Our Changing World
The first person exploration game Shape of the World begins in a bright white realm, nearly devoid of anything. In the distance is a red outline of an incomplete triangle a singular image beckoning the player. Upon walking through the triangular shape, nature suddenly begins to materialize: trees pop up from the ground and giant boulders appear from behind. The world receives a splash of color, and unfamiliar creatures populate the new environment. So begins the journey.
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Hollow Tree Games’ Shape of the World is an interactive experience akin to “walking simulators.” The game actually feels like a mixture of two such walking sims: Proteus and Journey. You are free to explore a world and are given little direction other than the red triangular symbol that one can’t help but proceed towards. The big difference is that the world grows around you as you walk. Flora, fauna, and mountains emerge from the ground, producing a neat pop-up book-like experience. There is no plot and almost no text, but there is a linear progression through several biomes, each with their own unique settings and surreal color palettes.
The world is pretty and exhibits a dreamlike charm, despite its low-poly design. The minimalist artstyle helps the emerging flora stand out, although the lack of detail results in some cheap-looking set pieces. Additionally, the emerging scenery sometimes looks like poor draw distance pop-in. Regardless, I appreciated the dynamic color shifts and moments of blissful eye-candy. The fusion of light electronic beats and oriental-inspired music work well to deliver a zen experience, and the soundtrack’s dynamic nature complements the active environment.
The world may look nice, but there isn’t as much to do in it or see as I would hope. The areas are fairly empty, save for a few wild creatures roaming about. Even though the biomes look different, they start to blend after a while, simply because little happens in any of them. As a result, I wasn’t as compelled to explore. There are some standout moments and sets, such as majestic creatures in the sky or beautiful water effects. They sell the conceit of a tranquil, spiritual adventure but unfortunately don’t occur often.
Shape of the World has a neat concept, but that’s about it. The game is designed to let you relax. There are no enemies, timers, or fail states. Gameplay consists entirely of walking around and watching the world grow. But you don’t even get to create the world how you desire like in the similar open world sandbox genre. Rather, your role is mostly passive; the world is shaped around you based on your movement as opposed to you possessing agency to freely shape the world. Your limited actions include touching rocks to form staircases, flying to structures, throwing seeds to instantly spawn trees, and interacting with said trees to jump forward a little.
Despite the game’s focus of immersing you in a world and simulating the feeling of being lost, there are clear red triangular goal posts that you must go through. Those seeking a more open world might be disappointed by the game’s scope and linearity. Once you pass through the triangular checkpoints, the world shifts, sometimes bringing you to the next level. The only way to return to previous areas is to go through a chapter select, in which you restart that biome completely from scratch, so you don’t keep any aspect of your created worlds. In addition, the biomes in the game aren’t that large. In fact, I once fell off the level while exploring its edge – an odd glitch.
Although there is an ending to this 2-3 hour journey, you may not necessarily come out with any big revelation as in similar games of the genre. And other than beating the game, there is no real sense of progress, no record of your creations or achievements, other than a small set of collectibles. Consequently, replay value is limited.
Shape of the World straddles the line between open-ended exploration and a “walking simulator.” There is a profound beauty in strolling around and watching the world generate on its own, but there isn’t much substance through your linear walkthrough. And without a story or a character to relate to, not to mention the lacking senses of progression and urgency, it can be a dull journey. Still, it’s an artistic treat to the senses. Some people, particularly fans of games like Proteus, may enjoy the game’s meditative, slow-paced nature. However, at its US$15 price point, Shape of the World may not be the easiest sell for its experience.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.