Let’s get straight to the point: Spectra is a head-bangingly boring futuristic driving game that just so happens to have a brilliant soundtrack. It’s by Northern Irish chiptune artist Chipzel, with whose work you may already be familiar: notably, she provided the urgent, thrillingly claustrophobic backing to Terry Cavanagh’s modern arcade classic Super Hexagon.
Here, we get something more eclectic and wide-ranging, from strident, percussive thumpers to altogether dreamier, ambient soundscapes, while finding the space for the occasional chiming melody in between. Sure, it’s not the most efficient delivery system for a ten-track album of quality electronica, but it says a lot that Chipzel’s music almost makes Spectra worth playing.
Almost being the operative word. The central idea of Spectra is perfectly sound and refreshingly immediate: you’re racing a futuristic craft down a snaking two-lane ribbon of track, collecting pellets to boost your score, while dodging obstacles that look like polygonal suppositories. Shave past them and you’ll get a point bonus; crash into them and you’ll lose any score combo you’ve accumulated from the pellets, including multipliers from boost pads and air time from the occasional sections where you briefly lift off from the track.
Acceleration is handled automatically; you need only nudge left and right on the analogue stick – or squeeze either trigger – to shift in that direction. In theory, it’s a challenging test of reflexes, and with the courses being procedurally generated, you can’t simply rely on muscle memory to reach the end. Not that you need to: passing the 25% marker unlocks the next stage, which gives you an idea of the difficulty level.
Yet in practice, you’re more likely to fail because you temporarily lost concentration out of sheer boredom. There are ten tracks here, but each of them reuses the same features. There are long stretches with few pellets and a handful of obstacles to weave between. There are curves where you follow a breadcrumb trail of pickups. There are boost pads ahead of hazard-heavy straights. There are forked junctions and there are gentle climbs and dips where, if you take the high road, you can drop onto the track below for some extra air points.
Later levels ramp up the difficulty by simply throwing more obstacles in your path and tempting you towards boosts that will carry you into the void unless you make a sharp turn as soon as you pass over them. But it says much about Spectra that you could take a random screenshot and have absolutely no idea which stage you’d just snapped.
The handling is just about responsive enough to allow you to squeeze through the narrowest of gaps, though audio-visual feedback is poor: the animation on your ship is incredibly basic, and the only sounds you’ll hear are bleeps and bloops when you collect pellets. By contrast, collisions prompt a violent rumble in the controller, as you’re crudely shunted sideways, a jarring contrast to the total lack of friction as you glide along. There is never any sense of connection with the track, merely the hazards strewn across it - and so while the action moves at a fair lick, the sense of speed is barely tangible. You’ll only notice the moments you’re brought to a grinding halt.
Almost everything about Spectra feels slightly cheap, from the will-this-do? menus down to the typeface which attempts to echo old-school arcade games but somehow looks out of place. The soundtrack makes it impossible to dismiss entirely, but surely even the most ardent chiptune fanatic would think twice about having to sit through a game this dull to receive their aural reward.