If you’re a fan of chiptunes, you’re probably familiar with London-based artist Chipzel and her phenomenal composition for the game Super Hexagon. Her high energy bleeps and bloops fit right in with the chaotic nature of the punishing puzzler, and she’s now paired with fledgling studio Gateway Interactive in bringing the retro arcade ribbon-racer Spectra to the Xbox One.
This is a twitch racer through and through, as you blast your way across procedurally generated tracks, narrowly dodging obstacles and collecting pixely blocks while surviving until the end of each song. There’s 10 songs in all, but the game’s procedural generation ensures no playthrough will ever be the same. This is a great idea in theory, but in actuality it severely limits the game’s visuals and allows repetition to sink in almost immediately.
“Spectra is definitely enjoyable, but the excitement is short lived.”
Spectra isn’t a game I’d spend a lot of time with. Not because it’s necessarily bad, there’s just not much to it once you’ve finished and listened to each of the 10 songs. Doing so unlocks Hardcore Mode for each one, which clearly provides more of a challenge, but there’s no friendly leaderboards in-game or any reason to stick around when you’re done. If you’re in to achievements, there’s a few that may take another hour or two to unlock, but with Chipzel’s music being the biggest draw here, it’s probably much easier to just purchase the soundtrack from her official website and listen to it at your leisure.
We finished the game during our 1 hour live stream and spent another hour or so playing Hardcore Mode to completion, and while we both found it to provide an intense challenge that was enjoyable throughout, we could easily acknowledge the game’s list of flaws. For starters, there’s absolutely no variety in the stages. Sure, they’re procedurally generated in how they’re laid out, but they’re all graphically identical to the last. There’s not even any color variation as you progress through each of the songs, and while that may tie in to the 80’s arcade feel the developer was going for, I found it to be extremely disappointing.
The gameplay itself is intense, requiring twitch reflexes to zoom in between road blocks without being bumped off the side. Miles and I both agreed that steering felt a little too icy though, making precision movements almost impossible. Your vessel, which is an upside-down Game Boy console and an homage to Chipzel’s instrument of choice, always moves forward while you only have control over the left and right movements.
You can use the analog stick, d-pad, or the left and right triggers, but they all felt like driving a car on four blown tires in the middle of a snowstorm. The slippery controls make it almost impossible to avoid every block in the road, and smashing in to them results in a score penalty that literally means nothing without leaderboards.
“…the game ends up being little more than a vessel for its incredible soundtrack.”
To make matters worse, your ship is poorly located in the bottom-center of your screen, which is commonly covered in score multipliers, Xbox friend notifications, and achievement pop-ups. This also made it difficult to keep track of our position while looking down the track to plan our next move, leading to more than a few cheap deaths.
Spectra is definitely enjoyable, but the excitement is short lived. We were yelling and cheering during our 1 hour live stream, and the viewers were definitely in to the music, but the more I played it, the more I wanted to play something else due to the repetitive nature of the visual stylings and the fact that I could just listen to the tunes on my own time without fumbling my way through a song I’ve already completed a handful of times. With no leaderboard to compete against my friends, no variation in the level design, and the slippery feel of the controls, the game ends up being little more than a vessel for its incredible soundtrack.
*As you may have noticed, we mentioned the game’s lack of leaderboards numerous times throughout this review. To clarify, there are no in-game leaderboards, but you are still able to pause the game, go to the Xbox store or your Games & Apps tab, find Spectra, and open up its Xbox One Game Hub to see how you stand against your friends. Although this option exists outside of the game, we still consider it absent and a bit of an inconvenience overall.
Recommended for fans of: Retro arcade games, the chiptunes genre of music, Chipzel.
*This review is based on the Xbox One version of Spectra, which is also available on Windows phones and supported by cross-play. Spectra is available for PC as well via Steam.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling reviews, public relations, and our social media communications on Facebook and Twitter. He’s no stranger to sinking an absurd amount of time in to an MMO, but also has a deep seeded love for quirky indie games, pro wrestling, horror films, and his hometown of Baltimore, MD. Get in touch with him by e-mail at the address above, or follow him on Twitter.