot of time on a single level and the payoff is always bittersweet since you know that every other challenge is like the one you just spent all that time trying to conquer.  Rare is there a challenge that does not offer that, so it almost seems like the game is a little off-base with itself, when the campaign itself is not hard at all, where the other facet of it is hair-tuggingly difficult.  There is no curve, simply two planes of existence, and it is jarring to think of them existing as the same game.

Death Mode comprises just about half of the entire trophy list that Sound Shapes offers, handing you a Silver trophy for every single Death Mode track that you finish.  It's a little bit of an odd decision, but it's certainly not one I'm complaining about since you definitely -earn- a trophy with just about every Death Mode track you finish.  I suppose that I'm just surprised at the amount of sense it makes - akin to the look of shock a man in a desert offers when you hold out a bottle of water.  Here is a man who has toiled, has gone without in the harsh environment, and then you hand him exactly what he deserves for his trials and his ability to overcome.  Some of them, like the image I provided, don't exactly feel like it's worth it, however, as the challenge tends to come down to split-second timing and fighting against the game who insists on spawning the notes randomly and depending on the random generation, you either stand a chance of getting the win in the time allotted or you don't.  It is that simple - the game can decide that you simply aren't going to win this round and there is naught that you can do about it.

The other, infinitely more tolerable section that is unlocked upon completing the campaign is "Beat School" which is basically a series of 'challenges' to try and help you get your music ears on and think of how songs get composed.  Giving you a blank sheet in the Creation tool, it provides a simple song and tasks you with re-creating it by placing notes in the places that will give you the sounds it entails.  It succeeds because it is just that - you don't have to mess with placing shapes and terrain, decorations or obstacles, simply recreating music based on just listening to it.  Not being musically inclined, it was quite a boon to me and I found it to be the most balanced part of the game.  It was not too easy nor too difficult (aside from the very last Beat School) and it didn't rely on the game trying its best to keep you from the prize.  Honestly, I wish there had been -more- Beat School tracks and, with any luck, any DLC offered in the future will come with a few extras that make use of the different sounds said tracks in DLC albums will offer.  I could go without more Death Mode tracks, but we are not quite that lucky.

Speaking of the creation tool, I think I'll end by talking of it since I have had quite the positive experience with it, which surprised me a little.  While playing around with Beat School, I contemplated just how complex it was to get the sound you look for when creating, and it was just a little bit intimidating at first.  However, as with most things, the solution is simply to jump in full-boar and mess around until things start working.  The fairly simple menu-based tool facilitates this pretty nicely as well, making it rather intuitive to use once you get your head in it.  I've got a three-screen track being worked on currently and once I get around the logistics of getting the sound I want with the three-screen limitation (notes you place on one screen only carry over three, so the first screens notes cannot be heard on the fourth screen, etc.) I'll be able to publish it, provided I stop seeing this screen.  Such is the price of modern games relying on he internet as they do, unfortunately, as it seems game servers can never -ever- handle stress at the start, but simply seems to be a process that has to be eased into.  Still, I suppose it just gives people like me time to improve their skills at making these tracks as that aspect will be what keeps people playing it a month from now, and not the game itself, unfortunately.

The Good
  • The game absolutely lives and breaths style, managing to always be interesting in art and music design
  • It's rather simple for the most part of it, allowing you to enjoy the art and music
  • Visuals are smooth and crisp
  • It is, at times, rather inventive with the actual level design, managing to be genuinely clever
  • I dare say that it is a very innovative game, for just how it handles the method of music delivery
  • Beat School is inventive and fun, offering a good challenge if you have a good ear for it
  • The Creation Tool is simple and easy to use - if I can make something I'm pleased with aesthetically in a few hours, you know it's intuitive
  • Offers a unique experience, if nothing else, which we seem to be lacking
 The Bad
  • Barely has a challenge to it for most of the game
  • Is quite short, both in tracks and albums (Seriously, I know there's only three Beck songs, but they couldn' more with them for one or two other tracks?  Remixes?  Hello?)
  • When it is not being clever and inventive with level design it's....well, not, and that is far more common
  • Death Mode is genuinely frustrating with random note distribution deciding a win or loss more than your skill could hope to
  • Seriously, the game is short
  • I had to convince myself that Sound Shapes is more a game than an 'Experience' several times while writing this
Mogs Says
Sound Shapes at its best will have you wanting to shout from the roof-tops that it is a wonderful thing and that everyone should experience it, and at its worst, will have you wondering if there is actually enough there to justify the $12-15 price tag.  Some will argue that the short length of the game overall shows off a dedication to the product itself, ensuring that every level was on its own level of quality, where others will say that there just needs to be more meat to the game itself.  It's hard to say which of those people is wrong and which is right, since I find myself saying "If/when Album DLC comes out, it better be free" because I think it will seriously help quell worries about the game.  But the rational part of my head says that it will not be that way, and has me wondering just how I'll feel when that time comes to pass.  If you need a comparison, ask yourself if you liked Flower after buying it for full-price.  If yes, then you might like this, since you probably weigh the experience more than the mechanics.  If not, then perhaps just wait for a demo or a price drop before you take the plunge.

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