by Tom Mackey
reviewed on PC
Game of contradictions
Welcome to the interstellar, dynamic, procedurally generated racing world of Spectra. A world in which you, and I quote, ‘…get your heart pumping as you drift into a trance…’. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve been in the process of gradually meandering into a trance-like state, my heart never tends to get that agitated. But this unfortunately misplaced promotional sentence does actually ring true for Spectra, just not in the way I think Gateway Interactive had hoped.
Great music, very little game
I’ll be honest, when I first booted up Spectra my expectations did spike for a brief moment or two. Anyone who has read some of my previous reviews will know that I am a big fan of great rhythm-based and procedurally generated music games. So when the first catchy chiptune track kicked in at the start menu, I was salivating at the thought of the potentially exhilarating gameplay that could accompany it. It is here that the unfortunate juxtaposition of getting your heart pumping and falling into a trance becomes clearer. The music in Spectra is great. It’s not really surprising that it’s so good considering it comes from the widely appreciated chiptune artist, Chipzel (Super Hexagon, Size Does Matter, Interstellaria). The tracks present in Spectra are upbeat and catchy and overflowing with chiptune madness, but it is the gameplay that sends you into a trance, not of 8bit glory, but of boredom.
The game itself is not at all complicated. In fact it couldn't be less complicated. In Spectra all you have to do is race/survive until the music stops. Along the procedurally generated tracks there are obstacles to avoid and score multipliers to collect, with the occasional boost pad scattered here and there. Beyond that there is nothing else to keep things interesting. The only variation or increased challenge comes as the same elements are thrown at you more frequently as you speed up towards the end of the track. When this does happen, it can also become virtually impossible to avoid all the obstacles in your path, and the game can start to feel a tad unfair. This wouldn't be the case if the difficulty level scaled well, and even more importantly, if you felt like you had complete control over your vehicle.
In a game that relies so much on speed and doesn't give you a chance to learn tracks, having complete control is a necessity. Instead the controls in Spectra feel somewhat floaty and take away that level of precision the tracks can demand. Completing a track can also feel a little disappointing as rather than having a finish line to aim for, the race simply ends as the music finishes. This feels abrupt and only serves to jar you out of the moment. Another significant letdown for me were the ‘dynamic’ racing tracks themselves. Although supposedly procedurally generated by the soundtrack, it is not in fact obvious that they really are. I found myself stretching as I tried to notice any connection between the music and the tracks at all. For a game that is selling it’s musical element so heavily, and with a soundtrack as strong as the one here, it’s implementation is disappointing.
Monotonous and short
At no point whilst playing Spectra did I feel like I was experiencing a radically different track each time I raced. Every race felt more or less identical and more importantly, not particularly fun. There are leaderboards to aim for, but those will only really cater to achievement hunters and scoreboard addicts, not to gamers looking for an enjoyable experience. You will also probably be able to unlock every race in the game in a little over an hour. For a game this short to be this boring from the beginning is perhaps something of an achievement in itself. Visually there is as little variation as there is in the gameplay. Spectra uses the same colour palette throughout and makes use of no particle effects or visualisers of any kind to react to the music. It would have been so simple to mix up the colour scheme a little or throw in something to spice up the visual experience. But Spectra has its look and it sticks to it. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the soundtrack is so strong that it makes the rest of the game look and feel bland in comparison.
Someone forgot to add a game
Spectra is hugely disappointing as a music based racing game. There are plenty of games that try to use music to create gameplay, that have soundtracks nowhere near as strong as Spectra’s but they do it better. Spectra’s faults lie in more than just one area, but there is certainly one that stands out more than the others. It has forgotten what it is first and foremost, a video game, and before anything else video games need to be fun. Spectra is not.
Boring visuals, boring gameplay.