REVIEW: Just Shapes & Beats

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Just Shapes & Beats
Title Just Shapes & Beats
Developer Berzerk Studio
Publisher Berzerk Studio
Release Date May 31st, 2018
Genre Rhythm Action
Platform PC, Nintendo Switch
Age Rating Everyone 10+
Official Website

In the beginning, there is only darkness…and silence. All that’s onscreen is a white square, like a re-charting of the early history of video games, a’la Pong. But then, a white triangle emanates light on the other side, beckoning you towards it. That’s when Just Shapes & Beats begins in earnest. From Berzerk Studio, it’s a unique rhythm action experience that plays unlike the genre norm and more like interactive art by way of the MOMA.

Just Shapes & Beats

Just Shapes & Beats has no need for dialogue or story text, although there is a very visual narrative delivered across the single player campaign. After a brief tutorial, you face down a fearsome monster, whom you eventually dispatch in a fierce fight. Following an early fake-out ending, that same monster evolves into a bigger beast and wreaks havoc on the shape-filled world. The cube must now go on a sprawling symphonic journey to restore the land.

In moving from level to level, the overworld setting is varied and visually diverse, using simple shapes to form tall craggy volcanic mountains, grungy factories, and dark caves among other zones. The world is further laden with interactive platforming sequences, requiring careful timing to cross past moving obstacles, but no risk of “game over’ing”.

Just Shapes & Beats

You’re always on the move with few moments to breathe in Just Shapes & Beats. Despite bullet blocks flying at you, you don’t shoot, you dodge. A sole dash move is used strategically to make the cube invincible against threats coming towards you. Giant triangles, circles, and rectangles will engulf corners of the screen, and showers of pink cubes are flying at you in every direction at any given time. If anything so much as pink or flashing white touches the cube, it dies.

Fortunately, checkpoints are generous, with multiple in most levels along with a casual mode makes it even more chill. Dying three times in a level sent me back to the overworld to try again. There’s a challenge and a self-satisfaction to replaying these interactive music videos and surviving against the wild perils within.

Just Shapes & Beats

Just Shapes & Beats even found a way for boss fights to work in this insanely abstract construction of a game. They are, in fact, the most challenging levels with no checkpoints to speak of. It’s all about pattern memorization, but I did hate having to start all the way over when I died. Special shout-out goes to a particular boss fight set to the tune of the thumping, melancholic “Close to Me” for how good that song is on its own and for being able to generate an emotional response.

Just Shapes & Beats

All the music is, in fact, superb. The soundtrack of techno, dubstep, and electro songs contributed by many guest DJs and composers is so infectious, it made me feel two kinds of emotions. Early on, I’d be giddy with glee upon listening and playing through for the first time, and later would feel dread knowing there was the danger of an incredible difficulty spike in store. Irregardless of how hard they were taken as levels, all the songs are great ear worms. I wouldn’t mind seeing the soundtrack get a full comprehensive release sometime on, say, vinyl.

Besides the music, what a feast for the eyes it all is. Despite relying on nothing extravagant graphically, the visual design of Just Shapes & Beats is excellent, making use of minimal colors to artistic, graphic effect. The titular shapes aren’t simple and geometric all the time, either. Everyday objects like gears, flames, and buzz saws take on an abstraction and are out to crush you. A word of caution for those with photo-sensitivity: Just Shapes & Beats can be blindingly flashy. Fortunately, there’s an option to modify bright flashing lights to lessen the risk of epilepsy.

Just Shapes & Beats

To unlock everything in Just Shapes & Beats certainly isn’t a cakewalk and requires commitment. Looking at the song list, there are plenty more tracks beyond the story mode. Local and online multiplayer is a great way to mix up the fun with others via randomized song playlists or nonstop thrill rides of musical levels. Playing together with others is essential to unlocking the remaining tunes, both by earning currency and via specific criteria, like dashing thousands of times. For $20, that’s a good amount for those looking for equitable replay value.

There’s a lot of past rhythm action games that help inform the style and flavor of Just Shapes & Beat, but I’d pen its direct antecedent in the WiiWare/mobile game, Lilt Line. Featuring a playable line that must avoid touching the walls in winding, forward-moving tunnels, Lilt Line was similarly not about direct confrontation and focuses on navigating to a dubstep soundtrack through a musically evolving environment. Playing this reminded me of the strong emotions I felt playing Lilt Line almost a decade ago, but unarguably, Just Shapes & Beats is the better game, offering a more varied and exciting experience.

Just Shapes & Beats

Just Shapes & Beats is one of the most passive aggressive bullet hell shooters I’ve ever seen, and an interactive Fantasia (that’s more accessible and interesting than the actual one made by Harmonix). It’s a trippy, insane adrenaline rush where every move and beat is superbly choreographed. Although it came out back in May, now’s a good time as ever to revisit Just Shapes & Beats to establish it as one of 2018’s quiet sleeper darlings.

Review Score

Review code provided by publisher

About Alex Irish

When he's not writing about games, Alex Irish is an illustrator and animation expert. His favorite gaming franchise is Pokémon, full-stop, but his favorite game of all time is Resident Evil 4. He attended the first-ever IGN House Party and is a five-time attendee of the Ottowa International Animation Festival.