Review: Shapes of Gray (Wii U)

An old-school challenge made all the more difficult for the wrong reasons.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 05/27/2015 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
A cool, unique aesthetic, simple gameplay mechanics implemented in challenging and clever ways, good soundtrack despite its repetition.
Poison Mushroom for...
Wonky hit detection, frequent technical hiccups ruin the speed and accuracy the game requires, rendering it unplayable at times

Shapes of Gray is yet another example of how Wii U has proven to be an attractive platform with indie developers, with interesting ideas inspired by retro sensibilities. However, while many developers have created love letters to classic titles and genres, Shapes of Gray is looking to use its simple concepts as a means to create something quite unique. The question is whether or not these ideas are enough to make the final product worthwhile.

As the titles suggests, Shapes of Gray is aesthetically inspired by varied geometry and numerous shades of gray, along with some blacks and whites. Your character is a somewhat squared-off circle (or rounded-off square?) while your enemies are other shapes that grow progressively more complex as the game progresses. You start off fighting triangles and circles, but before you know it you’re doing battle with stars, weird oblong things, and a plethora of other n-gons. Furthermore, the game field is a circle and crisscrossed with pixelated lines that make the whole thing look low-res and a rather stylized manner. I really have to give the developer, Secret Tunnel Entertainment, major credit for coming up with, and successfully implementing, this clever aesthetic.

When it comes to the sound design, I have to once again throw in the nearly ubiquitous line about how an indie game has great music. So, this indie game has great music provided by Andrew Nee. However, I will say there could be greater variety, because the game’s difficulty and design will likely require a great deal of repetition, so you’ll probably be hearing the limited number of tracks quite frequently.

The core gameplay mechanics in Shapes of Gray very much carry on the spirit of simple but unique design. Each level is timed, giving you only a few seconds to kill all the enemies on screen, which will then allow you move onto the next level where the process will complete. What makes this system so clever is the way in which it mixes and matches enemy types: some mindlessly go straight for you, some remain stationary and shoot projectiles, some just sort of wander about, some bounce off the walls in different patterns, some bide their time before charging at you– and these are just a few of the enemy behaviors and doesn’t take into account variations on some of these basic attributes. Also, enemies can interact with each other in interesting ways; for example, some projectiles are lethal to fellow enemies or some enemies might explode upon death and take out other foes in the process.

Taking advantage of enemy behaviors so they wipe each other out is a fun part of the game, but you’ll need to take a more direct route to deal with most baddies. Shapes of Gray handles like a twin-stick shooter but with a greater focus on melee attacks. While there are projectile power-ups scattered throughout the game, you’ll most often be pressing the triggers to attack with a short range sword swing. This makes maneuvering and positioning incredibly important, but unfortunately this is where the game stumbles. Hit detection just felt somewhat off when it comes to both dishing out and receiving damage. Then again, this might just be a byproduct of the game’s challenging nature.

That’s right, Shapes of Gray also adheres to the indie trend of aspiring to old school levels of difficulty. In addition to a an endless arcade mode, there is also a campaign mode of sorts that features batches of levels broken up by boss fights that serve as checkpoints. You can survive three hits before being thrown back to the either the start of your current batch of levels, or to the first level after the last boss you defeated. Boss levels work a little differently; the core mechanics are the same but you do not have to worry about any time limits as you deal with their larger reserves of health and more complex movements. Unfortunately, backing out to the main menu clears out your progress within that batch, so if you don’t manage to reach and defeat those levels’ final boss, you stand to lose quite a bit of progress. Some might enjoy this sort of challenge, but I found it quite frustrating, especially when combined with the wonky hit detection and the game’s biggest flaw.

While Shapes of Gray features plenty of things to love, it is all dragged down immensely by its very poor technical performance. The gaming community as a whole might have developed a somewhat overblown obsession with frame rates, but Shapes of Gray is an example of how this factor can have a major impact on the game. Throughout my time with the game, I experienced constant slow downs, dropped frames, and even very brief stops in the action, sometimes even when there was relatively little action on screen. In most games this would be annoying, but in a game that requires such speed and precision, it is damn near ruinous. Perhaps this contributed to the aforementioned hit detection issues, or maybe it compounded it, but the end result was an incredibly frustrating experience as the game approached levels that were nearly unplayable when the game’s difficulty was factored in.

Shapes of Gray is ultimately disappointing. With so many fantastic ideas at play, both mechanically and aesthetically, it is heartbreaking to see the whole thing get tarnished by mere technical errors. The way in which the developer has created and implemented these mechanics and enemy designs is truly fantastic as it makes each level all the more clever and unique, but that really doesn’t mean all that much when the game can’t keep up with itself. Taking all that into consideration, I have to give Shapes of Gray the credit it is due, but I can’t recommend it to anyone beyond the most challenge hungry masochists until these significant issues are patched.

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