The Vita is an extraordinarily frustrating console. The tech is there. The design is there. Everything is in place for Sony's expensive little beauty to soar into the handheld gaming stratosphere. And yet, with the world at its feet, there is nothing to play. The fine Gravity Rush notwithstanding, the Vita landscape has been barren and exasperating.
Keen to rectify this situation is Queasy Games' impressive Sound Shapes - a true original and finally something worth getting excited about for that shiny fella sitting the drawer. As a game it's pure abstraction; a platformer where you construct music as you play, but also where music defines the very parameters of each level.
Essentially, you play as a ball. You can stick to light surfaces, but not dark ones, and as you progress you hoover up coins (not an unusual request for a platformer). Here, though, each coin adds another track to the musical loop, so you could grab a particularly snappy snare or a growling bass hook as you roll from left to right. Anything red is dangerous, and carries its own musical signature, so you can actually navigate the levels using the beat as well as your own dexterity, like a far less rigid Beat Sneak Bandit with a trilby and hipster glasses.
When it works it's a hypnotic experience, thanks to sharp 2D imagery combining with a gradual, surging crescendo that achieves that most fabled of music-gaming milestones - synaesthesia. And with music by the likes of Deadmau5 and Beck, as well as visual collaborations with the Superbrothers, this is the type of indie credibility that actually transcends the medium.
On top of all of that, a fantastically well-designed level editor lets the creative draw up their own soundscapes. Both the front and rear touch pads are used to slide, scale and rotate objects easily into place, with the kind of tactile satisfaction that even LittleBigPlanet can't muster. Each screen (the levels are divided up into rectangles) becomes a synthesiser grid, essentially, so you can place coins into the mix exactly where you want them. The higher you place them, the higher the pitch they'll play back. It's outstandingly clever, and gives you such an insight into how the campaign levels are constructed too.
Of course, you can upload and subsequently download countless user created tracks from a functional and navigable store front, theoretically giving Sound Shapes an endless life span. Theoretically being the operative word, though. Unfortunately, for all the game's ambition, and for all the whimsy and mirth it is so capable of providing, it falls into the same trap as LittleBigPlanet - excruciating platforming.
This is a genre where the bar has been set so ludicrously high, so Sound Shapes' overly-fiddly jumping sections and insta-deaths can be infuriating. At one point I wanted to physically climb inside the Vita, find Deadmau5 and choke him until his giant red head turned blue.
Sound Shapes' real crime is not just the irritation of dying (which isn't too awful on its own, considering how kind the checkpointing is), but the fact the music is repeatedly halted and rewound, turning what could and should be euphoric and uplifting into the worst aural atrocity since DJ Pied Piper's war crime of a song 'We're loving it'.
A flawed gem, then. I found it mightily upsetting to have something in my hands capable of such beauty, such triumphant gaming bliss, only to have that thing ultimately turn into disappointment and frustration. It's almost more upsetting than playing something that was never up to much in the first place.
Sounds a bit like the Vita, doesn't it?
Version Tested: PS Vita