Saturday, November 08, 2008

Spectraball Review

Spectraball, developed by Flashcube Studios and published on Steam.
The Good: Simple controls, plausible physics, online high score list, informative tutorial, only $10
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult from the start, loose controls clash with strict level design, only fifteen maps and no level editor, limited special abilities and unlockable content, can’t manually save progress between levels
What say you? A feature-light marble puzzle game that requires precision the controls do not allow for: 4/8

There are several ways to reach a goal in life. Hard work. Commitment. Rolling a marble. Yes, the marble puzzle genre, much like Gary Busey, appears every once in a while to grace us with physics-based mayhem and suspended platforms to fall off of. We’ve experienced Switchball and Marble Blast as two more recent additions to the genre, as now it is time for Spectraball. I can’t think of anything else witty to say, so let’s get on with the review!

For a $10 game, Spectraball looks good visually speaking. The game takes place in diverse environments that contain some good detail, although it’s obviously a game environment as the terrain magically hovers in space against an essentially blank background. There are a couple of nice effects in the game with lighting and activating special powers. Overall, I was quite pleased with the graphics in Spectraball and they look very comparable with other contemporary puzzle games like Switchball. As for the sound, it is quite average: you get your typical music and normal sound effects. Nothing is terribly new or innovative here and the sound design just does its job, nothing more. Spectraball delivers a solid visual experience for the genre and the price.

The goal of Spectraball is to traverse to the finish in the fastest amount of time without falling off the edge of the map. The low $10 price tag starts to rear its ugly head when it comes to the features. While Spectraball features a nice tutorial that teaches you the basics of the controls, the game only comes with fifteen total maps spread across five environments. This is simply not enough content, especially since most of the levels take less than two minutes to complete. The lack of a map editor also significantly hinders the potential of Spectraball. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it should be cheap. I wouldn’t have a problem with the low amount of content if they packaged an editor along with the game, but not even the end-user can expand this product beyond its limitations. There are plans to release free content updates each month, but since they are obviously future improvements, I can't evaluate their quality. You also cannot save your progress between levels, as only completing the entire three-map environments in one sitting counts as progress. Does have Steam achievements (and actually ties all of your progress with your Steam account), but I never found them to be a proper motivator personally. There is a central leaderboard that automatically uploads your times to a central server, but it only occasionally functioned correctly. Completing levels allows you to unlock new balls and abilities, but your selection is (again) quite limited: you can purchase a faster lava ball or add the ability to teleport, but only four more balls and two additional abilities is unsatisfactory. Add in two mini-games that require an insane amount of unlock credits and we have a title that disappoints in terms of features.

The control scheme for Spectraball is straightforward: up, down, left, right, and jump. You can also access the three powers using the three mouse buttons. Spectraball is quite difficult, thanks to realistic physics and challenging level design. Since the physics incorporate inertia, you have to plan ahead in order to turn and decelerate. There is no turning-on-a-dime in Spectraball; this adds to the immense difficulty of the game. The levels themselves are chock full of tight spaces that require precise driving that is frankly almost impossible with the real-world physics in the game. There are plentiful areas to fall off of and successfully navigating a puzzle is more luck than skill, at least until you’ve devoted a significant amount of time to mastering the control scheme. Altering the difficulty level only gives you more time to complete the puzzle; assuming you don’t fall off (which automatically resets your progress to the beginning, no matter how much progress you’ve made), you’ll finish each puzzle in time. Tough physics plus tough puzzles equals no fun.

Spectraball is a puzzle game that might be good if it weren’t for several significant shortcomings. It certainly looks like it can be enjoyable, but the developers have opted for a small selection of very difficult puzzles that cannot be altered or increased in number. So you are stuck repeating the same fifteen puzzles over again, assuming you last that long before deleting the game from your hard drive. I know it’s only $10, but only 15 levels? Only three powers? No level editor? This is the type of game that has “potential” written all over it but fails to execute. Sure, there might be plans to include more material in the future, but my crystal ball is in the shop so I can't predict how these content packs will improve the game. While the first level (and the tutorials) is easy enough, the challenge increases exponentially thereafter. You also can’t save your progress between levels, so if the third one in an environment is too much trouble, you’ll have to redo the first two next time you play. The controls are simple enough, but piloting your ball with pinpoint accuracy is difficult and the narrow levels don’t help matters. Maybe Spectraball 2 will allow for more flexibility, but this version is too hard and too limited to enjoy.