IMPRESSIONS: Just Shapes & Beats on Switch

Tuesday, November 26th, 2019

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On paper, Just Shapes & Beats shouldn’t be anything more than another average rhythm game. It features a simple color palette, catchy music, a story mode, multiplayer and not much else. And yet, when taken together in aggregate, all these factors tell a much more impressive tale. I’ve been interested in Just Shapes & Beats since I first demoed it years ago at PAX West, and now that I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a copy, I felt compelled to give it some more coverage. Because frankly, I don’t feel our previous coverage of the game really did it justice. So take a seat, get comfortable and let me tell you why Just Shapes & Beats has quickly cemented itself as my favorite rhythm game of the past decade.

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While there’s no written plot nor character names in the game, there is a lot of visual storytelling. If I were to describe the beginning of the game, it would go a little something like this –

In the beginning, there was darkness. From that darkness emerged the azure icon of Peace, on a quest to create rhythm. He was quickly confronted by the coral icon of Discord, who only sought to sow chaos in the land. Just when the creature appeared defeated, and Peace journeyed forth for their reward of drinking from the triple woven Font of Power, madness suddenly ensued. Discord returned, beaten but not slain, and wrested the Font from our hero’s grasp. With Font in hand, Discord grew mightily, and spread his mad contagion throughout the realm. With all the odds suddenly against him, Peace would need to set forth to defeat Discord and reclaim the Font of Power.

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You can probably tell I’m fanboying out a little bit here, but I also feel it’s well deserved. Almost none of the other rhythm games I’ve previously played had a substantive story, and while it’s true there’s no written narrative here, Just Shapes & Beats conveys one thing incredibly well – emotion. It’s immediately apparent if the game wants you to feel sad, happy or even jubilant, just from the artistry on display. You journey with the blue square I call Peace as he tries his damndest to survive the intense battles ahead, making friends and restoring the land incrementally. Sure, it’s all geometric shapes, but I wager you’ve never met a group of geometric shapes you’ve loved so much. And much like the game is more than the sum of its parts, so too does the simple grouping of shapes meld into more complex and relevant forms. There’s trees made of triangles, giant round suns, wiggling worm like creatures, twisted angular fish and so much more. An especially relevant example is the recurring boss I call Discord, who is composed of several large circles and lots of pointy triangles. He’s nothing more than a head and two giant mitts, but he can cause a lot of trouble, and that’s before he starts mutating.

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I frankly couldn’t get enough of the story mode in Just Shapes & Beats, and pretty much my only real complaint was that it didn’t last a little longer. It was a lot of fun, and I loved the constant challenge and increasing difficulty each new song presented. And while it’s true the difficulty may not be for everyone, I personally felt it was very finely tuned. It’s challenging, but not so challenging you’re going to rage quit. The story is set at the default difficulty, but there’s also Party (the easiest) and Hardcore (the hardest) once you have beaten it. Suffice to say, of the dozens of songs in Just Shapes & Beats, I’ve only been able to beat a couple on Hardcore so far. Those really live up to their moniker, though I will say my goal is to beat every single song on Hardcore eventually, just maybe not with a rank of S. I can only suffer so much pain at once.

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As for how the game plays, it’s beautiful in its simplicity. You weave your icon around the screen with the joystick, and use A or B to dash. Dashing makes you temporarily invincible, and it’s the only way you’re gonna survive. Some songs give you lots of empty space to cruise around safely, others are minefields full of dangerous traps and intermittent laser blasts and explosions. You might think this is easy, given the game only has a primary color palette of black, white, blue and pink, but you’d be very wrong. Essentially everything pink hurts you, and if your health bar gets fully depleted, you’ll die. Thankfully every song has plenty of checkpoints, so if you die after reaching one, you won’t have to restart the whole song from scratch. Which is great, cause some songs are much longer than others. I’m a little amazed how much variety is in Just Shapes & Beats, and how no song is the same as another. I’m sure that’s in part due to the amazing and talented group of musicians who lent their skills to the game, including names like Danimal Cannon, Nitro Fun, Chipzel, Noisestorm, Sabrepulse and so much more. I may not have known all these names prior to playing Just Shapes & Beats, but you can bet they made a new fan afterwards.

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Perhaps my favorite aspect of Just Shapes & Beats are the intense boss fights. These are especially challenging, since they have no checkpoints, so you have to survive the entire time. To make that a bit more fair, the good folks at Berzerk give you more health during boss fights, but that doesn’t mean they’re a cakewalk either. Each boss follows a set pattern of attacks, and will often rapidly and dangerously transform as the song progresses. A couple of my favorites were the boss song Barracuda and Close to Me. The former cause you are essentially fighting an evil pyramid shooting fish at you, and the latter cause it’s an incredibly emotional song that plays as your former friend is turned into dangerous foe. But much like the rest of the music, none of the songs for the boss fights are boring in the slightest. Though if you find them a bit much, you can always play with a friend, which brings us to the multiplayer feature of the game.

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Though you’re more than welcome to just play the game solo via the Playlist mode after you beat the story, there’s also Challenge mode. This has you team up with random folks online to take a crack at songs. The incentive is that while playing with someone else, if you die, they can revive you, and vice versa. I grew to really enjoy playing cooperatively, and generally found the others online to be good sorts. It’s a lot of fun helping people out and kicking a song’s ass at the same time. I also learned about the feats that can unlock more songs while playing Challenge mode, and went out of my way to satisfy them. This includes trials such as beating a song without dashing, or getting a perfect S rank, amongst more diabolical ones. Playing this mode rewards you with Beat Points, though I admit I’m not sure what their purpose is, other than bragging rights. I thought you might be able to unlock songs using them, but it seems that you only unlock songs by fulfilling specific requirements, including accumulating enough points. I just kind of wished the game had a shop to spend the points on silly things, but that does little to diminish my appreciation for the game.

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The one part of Challenge mode I don’t like is Hardcore songs. For whatever reason, the people I find online which were willing to tackle Hardcore songs are the worst kind of people. Specifically, they only care about winning the song for themself, and do little to nothing to help their team, generally leaving mid-song and never returning. Typically when I play on any difficulty, I go out of my way to save my buddies, and they reciprocate. But in Hardcore songs, which are already super difficult, everything is exacerbated by this ethos of “me first.” While I don’t hold that against Berzerk, since they obviously can’t control gamers, I do wish there was a way to keep people off the Hardcore server if they refuse to try and help out, much like what happens with poor sports in Smash Bros. Which is about as close as I’ll come to complaining about any aspect of this game.

Just Shapes & Beats | Mortal Kombat

FATALITY

As of this writing, I’ve easily spent some 10+ hours playing Just Shapes & Beats, and have loved every minute. I haven’t quite unlocked all the songs yet, but probably have 95% of them. I applaud Berzerk Studio for creating such a wonderfully creative and exuberant game, and am very excited about the upcoming update. If you love indie devs and rhythm games, you owe it to yourself to check this game out. You can thank me after you get to hear all the wonderful music.

Just Shapes & Beats | Power Restored

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.