OXCGN’s Sound Shapes Review
Block rockin’ beats
by Nicholas Capozzoli
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
The great tragedy of Sound Shapes is that the very concepts which make it worth a look ultimately prevent it from ever achieving a deep measure of success.
Sound Shapes is inspired, but its levels are more fun to create than they are to play.
Music drives everything in Sound Shapes. Behind every stage runs a framework of musical notation: staff, bars, and notes.
As you traverse the the stages, you add to their musical score by triggering sound effects from the environment and enemies.
Collecting coin-like notes in the foreground activates them as continuous tones in the background that build into the soundtrack based upon their position on the staff, just like sheet music.
It’s a brilliant, inventive system, and when you take it into Sound Shape‘s level editor, you’ll see just how robust a system it is.
I’d like to have seen the game incentivize level creation a bit more, to ensure a steady flow of user-generated content, but at least the mechanics are enjoyable.
It can be a little laborious to fiddle with editor, particularly with an old controller who’s analog sticks have a tendency to get stuck stuck off-center and inadvertently resize or rotate objects.
When the two work in concert, it’s Sound Shapes‘ crowning achievement.
Tripping on the way out
Fans of the represented artists and the aesthetics of pop art and retro gaming should generally find themselves well served by Sound Shapes‘ audio and visuals.
[Ed.: The fact that Nick mentioned Deadmau5 and "high-level musical talent" in the same statement shows that he is slowly losing his mind to the world of wubs.]
Sound Shapes‘ gameplay isn’t so consistently rewarding, however. Part of that is owed to the game’s platforming fundamentals: the circular blob that you control, which can leap and stick to walls, moves a bit unpredictably.
Sometimes you’ll pull yourself up on a rounded edge, other times you slide off it.
The game frequently brings in new mechanics, ranging from conveyor belts and cranes to a submarine. It’s a nice variety, but they don’t all handle so well.
Many segments imbue your character with a curious inertia that’s tough to manage. It’s also consistently difficult to gauge the strength of your jumps, and your direction is heavily influenced by the particular shape of the terrain.
That becomes a problem, as Sound Shapes introduces a great number of terrain types and objects in rapid succession.
Most of my deaths in the game resulted from my character moving in a manner that I didn’t intend or expect, rather than from my own reflexes or decision-making not being up to snuff.
Perhaps the designers were aware of these issues, because Sound Shapes overcompensates for them with a trivially easy campaign mode.
The whole affair can be plowed through in just a couple hours, with nary an impasse to be found. The mode’s quick flow works well with the music, but it also means that there isn’t much satisfaction to be found in overcoming it.
Death to us all
The Death Mode levels occur on a single screen, and task you with daunting, reflex-based platforming exercises. Each grants a trophy upon completion.
Here, the campaign’s control quirks are exacerbated into hair-pulling aggravations. Sound Shapes simply doesn’t provide the control fidelity that the Death Mode stages ask for, and it’ll lead to staggering numbers of consecutive deaths.
Even with all those deaths, it won’t prolong the experience much, perhaps another hour or two. But they’re a vexing couple of hours, and they expose a real flaw with the game’s music-based foundation.
But the Death Mode stages occur on a single screen, and require many consecutive tries to beat by their very nature.
This means that you’re stuck listening to a repeating loop of just a few seconds of audio on each stage.
Should you find yourself stuck on one, you could easily end up hearing the same 3-4 second clip hundreds upon hundreds of times in a row. And while the editor has a lot of potential for visuals, the audio side simply isn’t powerful enough to save such a situation.
The Death Mode version of the level “Touch the People” (featuring a repeating 4 second loop from the Beck song of the same name) has the dubious honor of being the ugliest, worst designed, and most painful to listen to bit of gaming that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Let that sink in for a second, if you will. Achieving just one of those disparaging feats would be remarkable; managing all three at once is staggering.
Others are more enjoyable, thankfully, but the whole of the experience is dampened by the moments of frustration, and the feeling that the offering is a bit insubstantial.
Absent that, Sound Shapes is still a game worth playing for its charming visuals, inventive audio, and deep level creator.
But an inconsistent experience and a dearth of content mean that the current offering isn’t worth more than a tepid recommendation.
Here’s to hoping that the community (or some future content additions) can realize a more consistent level of success.
I have to wonder, though, if Sound Shapes‘ problems are systemic.
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
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