Just Shapes & Beats is bullet hell without the shooter

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“Congratulations, you just survived the tutorial,” Just Shapes & Beats coder Mike Ducarme teased the small crowd clustered around Berzerk Studio’s PAX East booth. A quartet of us had just run the gauntlet, bobbing and weaving our way through an imposing cannonade of pink missile fire.

We barely managed to scratch out a victory — and that was only the tutorial? Glancing around the throng, there was a clear sense bewilderment and excitement among us. We wanted to see more.

Just Shapes & Beats is about as simple as games get, but don’t mistake its straightforward design for a lack of challenge. The “trippy space avoider” only asks players to survive, but achieving that goal is no easy feat. Berzerk’s latest creation draws inspiration from shoot-’em-ups, but nixes the shooting. It’s still all about dodging waves of projectiles, but without the ability to return fire.

The experience seemed particularly well-suited for the show floor, with its splashy, eye-catching visuals and a pulsing chiptune soundtrack that was equally alluring. However, I think it was the crowd that first caught my attention. The congregation surrounding the Berzerk booth couldn’t help but shout with a palpable passion that was as magnetic as anything happening on-screen.

Just Shapes & Beats supports up to four players, who must share the void space between bullets. Upon taking too much damage, a player will begin floating helplessly toward the edge of the screen, leaving her teammates precious seconds to mount a rescue or forge ahead alone.

I almost can’t imagine Just Shapes & Beats sans multiplayer, considering playing with others was such a large part of my experience with the game. It was one of a couple titles I couldn’t help but share with my colleagues, dragging Caitlin and Darren over to a station at an after-hours indie event, where the team showed off something I sincerely hope makes it into the final build.

It’s a level featuring an iconic theme song and silhouetted characters from a popular media franchise that I’ve been asked not to specifically name just yet. Berzerk is currently working on acquiring a license for the music and fears jail time should this cat get out of the bag too soon.

The team is also experimenting with more somber jams, like the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, to contrast with the energetic techno beats. I can’t wait to experience all that and everything else Just Shapes & Beats has to offer when it launches later this year.

Kyle MacGregor Burleson