Spectra Review (PC)
The indie racer Spectra is pulling up to the starting lines and is ready to hit the highway. Boasting procedurally generated levels, a fast speed, amazing beats and fluorescent neon visuals, it’s quite easy to see that Spectra could have everything you’re looking for in a racing title. While there has been an outbreak of indie, retro-style games hitting the market over the past few years, very few of those titles have been racing games. Gateway Interactive have utilized classic arcade visuals to help bring Spectra to life. Don't worry about brakes or acceleration here, because Spectra is all about testing your reflexes.
The first thing that captivated me about Spectra was its presentation. At first glance, you could make some comparisons between F-Zero and Geometry Wars while playing, especially once things started moving. The varying degrees of purple, pink, orange and red on screen, combined with the intergalactic background, makes it easy to be lost in Spectra’s aesthetics, as it recalls a nostalgia from the early arcade days that contained polygonal and neon-colored stages and characters set in spacey, black environments. The raceways weave around and often split into varying paths that can go above or below the current plane you were on, adding a level of depth to the visuals and gameplay as well. As your vehicle is easily able to fall off the race course, causing you to restart your run, you’re just as easily able to jump from a higher plain and land on one below.
Backing up Spectra’s luminous visuals is its amazing soundtrack. Completely done by the chiptune legend, Chipzel, I fell in love with Spectra’s songs (even more so than the game itself). If you liked Anamanaguchi’s soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, you’ll definitely like what you hear during Spectra. As you progress through the levels, you’ll see that the raceways and obstacles’ colors slightly change in accordance with the beat of the song. This racer's huge focus on vibrant, neon visuals that slightly changes colors based on its songs reminded me a lot of Lumines.
Unfortunately, the color-changing aspect of Spectra is nowhere near as dynamic, which is a shame. The raceways and obstacles never really go anywhere beyond their blends of purple, fuschia and pink, which all start to get monotonous after long periods of play. The UI, speed boosts and items you collect to improve your score all have orange tints to them, which stand out, but I felt that the level design should've taken some leaps with its colors, especially going from stage to stage. I was left imagining how great it would be if the entire raceway did a dynamic color change during a few of the song's high points. Unfortunately, Spectra's gameplay doesn't help break up the inevitable monotony you'll experience playing in long bouts.
Despite Spectra's energetic presentation, its controls are limited. Its gameplay resembles an endless runner in terms of not having to worry about braking or accelerating and not having any other racers on screen — you simply steer your vehicle on the raceway to avoid obstacles, collect items/boosts and prevent it from falling over the edge. While there's a starting point, it feels like there's no particular finish line for Spectra's 10 stages; you simply keep racing without falling off the track's edges until the timer runs out. Along the way you must try to collect orange cubes and hit orange speed boosts in order to increase your points. You have the ability to increase your points even further by collecting more cubes in succession, but this often means you have to go out of your way for them, which frequently risks collisions. This is where the rush of Spectra's gameplay kicks in. My first few rounds clearing the game, I didn't really care for points and just tried to survive the timer without going out of my way for the cubes located in the dangerous parts of the track. After unlocking the stages, I found myself returning, weaving back and forth between obstacles in order to get more cubes and increase my score.
There are a variety of diamond-shaped obstacles scattered throughout the stages that decrease your points and can knock you off the raceway if you hit them. Some of these obstacles can be small or big, and their layout is where Spectra's procedurally generated level design comes into play, which often ties in with the music. The tracks' twists and turns are always the same, which is a shame, but it's the layout of the cubes, obstacles and boosts that makes it feel like what you play during Spectra is different during each session. In the later levels, I was going between chains of obstacles like how psycho drivers weave through fast-moving, tightly-knit traffic.
Unfortunately, this leads to sequences that don't cohesively flow into one another. Oftentimes I was met with portions of the track that only had cubes and boosts on them, only to find a myriad of obstacles at one point and then back to sequences with little to no obstacles in them. Another major problem is that when you inevitably hit one of these diamond-shaped obstructions, the distance you are knocked back away from the exploding hexagon feels random. Sliding into an obstacle can result in you being nudged back slightly or blown completely off the track (forcing you to restart) and it just feels unpredictable.
While the endless runner gameplay style of Spectra makes you focus on your twitch reactions as opposed to traditional racing mechanics, its procedurally generated levels did more damage than helping it. For a game where steering is the only control you have to worry about, Spectra's vehicle suffers from a lack of finesse, gliding and swaying left and right more so than it should for a game that pretty much requires tight controls and precision. The randomized barriers and obstacles were often placed in clusters that would often go from easy to how-do-I-even-pass-that within seconds. The unpredictable knock back of the barriers only heightens your frustration when you're trying to navigate a swaying vehicle through some near-impossible situations at a fast pace.
These type of frustrations shouldn't arise from something that should be relatively simple in its execution. As vibrant as Spectra is, its levels could've used more color to break up their monotony, as every stage looks and feels the same other than the increasing difficulty of its sporadic obstacle layouts. For something that tries so hard to test your reflexes, Spectra ultimately tests your patience more than anything else.
This review was based on a digital code of Spectra provided by the publisher for PC.