19 Oct 2008

REVIEW - Spectraball

As is common with the indie gaming scene, most of the projects that emerge are produced by startingly minimal development teams. This one, Spectraball, is no different. Just the two guys that make up Flashcube Studios created this and it's undoubtedly an accomplished piece of nostalgia-inducing fun.

Anyone who's played Marble Madness will be familiar with the basic concept. You, the gamer, are in control of a lone ball and using your wits and precision control must traverse perilous terrain to reach the final objective in each of the fifteen levels. There's also a time limit determined by the difficulty setting to spice things up.

On your travels you'll encounter pipes, steps, jumps and moving platforms across a range of environments -Tropical, Space, Snow, Air and Inferno- and all will conspire to make you look like an uncoordinated buffoon.

To begin with, I'll admit the game is a tad frustrating. It wasn't long before I was wondering what spherical objects I had wronged during my lifetime that warranted such punishing treatment, but it's important not to be put off by the initially steep learning curve. The more you play Spectraball, the better you will understand the subtleties of the game and the best ways in which to approach certain challenges.

It's worth playing through the tutorial levels at first to gain an understanding of how to control the ball. I was initially surprised that no gamepad support was offered, but once you start playing the game it turns out to be a sensible move. The mouse is pivotal in controlling the camera and also the direction in which the ball will roll. Using any other device would make this system fiddly and unresponsive. As it is, movement is extremely intuitive and eleviates the camera issues that commonly occur in games of this ilk.

You'll also learn from the tutorials about the ball's special abilities. These can be activated on command but subsequently require time to charge back up. The only one available initially is the power to stop the ball rolling at any point and as such is particularly effective when bombing down straights to stop dead before certain doom. The ability to jump is thrown in for free and is important for ascending steps or passing across gaps between platforms.

The special abilities are a wonderous inclusion to the game and can be purchased via the in-game store where you're able to spend the cash earned from completing levels and gaining achievements. Different ball types are on sale as well as a couple of throwaway minigames and two new abilities that soon become available to you. Time-slowing capabilities and the power to teleport the ball back to a previously visited area are both essential when finding ways to shave seconds from your best times and really open the game up on a strategic level. Through this, Spectraball achieves the rare trait of becoming more fun the further you progress into the game. Utilize the unlockable goodies and your own knowledge of the levels and you'll eventually be zipping about with an incredible amount of speed and there's a great sense of progression when you realise how awful and fumbling you were at first. You'll gain confidence and begin to experiment, finding shortcuts in the levels and bypassing time-consuming sections.

This is where Spectraball comes into its own. It's unnaturally addictive because each time you complete a level your rank will be shown on its leaderboard, connected via Steam to all the other players of the game. Ultimately it provides you with achievable targets and makes you think harder about how the person just above you managed a completion time thirty seconds less than yours. So you'll go back and pull some tricks to try to better it.

To top things off, Spectraball is very easy on the eye. The varied environments are complimented by almost minimalistic level design which means there's very little confusion as to where you need to go to reach the goal. In terms of audio, the music tracks are sure to induce insanity if you're exposed to them for any great length of time, but they can be turned off in the menu. The sound effects are minimal but effective and it's not as if a game about rolling a ball around really requires many bells or whistles in that area.

Priced at ten bucks on Steam, I must recommend this game for those with a thirst for competition. It's great value for money and a finer product than most new budget releases. The one thing I will say is that the game actually left me wanting more levels and a wider variety of challenges. The final level provides you with a ludricous ski-slope of a jump that catapults you into the air at a ferocious speed and I wanted more of this kind of insanity coupled with some advanced styles of play in which to employ my newly acquired pro-skills. But I'm nit-picking. It's a good game and a fantastic effort from a first time development team.

SCORE: 81%

Spectraball is released on the 20th October via Steam.

EDIT: Jonathon Davis of Flashcube Studios has actually contacted me since posting this to say that new content, such as levels, environs, abilities and achievements will be available for free download in the future, following release. Not only that, but the final build will have support for game controllers. I therefore stand corrected... and amazed.


No Orijunaluhtee said...

so is the 81% score final even after learning about downloadable content and the gamepad?

and that jonathan guy is a beast.

Rowan Davies said...

I'm sure it will raise the score a few percent, but until I see the content, I can't really pass judgement on it. Jonathon is doing a grand job of keeping me updated with new builds of the game though so I will update the review as necessary as I play them.

And yes, it's incredible work from a two man team. The demo should be out today so definitely check it out.