When a game doesn’t play like, operate like, or even follow the basic characteristics of what we’ve come to expect from video games over the years, it can be pretty hard to throw it into any easy-to-understand tick boxes or categories. This is exactly the situation we face with Shape of the World, in which the ‘game’ is just as much in your own mind as it is on screen.
Loading up the game for the first time will present you with a wide-open space, almost completely, blindingly white with just a hint of movement in the distance. There are no instructions, no on-screen text, no anything – it simply exists in front of you, and you’re left to figure out what to do on your own.
After pushing the left control stick forwards, and then wiggling the right stick around to pan the scene, we soon learn that the camera is acting as our eyes. Walking in a particular direction makes the world around you grow, with shapes and colours slowly being introduced as you do so. A triangular-shaped gate soon appears in the distance, luring us in with its mysteriously out-of-place nature, and it's at this point where we are presented with an immediate taste of what this game is really all about.
You see, Shape of the World is essentially a living, breathing expanse of varying environments, and you are a visitor. The objective? To simply experience it. There are certain goals for you to reach and aspire to, which we’ll explain in just a moment, but the main aim here is to simply explore the world around you, taking in the weird and wonderful shapes, the cute, other-worldly creatures that watch you as you move, and taking a moment away from the hectic reality of life to simply melt into a world where you’re free from obligation.
And what a world it is, too. The game has a very specific art style that is often quite harsh to the eyes in a way, but its evolution on screen is mostly a rather beautiful thing to behold. Each area you stumble across has its own theme (such as a swamp, rainforest, and caves) and the colours, creatures and general vibe change to reflect this as you explore.
The music has a key influence here, too, with sudden changes in the melodies and texture of each area’s soundtrack being a shock to your previously overly-relaxed senses. If you crave action, fast-paced input, or traditional video game mechanics, this might not be the game for you; the game will reward those who like to take in the world around them, and ultimately allow themselves to use the game’s aesthetic to explore themselves and their own minds. That might sound almost comically deep, but it really does have that effect.
Going back to those goals we mentioned earlier, you’ll notice more triangular gates all around the world, alongside a constantly nagging instinct to go through them. As you do, the world around you changes, and you’re usually thrown into an area with very distinguishable shapes that demand your interaction. Doing so will reveal a mystical staircase, almost always leading you in the direction of the next gate. If you wish, you can do this from start to finish and simply arrive at the game’s final destination in record time, but you’ll be missing things along the way.
As if to tempt you away from missing out, the game’s pause menu features a list of seeds for you to collect, with each entry lighting up once you’ve found them in the game. These seeds are used to plant trees in your surroundings, which can strangely then be touched to travel slightly quicker than before, but the main aim here is to gather a full set. If you take your time in each area, you might stumble across more seeds, and you can always go back to any specific place once you’ve completed the game to finish the collection off.
Other than these seeds, it does have to be said that each area starts to feel a little empty after a while. Ironically, the movement and constant evolution of the trees and creatures around you can make it seem constantly full, but you’ll often be walking around extremely similar locations and will find yourself wanting to just move on to the next gate.
Nevertheless, it’s definitely a nice experience while it lasts, and we enjoyed the way the game made us feel as we explored its ambient world. It does all end rather quickly, though; if you prioritise travelling from gate to gate (which is essentially like going quickly from animal to animal in a zoo instead of reading all of the information posts along the way), you’ll see the credits in around two hours.
Of course, you’re welcome to just go back and explore as you see fit, but the discovery of new places is the driving force here and we haven’t felt an urge to go back since reaching the end point. If the idea alone has you intrigued then definitely consider trying this game for yourself, but make sure that you’re happy with the asking price for what is likely going to be a short experience.
Shape of the World is a very different offering on the Switch’s eShop, and one that we are glad to have experienced despite its shortcomings. Describing it as a video game doesn’t feel quite right; it’s more of an interactive playground that lets you take a couple of hours out, switch off, and be treated to some thought-provoking aesthetics along the way. It’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s all over a little too quickly, but Shape of the World is a nicely put together piece of art that deserves the attention of those most intrigued.