Rhythm games: a surprisingly eclectic genre that, despite failing to recapture the magic of Rock Band still manages to innovate even today (see: Beat Saber). Just about every title involves doing something to the beat of a song, be it Crypt of the Necrodancer or Audiosurf, and we rarely see a serious deviation from this staple. That’s where Just Shapes & Beats comes in. What if, instead of reacting to a song like a composer trying to keep up, the player was forced into a defensive position? What if each track was a battle for dear life, each beat an obstacle to overcome, and rather than mastering it you were just trying to survive?
One could argue this is true for any rhythm game, as mastering a song requires the skill to see it through to the end. The novelty of Just Shapes & Beats is that it gives the player room to experiment. Every beat, synth, and snare in the game is visualized as an obstacle to be avoided. Playing as one of four shapes, you must dip, dive, duck and dodge your way through a vast variety of visualized audio cues. Finding out where it’s safe to hover for a moment or how best to exploit the patterns of the rhythm is all in the fun, and an audio-visual feast is provided in every frame of the game.
The introduction, a brief tutorial section, is proceeded by a boss battle. The boss fights aren’t just harder levels, they’re actual, tangible bosses. They move, dance, and attack the player to the rhythm, making these stages feel like dances of death. A wonderful and fun to traverse overworld connects each stage, it too containing obstacles to avoid and some clever visuals to keep things fresh. The first ten to fifteen minutes are all the game needs to get its hooks deep, as it instantly astounds with creativity and tight design.
Every level has a distinct flavor in Just Shapes & Beats. One features lavish orchestral electro accompanied by swirling circles that send out graceful ribbons of pink; another is bass-heavy dubstep that features large pillars slamming down into a pool of water-like lines, causing them to swell upward. It’s jaw-dropping how well the tracks and stages compliment each other, and it becomes almost second nature to realize what kind of obstacles are in store just from the sound of the music.
Once you’re into the groove of things, each stage has several checkpoints that restore health on death (sans boss fights, which must be done in one go). In singleplayer, obstacles are slightly less threatening, and you’ll have four hitpoints between checkpoints. In multiplayer, however, things are different. Each player has three hit points and can be revived if another player reaches their “ghost” before it drifts offscreen. While it’s easy to camp out in a safe zone in singleplayer, becoming separated in multiplayer makes things far more tense. On top of this, the edges of the screen are often the safest, but this also means your ghost will drift away more quickly if you fall. It’s beautifully balanced, and the definitive way to experience the game.
My only complaint (that’s right: this is the only one) is how Just Shapes & Beats handles game overs. You only have three lives per stage in singleplayer, meaning if you’re knocked out thrice you’re dropped back into the world map. This feels redundant given the checkpoint system. If I’ve cleared a stage to a certain point, there’s no good reason to send me back to the beginning for failing a certain number of times later on. It feels at odds with the nature of the game, which encourages twitchy gameplay and experimentation within each stage.
On the bright side, there’s a “casual” mode, doubling available hitpoints for a more relaxed experience. No one can be blamed for needing this their first time through, because the game can be downright brutal at times, particularly during boss fights. Luckily, grooving out to a fantastic soundtrack makes replayability much higher, and I found myself with more than one earworm after an extended play session.
If you thought the rhythm genre was growing stale, you owe it to yourself to try something new. A blend of shmup gameplay and rhythm action is rare enough, but to see it done this well gives me hope for the future. Just Shapes & Beats is an audio-visual masterpiece, and I give serious kudos to the talented artists and designers who blended their crafts in such a tight display. With a staggering variety of options for gameplay, fun party modes, and a thoroughly catchy tracklist, Berzerk Studio have delivered a standout rhythm title.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Berzerk Studio.
Just Shapes & Beats is an audio-visual masterpiece, and I give serious kudos to the talented artists and designers who blended their crafts in such a tight display. With a staggering variety of options for gameplay, fun party modes, and a thoroughly catchy tracklist, developer Berzerk has delivered a standout rhythm title.