Just Shapes & Beats (PC)
You play as a small shape (a blue square in story mode) trying to bring harmony back to a land plagued by an evil pink monstrosity that corrupts everything it touches. You'll need to dodge, dive, dash, dip and dodge your way through level after level of insidiously well-timed attacks that pulse and bounce to the soundtrack. Hopefully you like the music because some of those levels...you're going to hear several times before beating them.
-Techno/dub/chip soundtrack featuring Danimal Cannon, Sabrepulse, Zef, and Tokyo Machine
-High replayability with challenges and couch co-op
-Casual mode for people who aren't very good, need some help, or just want to finish a review
Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
OS: Microsoft® Windows® 7
Processor: Intel Core i3 3.0 GHz 64 bits Processor
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: DirectX 10-compatible graphics card with at least 256MB of video memory
DirectX: Version 10
Storage: 1 GB available space
4-5 hours for Story mode
May 31, 2018
PC, Switch, PlayStation 4
Developer: Berzerk Studio
Publisher: Berzerk Studio
Just Shapes & Beats (JS&B) has a deadpan-straightforward title. You play as a shape, dodging other shapes, set to music…that has a beat. While this paltry description doesn’t do the game justice, let me compare the feeling that the introductory first few levels gave me while I was playing: similar to a high-level game of Tetris where you’re just trying to survive the rapid-fire onslaught of tetrominoes, or the glute-clenching screen-full-of tiny rocks in Asteroids, or just trying to limp toward the end of playing Fire and the Flames on Guitar Hero while your audience score wavers dangerously near red. All of these games, including JS&B tap into that bleeding-edge danger of failure and reward while also being so simple that it feels like it shouldn’t work but it does, reader, it does!
JS&B has no objectionable language, but in the review, it is referred to as a “Bullet-hell” style game, which is defined by a top-down or side-scrolling view game where the player has to dodge or avoid multiple projectiles at once to avoid damage.
The main villain is depicted as a grinning face who corrupts everything he touches, often with cracks showing in his head, sometimes from protruding shapes. Other characters are corrupted or broken in cutscenes or gameplay. Blood isn’t present, but pink liquid drips from a boss’ face during a fight sequence.
I like old-school side-scrolling games and new-school “bullet-hell” genre games like Ikagura. There’s something about the exhilaration of surviving a giant boss that throws waves of projectiles at you only to lose to your tiny ship or character. In JS&B, you’ll lose several times if you’re anything like me, before you beat the game or at the very least figure out its mechanisms and strategies. Despite being quite hard (even on casual mode) the game doesn’t usually pull cheap shots, and by the end of the story, you’re ready to take on the new challenges you’ve just unlocked.
You might only have four arrow keys and a spacebar to dodge with, but that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. Your dodge actually makes you invincible for the split second you’re moving at that increased speed, which opens up unique opportunities for the player’s interactions with the level design. On more than one occasion, I took a look at some hazard plummeting my way and thought, “Now how am I supposed to deal with THAT?!” Only after failing a few times did I realize I should be dashing toward the danger, on occasion, to be able to survive the assault.
JS&B also kindly gives the player(s) fair warning when large sections of the screen are about to become unfriendly, in the form of pink areas that grow brighter as the danger approaches. Sometimes you might only have a split-second to move, but that’s enough time to dodge as fast as you can to safety. There are a few instances of players needing just to memorize a section to get past it, but far more often it comes down to how well one can pay attention to multiple inputs and dangers at the same time. The game also kindly grants you temporary invincibility after you take damage. When you do get hit, your shape will slowly lose pieces until you’re a sliver of your former self.
If you’re not good at that, you’ll be as happy to know as I was when I discovered it, that a casual mode exists. Casual mode doubles your health in story mode, giving you a fighting chance to make it past hard levels or bosses where there aren’t any checkpoints. Good on Berzerk Studio for including this and not shaming their players in any way for choosing it.
After you beat the story mode, the game opens up even more things to do; challenges become available, and the game encourages you to try them along with different modes and settings—many levels in the different playlists can be attempted on different difficulty levels, which can increase your rewards if you succeed at the harder ones. Passing challenges and playing levels in the playlist mode gets you Beat Points, which you can then spend on unlocking more tracks.
This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a “bullet-hell” style game. There are a lot of modes to choose from, and the story is a good length to where you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but it didn’t overstay it’s welcome. JS&B is recommendable if you have the means.
Review code generously provided by Berzerk Studio.
+Tough but fair; gives you checkpoints and (mostly) fair warnings
+Great soundtrack as long as you like Tech/Dub/Chip tunes
+Lots of replayability, but story mode is short and sweet
-Very hard at times, even with Casual mode on
-Songs can start to sound similar; if you don't like this style of music this game isn't for you