I’ll admit: I had mentally purchased Sound Shapes the second I discovered that the game featured three brand new Beck songs. I will also admit (reluctantly) that I didn’t know this fact until I was looking up Beck on Wikipedia to see what he’s been up to lately. Why was I doing this? Well, my at-work internet is heavily firewalled, meaning that Wikipedia, Yahoo! Finance, and single-player Hearts are the only reprieve I have from long, quiet nights in the press release factory, where I spend 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., five nights a week.
By the time release day finally came, I was pumped! Of course, PSN was down… but the next day, I finally got to dive in. Sound Shapes is very much like if you had Super Meat Boy’s difficulty layered over Loco Roco‘s mechanics, and then played trippy chiptunes (triptunes?) in the background, escalating in musical complexity as you progressed through the levels. You stick to walls, and there is only a jump button and a roll-faster-but-you-can’t-stick-to-anything button. Simple. Pure. Delightful.
There are a handful of songs from four different artists – Deadmau5, Beck, I Am Robot and Proud, and Jim Guthrie from Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP fame – and each album’s playable art levels were designed by someone different, as well. Deadmau5, for example, has the pixelated stuff shown above. Jim Guthrie’s levels look straight out of a real world daily grind version of S&S EP (by far the coolest designs in the game). Beck’s levels are just weird, but that music! Haunting, beautiful, I’d buy his 3-song album on vinyl in a second. Yes, hipster, I know…
The songs are all pretty great, but once you start playing, you’ll burn through all of them in just an hour or two. And this… this is where the real game begins.
Beating every song in the game for the first time nets you a gold trophy and two new game modes: Beat School (where a loop is played, then you have to match it in the level editor by ear), and Death Mode. Death Mode is hard. Really hard. Like the last stages of Rayman Origins hard, or that level you died 3,000 times on while trying to unlock The Boy on Super Meat Boy.
Death Mode takes the hardest single screen from each song’s level, and puts it on a musical loop. The developers added extra bad guys and obstacles, and your task is to collect a certain amount of notes scattered around the screen in a very limited time. Die? Start over. Too slow? Start over. Some levels take ten tries; some take fifty. The thing that really resonated with me in Death Mode, though, was how connected you felt to the music while playing. There is no level during the standard campaign mode that really made the game feel like I was playing music with my platforming like Death Mode does.
See, in the original campaign mode, the enemies match the musical beats. But you’re so busy ducking and dodging them that you get to the next screen without really feeling the music. You just hear it. And then on the next screen, the tune changes, and your beat is lost. In Death Mode, you’re stuck on a loop, sometimes as short as a few seconds. Try playing fifteen minutes of a game on a three-second musical loop. It sticks in your head, it attaches itself to your mind, and it begins to leech off your soul.
And you die. Over and over and over. But since a full level is only about 30 seconds long, you will feel just moments away from victory lots (and lots) of times before that silver trophy is snatched from your grasp. But then the short music loop starts to sink in. You notice with a start that the projectiles hurtling toward you match the beat. You begin to react to obstacles in a way that borders on precognition, because you know where the bad guys and the bullets are coming from, and you know how, and you know when. You start to weave in time to the music instead of simply trying to dodge onscreen cues. You play a level for a few minutes, and the simple, infectious beat becomes a part of your playstyle. It connects you to the song in a way that EA’s Def Jam: Icon could only dream, like no game has for me personally since the first DJ Hero.
As soon as you feel the beats of Death Mode, as soon as you let them sink into you until they control your movements by instinct instead of mere human reaction, you will beat the level with whole seconds to spare, every time. Then you move onto the next song. Die a lot again. Absorb it into your being. Master it.
“Death Mode” to me signifies the death of how you used to play platformer games. It is both built up in the first half of Sound Shapes, and then torn down in the second. The rhythm must become a part of you (I hope that’s not a Backstreet Boys/Shaggy/Santana lyric) if you ever hope to earn that platinum trophy. And then what? Well, you can always make your own music to share with the world…