It might just be shapes and beats, but at least a lot is done with the concept.
The simplicity of Just Shapes & Beats is its greatest strength. The only controls needed are an analog stick to move and a button to dash. The rest is just watch, listen, and respond to the music and do your best to survive. The long-in-development game from Canadian developer Berzerk Studio blends rhythm games with bullet-hell shoot-’em-ups for a unique and surprisingly versatile experience. While the game might skew a tiny bit too hard for its party-game aspirations, the sheer magic of the mixture of EDM and chiptune music and easy-to-grasp gameplay is an engaging package mostly for multiplayer gatherings but even for solo players too, more so courtesy of the good online play.
The thrust here is that you’re basically watching a visualizer while maneuvering a tiny shape to avoid obstacles created by the beats of the music. A dash makes it easier to zip around the screen and phase through hurdles, but it never gets more complicated than move around and don’t die. Dying will likely happen a lot, especially during the more bass-thumping intense songs. While most of the traps are teased visually, sometimes the vile beats pop up out of nowhere and really can only be avoided by repetition or luck. However, all of the movement on screen matches up with the music in such a beautiful way that it’s easy to forgive those occasional frustrations. It plays out like a bizarro Guitar Hero song where instead of a note highway, you’re contending with projectiles and enemies.
Several modes are present in Just Shapes & Beats and if you’re experiencing this more so in single-player, the Story mode is where to start. Presented with a cute and mostly wordless story, this mode takes you through the majority of the songs. It’s not score-driven and an optional Casual Mode gives your little shape some more HP so the occasional brutality of the songs can be mitigated. It’s a smart way to let players experience the game without penalty.
The story unlocks content in Challenge, which is where the legs of the game are. Challenge can be played locally on the same system, locally across multiple systems, and online with randoms or friends. Each challenge is three songs long with the first two being able to be selected by the group out of a random selection of three. The final track is always a random boss fight. Performance is scored on a letter grade basis and other bonus points are awarded as well, used to mark high scores and also unlock more content.
Some smart decisions are on display in this part. One, even if you haven’t unlocked every song, everything is available randomly in Challenge, removing the barrier between experts and rookies. Also the online is easy to drop into and the benefit of playing with multiple players helps alleviate some of the overall frustration from the difficulty. A good player can carry a lesser one and as long as all players don’t die, defeated ones can be rescued or brought back at a checkpoint. Challenge is such a great way to replay the game, as the three songs go by relatively fast and the experience can feel so different depending on your party. I don’t like that every trio has to end with a boss battle, though, but that’s mostly because it’s pulling from a smaller pool of the songs and they’re also checkpointless, so if a player falls early, they can’t do anything for the rest of the song.
If all of this is too hard and you just want to mess around to the excellent soundtrack, the Party option just plays random songs on loop without any penalty. I have yet to try this at an actual party so I don’t know if spontaneous Just Shapes & Beats dance parties are a thing but if they are, this is the only way to find out.
Just Shapes & Beats, in general, is quite challenging. The boss fights don’t mess around and even the regular songs are quick bursts of frantic movement to avoid certain doom. If you crave a difficult experience, it’s all there. Try to get S ranks, I dare you. It’s hard. But if you just like the music and you want to experience the novelty of the experience with friends, the options are there to do that. The fact that this game caters to the casual and hardcore experience is so smart and so welcome.
I’m enchanted by this game and seeing how the dynamite techno-heavy soundtrack is turned into deadly obstacles that I have to deftly respond to and avoid is often breathtaking. Online play is such a welcome and rewarding experience. The drop-in/drop-out multiplayer is excellent. I never knew I wanted a bullet-less shoot-’em-up that was dripping with rhythm game style, but that’s exactly what Just Shapes & Beats is. It’s a thoroughly unique game with a myriad of options that can be played in a variety of ways. It’s awesome.