A few years back at PAX West, there were a couple of guys at the end of the 6th floor escalators with a small cardboard sign asking “What’s your favorite game soundtrack?” And oh boy, did I have a list for them. Bit Trip Runner! Hotline Miami! OlliOlli! Super Hexagon! There are some fantastic games out there that have earned that kind of split second word association when it comes to great soundtracks, and I’ve played a lot of them.
Well escalator guys, here’s another one for your list. Just Shapes & Beats is now out on Switch and Steam. If you’ve attended any fan conventions in the past few years, you’ve probably seen this one on the show floor—not just because the music is catchy, but because of the crowd it draws. The hype has been built largely on word of mouth and demos, with precious few trailers or streaming sessions to show off what the game is like. Now that it’s here, how does it hold up? Does such a straightforward premise work for a full length game? Or does it collapse under the fragility of its own gimmick?
Just Shapes & Beats is not a rhythm game per se, but rather, its obstacles, how they move, and how the player responds to them are informed by the beat of the backing track. As the player hurtles through each level, they navigate a two dimensional, sidescrolling plane of polygons that explode and shift in a vibrant blur of hot pink, fuschia and purple, using a dash move to speed around obstructions or blast through fading barriers.
While these elements are minimalist and uncomplicated, dodging them is less so. The game is aptly described by some fans as a “bullet hell” title, and while Just Shapes & Beats is not a shooter game, I agree. The challenge of avoiding several overlapping projectiles is highly reminiscent of that particular style of gameplay.
But though it’s visually chaotic and mechanically punishing, like others in its class, the difficulty is easy to forgive. The upbeat soundtrack goes a long way in heading off frustration at the pass, in that failure is just another opportunity to keep listening to the music. It actually reminds me a lot of Super Hexagon—the action differs, but the intense demand on the player’s reflexes is similar, and just as fun. It smartly balances challenge and triumph.
There are several checkpoints in each level that allow you to “save” your progress as you go, but you can only take so much damage before dying, and you can only die once before having to start over completely. In multiplayer, this operates more as a sort of “last man standing” affair, where the entire group works to get through the level but can be picked off by the many environmental hazards flying towards them along the way. While multiplayer would seem hard to pull off for a game like this, the mode is very high energy, making for some very spirited couch co-op game sessions (which are the best kind). The story mode, meanwhile, surprised me by even existing; a game like this doesn’t necessarily need a narrative, but what story Just Shapes & Beats does have works for both the game’s premise and chiptune soundtrack. It holds things together well by offering a linear path through the levels while also unlocking more tunes to play in challenge mode. The end credits, in particular, were a lot of fun, and I found myself thinking I need to go to more EDM shows this summer.
Just Shapes & Beats is cool in a way that is just unfair. It’s like being able to play my SoundCloud playlists as a videogame, or as I put it two years ago, like playing a music video as a videogame. For a game with such short levels and simple pretense, a perfect harmony between length, price and difficulty has been adequately achieved. Whether you’re a bullet hell aficionado who blasts through the main campaign in a few hours, or a fumbling novice preserving through each level by sheer luck, Just Shapes & Beats is the whole package.
Just Shapes & Beats was developed and published by Berzerk Studio. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PC.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.