Sound Shapes hands-on preview

While spotlight-stealing titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss and LittleBigPlanet have served as the poster children for Sony’s next-gen portable, a number of under-the-radar entries are also leveraging the hardware’s advanced tech and unique controls. One such off-the-grid game, Sound Shapes, impressed us as much as some of the higher-profile titles on display at a recent Sony media event. Developed by Everyday Shooter’s Jonathan Mak and his Queasy Games’ partner Shaw-Han Liem, the PS Vita launch title is equal parts side-scrolling platformer, music creator, and absorbing interactive art.

Controlling a circular, faceless object with eight stubby, suction cup-styled limbs, players navigate rectangular levels populated by enemies, obstacles, and traps. Your octopus-like character can run and jump in familiar platforming fashion, as well as stick to objects and walls. The simple goal is to get from a stage’s starting area to its finish point without being touched by the various threats littering the level. The “enemies” aren’t especially aggressive and your character doesn’t have any offensive attacks, so it’s really about surveying the surroundings and skillfully platforming.

The real hook, however, is your little guy’s music-making abilities. With every new object he comes in contact with, a new beat or effect begins looping, ultimately layering into a complete musical composition by the level’s conclusion. So, while things may start with a single, repetitive “bleep” or “bloop,” additional audio tracks fill out the mix as you progress. By the time we finished our first level, our heads were instinctively bobbing to the funky fresh beats we’d just created. Of course, the levels - or “songs” as Mack calls them - increase in both size and difficulty as you progress through an “album.”

The visual style dominating our demo, a minimalist mash-up of abstract art, hard angles, vibrant visuals, and a little old-school aesthetic, was easy on the eyes; based on some other screens we’ve seen, later levels will also include rounder shapes and a more organic vibe. Additionally, the presence of cool touches such as speakers and turntables further complement the toe-tapping style. Similarly cool is the front-end interface, which utilizes the Vita’s multi-touch display by having players choose options by sliding a phonograph needle on a record, with each groove on the vinyl representing a song/level.

While our time focused almost entirely on the main single-player mode, a significant portion of the experience delves deep into Sony’s LittleBigPlanet-led “Play, Create, and Share” initiative. Cleverly swapping out the “Create” with “Compose,” the user-generated content aspect is a huge part of the title’s appeal and play-extending value. Based on a quick demonstration by Mak, it looks as though Sound Shapes is brimming with options for players to compose music and create levels. A variety of instruments and objects can be mixed and matched into your own creations or used to tweak existing favorites. Furthermore, Queasy Games is making intuitive use of the Vita’s tactile control options. Both the front multi-touch screen and rear touch-pad are incorporated extensively into the level-editing process; from placing items and objects, to adjusting their shapes and sizes, players can expect to get very hands-on when working on their own masterpieces. Mak didn’t have any specifics he could share, but it’s expected that sharing and swapping content with around-the-globe pals will be a breeze.

Sound Shapes is best experienced in person, with hands-on and headphones cranked up. It offers a one-of-a-kind experience that’s done little justice by static screenshots. While it can’t be easily categorized into any existing genre, its diverse elements recall a number of popular games that have come before it, from hardcore music creators like KORG DS-10, to cult-fave platformers such as Super Meat Boy, there are plenty of subtle influences to discover within Sound Shape’s surreal depths. It may not have the outward appeal of a system-seller like Uncharted, but its charming presentation, head-bobbing beats, and extensive suite of creation tools impressed us thoroughly.

Aug 3, 2011

Matt Cabral
A full-time freelance writer based in Lizzie Borden's hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, friend him on Facebook, or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.