Awesome beats, an amazing light show, and a crushing neon apocalypse. It could be the best Saturday night you’ve had in years. In this instance, however, the blisteringly assault emanating from my corner of the room is a video game. After threatening to attack for the last few years, Berzerk Studios has finally unleashed Just Shapes & Beats on both PC and Nintendo Switch.
Just Shapes & Beats, is a deceptively straightforward concept that disguises its brilliance behind the simplicity of its design. Players that pick up the challenge will find themselves in control of a half pint rectangle, and your job is to navigate through a side-scrolling mass of pixels while an arsenal of neon shapes try to halt your progress. Should your four-sided protagonist touch any of the offending pink objects as they pass, then your health will suffer for the impact.
This mix of twin-stick shooter and bullet hell discotheque is just as easy to get started with as you might imagine. A controller is best for anybody on PC as moving around the screen is tied to the analog controls, with little else in the way of interaction required. The player cube is fairly sensitive and requires some nimble thumbs and great reactions to avoid crashing out of the game. As you try to avoid the array of shapes that bloom on screen, the only other available ability is a quick dash. This includes a brief moment of invulnerability, allowing you to scoot out of danger and pass through the masses of incoming pink. Not only does this make Just Shapes & Beats easy to engage with, but it leaves little room for unnecessary exposition.
The opening moments of the story mode are a swift introduction to what you can expect out of this encounter. Missions quickly descend into flashing shapes, blasting electronic beats and a pulsating myriad of movement. Story mode contains 35 levels and 20 licensed tracks from some of chiptune’s finest artists. Names like Monstercat, Saberpulse, Nirto Fun and Chipzel all contribute to this adventure, setting it apart from other EDM inspired games. Fans of electronic genres will appreciate the quality of this craft as it blasts through your ears or out into the ether. Completing story missions unlocks tracks throughout the rest of the game. Local co-op, online and a party mode are all available for some social fun and give the whole experience some much-needed longevity. Local co-op is especially chaotic, and if things seem busy with just one cube crashing around the screen, it gets so much more confusing sharing that space with friends.
While you busily unlock a few tracks for your friends coming over, you will find Just Shapes & Beats indulging in a bit of unexpected platforming. Getting between tunes deposits players in an ethereal island habitat, under threat from a red menace. Pushing the player cube between points like this is an inspired move. Some really simple platforming problems give Just Shapes & Beats an opportunity to tell a story and inject some personality into a faceless little quadrilateral. It also includes the only ever instance of pirate chiptune I’ve ever heard. These little bouts of downtime from the constant bullet hell of the soundtrack ass a great twist to the game.
While I ended up adoring my cute little cube, the shine does fade a little given time. Play any level enough times and these handcrafted experiences will eventually seem a little repetitive. This is a natural compromise for a game like Just Shapes & Beats. Without a progression system to entice players back into the solo campaign or procedural generation to switch things up, Just Shapes & Beats will remain a crazy neon box of Lego that always ends up building the same model.
As a handcrafted experience, however, this makes every level pitch perfect. While some rhythm games play fast and loose with timing, Berzerk Studio has this down to a tee. Berzerk has managed to make a game that I described as being dragged into a chiptune dungeon by a horde of acid riddled techno fairies, and I honestly can’t think of a better description yet. Just Shapes & Beats allows some simple ideas to blossom into an inventive, engaging challenge that proves a tiny cluster of well-proportioned pixels can contain more personality than the mightiest action hero.