Every now and then, I find a game that challenges my preconceived notions of what a “game” is. That’s usually not a bad thing–I love a lot of visual novels, for instance, and those certainly deviate from traditional styles of gameplay. Another unique genre of game is, for lack of a better term, the walking simulator. Games that focus more on exploration of environments than on action or plot have the potential to bore, but there are good ones out there. Thatgamecompany’s Journey is one such game; its unique aesthetic and lovely graphics made it one of 2012’s most notable releases. Hollow Tree Games’s new release Shape of the World fits a similar mold, with its distinct aesthetic and focus on discovery. Does Shape of the World live up to the high bar set by other works in its genre? Is it good?
Gameplay-wise, Shape of the World is very simplistic. Other than walking and jumping, the only options the player really has are to activate stone pillars which reveal new pathways, and to throw out balls of color that sprout into trees. The first several times one does these things are satisfying; the ability to bring trees to life on a whim is particularly cool. With that said, the novelty wears off about half an hour in, as generating more trees has no non-aesthetic benefits. Once the novelty of creation wears off, the trees just become obstacles in the player’s way as they attempt to navigate the game’s large world.
Much like the gameplay, the game’s graphics impress at first but lose some impact later on. Watching plants, hills, streams, and other elements of nature pop up before one’s eyes is very satisfying, and they’re all well-rendered. The game’s colors are gorgeous, and the player regularly walks through gates that change the entire world’s color scheme. As a result, players get to see just about every color of vegetation and skyline imaginable, which is awesome. The occasional variances from mild sunny weather are particularly lovely; the rain forest area is my favorite in the entire game.
Unfortunately, beautiful environments alone do not a great game make. Shape of the World’s official website describes the game as being an relaxing exploration experience, but it’s not actually very calming to play. It’s easy to get lost and find oneself retracing old steps, which is frustrating when one just wants to move along to the next environment. The game may be beautiful, but it’s not so beautiful that players will want to look at the same exact portions of it over and over again.
Part of my frustration with the game’s environments stems from how they simultaneously feel overpopulated and empty. Vegetation pops up so frequently that it becomes a frequent obstacle while walking. The animals, meanwhile, lack enough detail or unique charm to feel like true, living inhabitants of the world. As a result, the world depicted in Shape of the World feels disappointingly shallow. Instead of feeling relaxed and enamored with nature, I spent the majority of my playtime feelings frustrated that it took so long to get from one location to the next.
While it’s ultimately damning for a game to not accomplish its stated goal, there are a lot of great aspects to Shape of the World. Besides the strong graphics and fun aspects of growing trees on a whim, the game also impresses with its music. The score is fantastic, and the musical shifts as one moves from one location to the next are both appropriate and pleasing to listen to. The soundtrack is probably the single best thing about the game; it’s definitely the only major element that I never grew tired of.
Overall, Shape of the World is not a bad game, but it’s not a very good one either. The graphics are beautiful, but the world they create is disappointingly simple and feels relatively uninhabited. The soundtrack does a lot to help improve the overall playing experience, but there’s only so much you can do to dress up a lifeless environment. I enjoyed taking in all of the game’s nature, but I found the gameplay tedious to the point where I felt like I’d gotten my fill after about forty minutes.