If you’ve ever been a small person in a mosh pit, you’ve already lived a lot of what Just Shapes & Beats has to offer: shifting around and attempting to find a safe spot to avoid being pummeled in the mess that’s destructively moving along with the music.
The name “Just Shapes & Beats,” while apt, doesn’t quite encompass the chaotic, colourful, anxiety-inducing, and mesmerizing game Berzerk Studio has created, and one that perfectly executes upon its premise.
Just Shapes & Beats is best described as a game about surviving the music visualization screensaver your computer probably leaves up when it’s left on idle. Each level is set to one of more than 30 EDM tracks, ranging from ambient songs to bass heavy and erratic. Each beat, note, and melody has some sort of on-screen representation, whether in snow-like patterns falling down the screen or violent manifestations of the beat made to look like monsters infecting an otherwise cheerful visualization. Obstacles form in ways that line up with beats and melodies, and as a moving shape stuck in the middle of a song you can’t stop, each level is about surviving the chaos each song creates. It’s not really a rhythm game, but I found myself constantly relying on my own musical ear to know when and how to move in order to avoid falling prey to the physical representation of this soundtrack.
It’s a punishing, tough as nails experience alone and one that, in order to progress, I had to learn and memorize not only the way a level would unfold, but how each song would develop and change in each level. I was glad to be playing on the Switch because it made getting into and playing bite sized bits of the game simple, and made getting out and away when I found myself fuming at a challenging level equally simple.
The thing I found most impressive about Just Shapes & Beats is how well it managed to bring together the audio and video to create something that requires a sense of musicality to fully grasp. This perfect marriage of each song and the ever-changing obstacle course that would spawn feels lovingly crafted, and made me revisit even the hardest levels just to hear a track I loved and really wrap my head around how each instrument or melody was captured on screen. It’s certainly playable without hearing the accompanying music, but even if the soundtrack wasn’t already a stellar and eclectic snapshot of modern EDM, it’s depriving yourself of something that was clearly meant to be experienced in tandem with something else.
But while Just Shapes & Beats can be played alone, and has a cute, simple story mode for you to unlock new music and levels on, I easily had the most fun playing the game with a group of friends to bask in the chaos alongside me. While playing solo is a punishing and occasionally even frustrating experience, playing with others cooperatively alleviates some challenge and feels like the way the game is ultimately meant to be played. Players can revive one another during hectic segments, and in a way staggering each other’s lives becomes a strategic act. Playing on the Switch is great because it lets you use individual Joy-Cons to play locally, as well as join others online. Just Shapes & Beats is a challenging blast by yourself, but to really see where the joy of the game is found, it’s best experienced with others.
Just Shapes & Beats is elegant in its simplicity and altogether remarkable in how it brings its intertwined music and aesthetics together to create something demanding, but rewarding, and ultimately unique. Games have used music to enhance level design before, but nothing quite matches Just Shapes & Beats’ ability to merge the two into something inseparable.