Monday, 18 June 2018 09:00

Just Shapes and Beats Review

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Just Shapes & Beats is, perhaps, too simple a title for the newest game by Berzerk Studio. A more proper title might be, Just Shapes & Beats & Flashing Colors & Crazy Music & OMG did I really just die again!?! But I respect the elegance of their shorter title. The game finds you navigating your humble cube through a series of chaotic levels, where touching anything causes you harm. Each level is meticulously populated with all manor of flying, spinning, and pulsing pink-tinted death, all moving in sync with the song playing in the background. After a few minutes of the game’s challenging assault on your eyes, ears, and reflexes you will find there is more to this game than some simple shapes and beats.

Like A Leaf Pixel In the Wind

As hinted earlier, the core experience of Just Shapes & Beats consists of navigating your avatar-cube through a series of bullet-hellish levels, each set to a different EDM/chiptune song. While flying along, you must avoid the ever-shifting fluorescent pink landscape. Slam into a saw blade or pillar of light and you will see your avatar visibly damaged. Take too many hits and it’s back to the most recent checkpoint (which may be the beginning of the level).

The controls could not be simpler. Use the WASD keys/joystick to move, and the spacebar/assigned controller button to dash. That’s it. It’s worth mentioning that while dashing you gain a moment of intangibility. This adds a nice twist, allowing you to dash through danger rather then around it when needed.

Most of levels consist of a series of checkpoints, whereby if you die you only have to go back to the most recent one. However, some of the more difficult stages lack checkpoints altogether and must be completed in one go. This adds to the frustration, but also the sense of accomplishment. It can be infuriating to be seconds from beating a boss-level only to get clipped by a rogue brick. But it also makes completing some of the harder stages (I’m looking at you, Close to Me) that much sweeter.

DJ Shapes and DJ Beats

Just Shapes & Beats has three modes that are pretty straightforward. There’s a Short Story Mode, where you fight back the pink corruption to rescue your friends and restore peace to the world around you. Story Mode also acts as a sort of extended tutorial, ramping up difficulty and introducing you to the game’s various tricks. The story is cute but short, clocking in at around three hours total. (And that’s with having to replay several stages multiple times.)

Challenge Mode certainly feels like the focal point of the game with its increased difficulty, randomized levels, and multiplayer capabilities. In Challenge Mode you take on a series of levels either solo or accompanied by up to three friends. After each level, players receive a letter grade and score depending on several factors. Everything from reviving your buddies, to staying to one side of the screen, will boost your score. The score element has the two-fold benefit of determining the “winner” and helping you to unlock additional tracks. You can reference the game’s Playlist menu to view currently unlocked tracks, as well as view progress towards unlocking new ones.

Finally, there is the de facto “chill” mode of the game, Party Mode. In Party Mode the difficulty has been dialed down, the ability to fail removed, and the stages transition continuously one after another. Funny enough, these factors have led the dev’s to offer up Party Mode as a possible replacement DJ for your next party, saying “Let the game play in Party Mode and light up your social gatherings, + you can even have people playing those cool party stages while the music plays…” While this might be a nice way to introduce people to the game, I doubt the reality of this scenario, fearing either the flashing lights being too distracting, or the track list being too repetitive. Either way, Party Mode is a nice, less stressful experience (but by no means a relaxing one).

Hyper Light Music Video

The marriage of sound and shapes is really what makes Just Shapes & Beats something special. Each level is unique, and you can feel how the level design is meant to give a sense of tangibility to the song that inspired it. Pink bars will swell from the ground as the beat grows. Or maybe a flurry of pink saw blades will assault you as a song reaches its climax. It’s the synergy between these two elements (i.e. songs and stages) that set this game apart from just another rhythm or bullet-hell game.

The tracklist for Just Shapes & Beats clocks in at an acceptable thirty-four total tracks (with an additional eleven-track pack bundle available for purchase). This feels like a good start, but depending on the appeal or how frequently you like hearing the same songs, this may limit its staying power amongst your frequently played games. It’s not unlikely the game will fall into your backlog once you’ve played through most the tracks once or twice, or after you’ve shown it off to your friends. Additionally, the wonderful execution of each level leads one to think how Just Shapes & Beats would benefit greatly from a level editor and the ability to upload your own tracks.

Just Shapes & Beats clearly strives to be a party-game staple, hopefully finding itself among the co-op pantheon with games like Castle Crashers or Runbow. Whether this game sticks around for you depends entirely on your taste in games, music, and who you can convince to play with you.

The Rhythm WILL Get You

I admit I had to realign my expectations to understand what Just Shapes & Beats was trying to say. Initially I was disappointed that the game did not have me contribute to or reinforce the music with my actions like Guitar Hero, DDR, or the BIT.TRIP series. Rather, Just Shapes & Beats is a game about survival. It imposes a sense of pressure and aggression and doesn’t ask for your contribution. Perhaps this is message a from the EDM fan to the uninitiated: “This is our world; pretty nuts, right? Let’s see if you can survive.” Either way I would have liked at times to have a more active role, rather than just dodging my surroundings. Whether that be some weapon to help defend myself (and add variety to the gameplay), or perhaps some power-ups so that I could take a break to better appreciate the music and complex level design.

While I appreciate the challenges and unlockable content, I found little reason to pursue them. After playing through the story and a few challenge rounds with a friend, I really feel like I absorbed everything Just Shapes & Beats was trying to say. Admittedly, that’s going to change from person to person. I have no doubt there is a healthy following for this game out there who will pride themselves on unlocking every track and who will have the party mode run in the background of their next gathering.


The Verdict: Great

Just Shapes & Beats grew on me, and I think that’s intentional. It’s a game of subverting expectations. From simple tricks, like early credit crawls and final boss fake-outs, it’s a game that enjoys toying with you. The synergy of the music and level design is truly something special and each level feels fresh and unique. The game is hampered a bit by its simplistic controls, limited content, and possibly niche appeal depending on your taste in music and tolerance for flashing lights. Despite these minor complaints, Just Shapes & Beats is worth experiencing and has me genuinely intrigued on how the developer may grow or expand this formula.

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Matthew Watson

Matt finds himself thinking about gaming most of the day. If he's not glued to his PC searching for the next great indie game; he's likely explaining the rules to some complex board game he's talked his friends into. Matt graduated from Marymount University in Arlington,VA with a Bachelor of Arts. Originally from Maryland, Matt currently lives in Austin,TX where he provides customer support for Electronic Arts. As such, Matt will not be reviewing any EA games we happen to get our hands on.


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