Every now-and-then, a game will be released that will be a breath of fresh air and a nice departure from what is the norm on the market. One that will cut and trim all the fat and what remains will be a complete and refined product that will leave you with a smile on your face. Just Shapes & Beats has taken the bullet-hell style of gameplay made famous by the likes of Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga and meshed it with music from some of the great electronica and chiptune artists of today. It takes the shapes you became familiar with in preschool, distilling all of them into a tight and entertaining title that is a feast for the senses, and hits the mark more often then it doesn’t.
You play as a square that must save your world by purifying and reclaiming magic Doritos, or triangles if you want to be unimaginative, that compose the World Tree after it is broken apart by an evil, spiky, circle disc jockey.
Flung across your small little world, you must travel to an island, volcano, and a factory in order to cleanse the malevolent forces that have corrupted these magic tortilla-like triangles, reviving their light and purifying the land. Over the course of your journey, you will encounter a tear-drop helicopter, a rounded-edge square, and a half-circle sailboat to assist you. While being a cute little tale, the story mode of Shapes serves as the primary method to unlock the majority of the songs to then be used in the “Challenge” and “Playlist” modes. The story isn’t meant to be anything groundbreaking, but seeing as it didn’t set out to be, it instead serves as a nice addition and creative way to build your bullet-dodging chops.
Speaking of bullet dodging, this is the only real mechanic to the game. Level after level, challenge after challenge, you will need to deftly maneuver your geometric shape out of danger, dipping and dashing out of the way from all manner of foreign enemy shapes. These enemy attacks are all timed and synchronized with the fantastic music accompanying each individual level. With 34 different tracks (at the time of this writing), you will have a good amount of shape-dodging ahead! Unfortunately, though, the gameplay is where I have my biggest issue. The music and visuals are fantastic, including some nods to various retro Mario sound effects, I found myself quickly wishing for more depth to the levels, some sort of added mechanic that could differentiate the levels outside of the visuals used. If some levels required me to dash to certain spots on the screen that may trigger something needed to progress, or perhaps stop an enemy, it would have made the games less of a repetitive chore.
The biggest culprit of this are the boss fights at the end of each level, being nothing more than another dodge-fest where the only difference from a normal level is that you don’t have checkpoints, and if you die, you have to start at the very beginning of that level. There were more than a few times when I had to turn off my Nintendo Switch and take a break after having to restart a boss yet again after getting right to the end, only to perish. You don’t beat bosses, you simply have to survive until the end of the song. There was a very slight glimmer of added depth that could have been introduced to these fights that only appears at the very end of the final fight, which serves as a detriment to all of the previous dodging-only boss fights.
If multiplayer is more your thing, then Challenge mode is for you. You and up to three additional players will be able to tackle three tracks in a row via couch co-op, online, or local wireless with multiple systems. Each of you will control a different shape and will have to dodge around the level, reviving your friends should they fall. At the end of each track, you will gain points and earn a ranking, unlocking additional songs. The gameplay remains the same as in the single-player mode, just with more friendly shapes on screen. If you aren’t feeling bullet-shape dodging and are instead feeling more laid back or are having a kickass rager, then Playlist or Party Mode will be your best friend! With these two modes, it will turn your Switch into a portable rave machine. The Playlist mode is fairly self-explanatory, letting you create a playlist of the game’s soundtrack to play, no gameplay involved. You will have to unlock each of the songs in order to select them for the list but in a convenient addition, each track clearly tells you how to unlock that specific track.
Find making a playlist to be too challenging after a few drinks, well my friend it’s time for Party Mode! This mode varies from the Playlist option by giving you the option to play the tracks randomly in a non-stop option, complete with the bright and flashy geometric visuals exploding on your screen.
The visuals and soundtrack are the standout stars of Just Shapes & Beats with the gameplay serving as an accompaniment to them. This game proves that you don’t need lush landscapes or models composed of millions of polygons to make a game that is an absolute pleasure to look at. The use of simple shapes and bright colors really pop on the solid black background, all moving in sync to the great electronica tracks.
Just Shapes & Beats is a fun time but its novelty diminished a fair bit by the time I was finished with the story mode. Playing with other random players via the Challenge mode helped that a bit, but quickly lost its luster as well. While I can see myself coming back to play a map or two here or there, what this game needs is some sort of variety or added elements incorporated into some levels, especially the boss fights, to break up the same “dodge all the things” task you are given level after level. Adding a mode to multiplayer that lets someone be the boss and have to try and take out the other players would add a lot of replay value. If you love bullet hell games, you will like this game, if you like electronica and chiptune music, you will like this game (casual mode will be your friend if you aren’t comfortable with bullet-hell games). If you are looking for a visual treat to take with you with a great soundtrack, give Just Shapes & Beats a try!
Our code for Just Shapes & Beats was provided to us by the PR representative for Berzerk Studio, and was played on a launch model Nintendo Switch.