Review: Spectra

Posted July 19, 2015 in
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Spectra embraces the “simpler is better” philosophy that has arisen in modern indie gaming.

Gateway Interactive/ Mastertronic

Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also On: PC
Street: 07.10

One of the stranger—perhaps more ironic—byproducts of this generation of souped-up consoles, is the amount of games I’ve personally played that look and feel like they are older than I am. I’m coming up on 30, for fuck’s sake. The reasons for this are probably pretty obvious to anyone who pays any attention to the industry, and primary among these is that they are on the simpler end of game development. That’s not to say that a game like Spectra was, by any means, easy to make. However, holding back on art and multiple fleshed out game systems, or things like online capabilities are often sacrifices that these indie developers have to make. The result of this is that games like Spectra aim to do one or two things, and do them really well. On the surface, Spectra probably seems to fit in the category of “one-trick pony”—and it sort of is—but the way it presents that trick separates it from a number of indie titles that I’ve played.

Spectra is easily the game that has surprised me the most this year. I had zero idea of what the fuck it was when I started it up for the first time, and I had even less expectations for it. From the thousand-foot view, what we see is a difficult-looking racer with a severe Tron complex—neon-drenched and twitchy with simplistic mechanics … and it kind of is just that. But just underneath the glass-finished sheen of this rhythm racer is the beating heart of a very modern rhythm game. In fact, the music is what instantly hooks you in—even from the start screen. Composed for this title by London-based artist Niamh Houston (better known as Chipzel), the soundtrack features 10 chiptune tracks (one for each level). Not only is the soundtrack brilliant on its own, but the way the game creators decided to use it as almost its own mechanic, takes the game to a whole new level. You see, when I said this is a rhythm game, I didn’t mean in the same vein as Rock Band or Guitar Hero, meaning the player isn’t hitting buttons to correspond with the colors on the screen. What happens here is the music helps to randomly generate the tracks obstacle placement, as well as controlling its speed. Which, among other things, adds a surprising amount of replayability to Spectra.

With all this shit on the road, you would have thought UDOT was heading up the construction of this interstellar highway.

As I mentioned, this game is fairly challenging. As with most of these indie throwbacks, they are looking to be as authentic as possible…which means it will be harder than the mass-market triple A titles. The main point of each track is to stay alive for the duration of the song (usually around 3 or 4 minutes). As you get closer to that time, the level seems to get harder, your heart starts beating a little faster, and your hands get a bit sweaty. Then, 30 seconds from finishing, you panic and fall off the track. You restart the track, and you’re back to the beginning. It goes without saying that this can be insanely frustrating. The fine folks at Gateway Interactive obviously knew this, and made jumping back into a level quick and easy. It seems like a small thing, but the ability to start a track instantly after having my heart shattered, made it easy to pour several hours per session into Spectra.

When all’s said and done, this is still exactly what you think it is: a tough, colorful, retro racer. But the soundtrack, and how it’s used, makes it special. Without multiplayer, online play, and with a limited number of levels, it’s very possible that this game could disappear into oblivion sooner than later. But this indie gem, with its $7.49 price tag, is a great buy for anyone looking for a unique experience. And, at least for the foreseeable future, it will remain solidly in my regular rotation.