Spectra, Released: July 10, 2015, Reviewed on: PC, Also available on: Xbox One Genre: Racing, Music, Retro Developer: Gateway Interactive, Publisher: Mastertronic
Sometimes, less is more. A stripped-down, back-to-basics approach can reinvent franchises, and in some cases it can revive entire genres. But there are other times where stripping it down makes for something that wears out its welcome very quickly. A hamburger patty on its own does not the classic sandwich make, and in many ways, it’s the extras that make the sandwich as iconic as it is, the combination of individual elements creating a unified whole which is stronger and more delicious than the mere sum of its parts. Food metaphor aside, Spectra is a game that bases itself in classic, comfortable flavor…but ultimately fails to deliver due to its reliance on bare-bones gameplay.
The first comparisons I drew to Spectra were the fact that it looked and felt like a strange fusion of Tron, F-Zero and Audiosurf. But the truth is, it’s none of these things, and I mean that in a sad and negative way. It is a racing game — or at least it is in some sense of the word — one that is built around the game’s music procedurally generating the game’s playable tracks. Players pick up score boosting cubes, dodge obstacles in the middle of the lane, and try not to fall off during the twists and turns the game throws their way. That’s it. And there’s zero deviation from this formula. There’s a split, fork, straightaway, gentle curve, hard curve, and a slight rolling hill or two — that’s all I’ve seen in the the course of the game’s ten levels. Not much variety, really. And really, considering the technology in play behind the scenes, I expected a lot more than this.
Much like the upcoming No Man’s Sky, the level elements in Spectra are procedurally generated. In any other game, this would usually mean that the tracks are entirely randomized on each indivdual play. This is true in a sense, as the configuration of the obstacles are arranged differently each time you play a stage. However, the actual elements don’t change at all. The spot patterns may be different from cheetah to cheetah, but the cat remains the same every single time. Since the music only changes from level to level, the levels themselves never seem to change all that much.
Sure, the pattern of walls coming at you might be slightly different, but since it’s “wall time,” you’ve played this section before. That’s probably the most major piece of what holds this game back. It changes so much, and yet, it never actually changes at all. Memorizing a section will never help you as any pattern won’t apply to the game twice in a row, but you’ll see the same type of sections repeatedly, so memorizing what kind of challenge you’re in the middle of and adapting on the fly means you’ll never really face the threat of losing. Nor does anything really “challenge” you, outside of the tracks getting faster by degrees as you move ahead.
Furthermore, controller support does not work very well, as I couldn’t reliably change my buttons. I tried to edit them on the pre-launch tool that pops up before you play the game, and those settings didn’t really do anything for me. I could never seem to change “start” to my “start” button, so I had to settle for “start” being “click left stick,” which for some reason was the default setup. That was not fun to deal with, and on top of that, keyboard controls are very on/off switch in their functionality. Press the left arrow, and you’re going left as suicidally as possible. Press right, same thing.
The controller’s analog stick at least had gradual degrees with which to be precise and fluid in movement, but I had to click the stick to press start. So, I was left with a harrowing choice: use a keyboard control method that only an extremely dedicated absolutist could love, or use a default controller setup that had me clicking the pause menu every time the game got heated and required more in the way of concentration. Neither were ideal, and nothing could be changed with any sort of definitive improvement in mind.
Spectra is a game that revels in its retro feel, but it celebrates its own artifice as a result. It misses the point of what makes the classics so great — they’re fun to play. I say this as someone who completed all ten levels for this review. The challenge isn’t the game itself, it’s merely flexing enough grace and patience to not go nuts from the soul-crushing monotony of it all.
To its credit, the music in the game is pretty awesome, as it’s performed by chiptune virtuoso Chipzel of Super Hexagon fame. However, the game’s sense of repetitious, slow-setting tedium kept me from enjoying it. Every track was just another song that was playing while I was becoming more agonizingly bored with each level. Every new stage brought a new song for me to play the same sort of sections I just played last time, only in a different order. Imagine picking up a deck of cards, shuffling them, reading them off one by one to a killer soundtrack, then doing it all over again. Mix in some requirement of reflexes, give the deck of cards a tinge of translucent neon, have someone throw rocks at you, and that’s precisely what this game is at its core. And it never does anything different. Not. Even. Once.
I’m sure there’s an audience for this, but Spectra only succeeded in sucking all the happy right out of me in the most uninteresting way. I had such high hopes for this, too. Unless there’s an update in the future that adds in some loops, maybe some powerups or some other gimmicky things that boosted the fun of the games Spectra is trying like hell to hearken to, I’m going to recommend that you don’t buy it. I won’t act like you won’t like it — it may be just the game for you, after all. But I would definitely consider it a waste of my money, and I played the whole thing.
The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.