Sound Shapes (PSN, 2012)
See, we have access to so much media, both before and after release - high quality professional reviews, the publisher's marketing machine, gameplay videos, live streams, demos, and the increasing name-recognition of quality developers. It takes a hermit or a truly under-the-radar release to really bring surprise - with new releases, that is. When it comes to indies, I like to ignore them, let them float around for a while, see what people buzz about, what people don't buzz about.
Usually it works, and we end up with games like the awesome Shovel Knight. Sometimes it doesn't - but that's all right, $15 poorly spent is better than $60 wasted, right?
Problem is, that "buzz" isn't always right. Sometimes it's me, buying into the hype of professional reviewers, who are so burned out on AAA releases, for whom garbage like Thomas Was Alone must surely provide a respite from the annual cycle of Call of Duty and Ubisoft collectathons. For them, I guess, indie games like that are a breath of fresh air; but for the rest of us (that is, those of us who aren't professionally obligated to play through and review another Assassin's Creed every October), some of them don't have much to offer. Sound Shapes is one of those games.
On the surface, it's a neat concept - a platformer where your collectible goodies actually add another note to the music. It isn't an entirely new concept - games like Rez and LocoRoco toyed around with the idea of incorporating music into both level design and gameplay (and probably many more games I'm not even aware of). The difference is that those games had solid foundations underlying audio-visual experience, and Sound Shapes does not.
The player's avatar is a little blob colored like an egg-over-easy. Appropriately, he moves like one sliding slowly off your plate. He moves through levels screen-by-screen, collecting notes and avoiding all things red. That's it - that's the extent of the platforming gameplay. No offensive capabilities, no real threats to speak of. He can stick to surfaces - sometimes. Sticky surfaces are color-coded and change with each level. No puzzles - no hard core death traps - no precise jumps to be made. This is platforming at its most rudimentary and boring.
Reaching the end of a level is a relief, each and every time. This is a strange thing to say, because the levels are filthy with checkpoints - as in, up to four or five on a single screen. I suppose it would be appropriate for me to shake my cane, tell those kids to get off my lawn, and bemoan how insultingly easy modern games are (Christ, I'm only 27). Nah, I suspect the game's absurd simplicity is due to two factors: first, the devs were surely aware of how empty and dull the core experience is. And second, it prevents the music - the actual centerpiece of the game - from being gated by any difficulty. Plus or minus - it's your call - but just about anyone can play this junk and experience the songs in full.
Oh, the music is nice - there's Beck's excellent songs (sadly limited to 3), a Space Invaders-themed selection from Deadmau5, and some other pleasant tunes from people I've never heard of. They look fine too; I particularly liked the office building theme of Jim Guthrie's album. Beck's levels are the real standout, and not just because of the music. They're the only levels to really visually play up the music itself - like platforms made from song lyrics and chorus, that appear and disappear with the music. It's the only thing resembling any sort of creativity in the game. It's hard to even call it a game - more like an interactive music visualizer (limited to only about 20 songs, though). Upon completing the main game, you unlock a series of single-screen time attack levels. These are as frustrating and arbitrary as the campaign is dull and unimaginative.
The level editor seems decent enough, but why bother? This is something I learned with LittleBigPlanet a few years ago - it doesn't really matter how robust your level editor is, your community sharing features are, if you can't get the core gameplay right (a lesson that Mario Maker seems to have taken to heart, if all the hype is true). The difference is that I had at least a little fun with LittleBigPlanet. I can't say the same for Sound Shapes.
In the end, it feels like a missed opportunity. Not an opportunity to be a good game, but a waste of time for the musicians involved who might otherwise have been putting their talents to use, making art for something that isn't a garbage game with rotten fundamentals.
All screenshots my own (from PS4).