We’re fortunate in planet PlayStation. The back catalogue is so rich and diverse that it’s not difficult to find a title that matches your mood. As much as I enjoy open world games, for example, there are days when it all feels a bit too much like hard work. Trudging through a morass of time-bound missions, side quests and collectable hunts, I often long to veer off the main story and just relax, exploring things at my own pace. There are already a few games which cater to this style of play – Abzu, Flow and Journey to name a few – and indie title Shape of the World is the latest title to cherish the notion of playing more for pleasure than progression.
Best described as a first-person exploration game, you are dropped into the world with no cutscenes or preamble and, in fact, no context whatsoever. The opening scene is steeped in a dreamlike, ethereal atmosphere and it’s a tone that persists throughout the game. Devoid of colour at first, gently shifting shapes glide across a monochrome backdrop. Instinctively, I pressed the left stick to move forward, using the right stick to survey the seemingly infinite and mysterious gloom. There is a sliver of an ambient soundtrack, almost on the cusp of hearing, just enough to convey a slight feeling of unease. The unease, of course, comes from being lost in an unfamiliar world.
Before long a glowing red triangle comes into view. Curiosity leads me inexorably towards it. As I approach, the game finally introduces the controls and invites me to hit R2 in order to interact with the environment, specifically two glowing stone pillars. Hitting them triggers a sequence you will come to see many times over the course of the game: the pillars rise from the ground to support a floating staircase which unfurls before your eyes, allowing access to the next part of the level. I continue to chase the red triangle in the distance, realising intuitively that it’s a gateway of some kind. As I traverse, I experiment with the ‘interact’ command, propelling myself forward through the trees. The level is unfolding as you travel, something akin to walking along a gargantuan pop-up book. The soundtrack rises and falls, peaking at key moments and heightening the sense of wonder and discovery.
As I progressed, the world began to flood with colour, unveiling beautiful vistas unsullied by HUDs or any extraneous information. The colours burst into the screen, often beautifully complimentary, sometimes jarring in their contrast, but always arresting to behold. I’m not one to unduly dwell on visuals, but the experience of meandering the world and soaking up the sights and atmosphere is the beating heart of this game. I was struck by the way flowers blossomed to life as I moved through the world, and all manner of animals and fanciful creatures danced around the world, most of which were seemingly oblivious – or at least indifferent – to my presence.
Before long you are granted access to seeds, and with a tap of L2, you can augment the dense world with trees of your own. Superficially, these add a visual flourish but you can also harness their power by pressing R2 to propel yourself through the trees and consequently expedite your travel a little. Not that there’s any reason to rush- there’s never any sense of danger, peril or impending doom. The creatures that roam the world are mostly innocuous. Attempt to interact with the larger, amorphous blobs, for example, and you will simply be pushed back, unharmed.
The psychedelic and outlandish colour schemes strongly echo that of No Man’s Sky. Shape of the World captures a similar spirit of wonder and exploration but executes it in a much less hostile environment, affording you as much time to prod and experiment as you like. It is thoroughly relaxing and the perfect antidote to the gaming fatigue we all experience at one time or another. Stripped down, with no story and minimal collectables, it’s as stress-free as you can get on PS4. It is possible to get lost, of course, but that’s kind of the point. Go and look around: explore, bask in the sights and sounds, and return to the path, following the triangle gates, when you want to.
I do, however, appreciate that experience-based games such as this are divisive. For every player who takes delight from the simple joy of traversal and absorbing the beautiful environments, there will be another who bemoans the lack of content, structure and things to do. They may have a point because it’s not a game in the traditional sense. There will be people who simply cannot see the appeal, and I would not decry anyone for that. For me, however, there is absolutely room in the PlayStation family for games like this, and when your mood takes you, it is positively therapeutic to watch this mysterious world unfold. Just one final plea to the developer: can we have this on PSVR, please?
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*