The longer I perform this game reviewer gig, the more I realize that there are far more standard genres than I initially thought. Sure, there are the old classics like platformers, shooters, color-matching puzzles and the like, but the shift to 3D brought its own standards. An often overlooked one is the marble maze. It is a branch of the video game universe that has brought us titles like Marble Madness, Marble Blast Ultra, the Super Monkey Ball series, and now Spectraball. How does it stack up against those others? Let’s find out.
Because of the fundamental nature of a marble game, the tendency is to go with minimal visuals. It isn’t uncommon to see virtual reality themed graphics, for instance. This was not the route taken by the Spectraball devs. Though the hub of the game has a basic look, resembling the Portal test chambers, that quickly gives way to a series of themed levels accessed via a foyer that adopts certain features of each. You’ll see tropical islands, magma-dripping underworlds, airborne ruins, and plenty of others. The environments aren’t quite photo-realistic, but they make excellent use of normal-maps and specular lighting, adding a far greater dose of realism than the cartoonier route taken by the monkey ball series. Depending on your visual settings, you ball casts a blue glow across the landscape, the environment casts shadows, and a number of other nice details.
While I was overall happy with the visuals of the game, there were a few aspects of it that I found lacking. In a game where landing with great precision is a must, at first I was shocked to find that there was no shadow to give the player an indication of how close the ground was and where the ball was likely to land. Then I fiddled with the settings, boosting the visual quality, and there it was. I was also frustrated for a time at how little indication there was of which way is likely to lead you toward the goal. Then I remembered that I was playing a maze game. Sign posts would be counter productive in that respect. What I would have appreciated, though, was a bit more care regarding the camera’s position upon restarting from a check point. You reappear with the camera in the same position it had been when you fell, which in my case was frequently pointing back the way I came, causing me to initially backtrack before deja vu sent me back in the right direction. It is the one place that I feel a nudge in the right direction would not have been out of place. Otherwise the variety and quality of the graphics were well above average for a game of this type.
This is one of those games that requires no tutorial to learn to play (though the game does provide one, just in case the concept of a rolling ball eludes you). Roll, jump, and bounce from point A to point B, navigating increasingly unforgiving obstacles along the way. For the most part, the game was well implemented. Once you get a firm grip on the acceleration and momentum of the ball, it becomes quite easy to finesse it along narrow walkways, or in my case, bounce frantically along them hoping to land someplace safe. In order to increase the likelihood that once you reach safety you stay there, the game gives you a single activated ability called Power Brake. This is a rechargeable power that allows you to pull a looney tunes-esque complete stop, even in mid air. Using it renders quite a few otherwise suicidal tactics entirely valid, such as approaching a right angle turn at full speed, but it comes at a price.
After the completion of each level, you are ranked on a leader board against all of the other players who completed the level. The ranking is based on completion time, but each of my times ended up on a list that conspicuously said “(using power brake)” next to it. I can’t help but feel that by using the physics-defying power I’ve thrust myself into the Spectraball kiddie pool. (And generally speaking I try to avoid anything that puts “thrust” and “kiddie pool” in the same sentence.)
Other power ups exist in the game, but not in the “collect and activate” form. Placed along the level are superjumps and speed panels, which fling you upward and shove you forward respectively. They are used to reach otherwise unreachable platforms to continue along, and failing to utilize them properly usually sends you hurling to the endless void below. If you manage to screw up but NOT fall to your doom, you are penalized by having to wait for it to reappear, which will knock you down a few leader board notches.
The gameplay is hard, sometimes unforgivingly so, but that’s not a strike against. Sure, checkpoints can sometimes be far enough apart to make me want to break the keyboard over my knee, but that just makes the game hardcore. As a matter of fact, the game is so hardcore that I very nearly gave it a much lower score. I kept running into things I was certain were bugs or bits of bad game design. The switches, for example, give you an audio indication that something happened, but no visual feedback to what it was or where. It wasn’t until a final try while writing this article that I realized that is a labyrinth game in the purest sense. It isn’t just an obstacle course, it is a puzzle. There is a problem solving and exploration aspect, particularly to later levels, that gives you an undeniable feeling of triumph when you finally reason out the path forward. Twice I thought I’d found a bug in which a switch opened a time-limited door once, but if I missed it, it never opened it again. Then I realized that there was always a (fiendishly difficult) workaround. I was being punished for my lack of precision the first time by having to use my brain and even MORE precision to progress.
By the end of the game you’ll be doing crate puzzles, using transporters, and exploiting wind currents and anti-gravity to get to where you need to go, and that’s just the campaign. Rounding things out are three mini-games. One is a jump rope style game where you need to avoid a laser. Another is a gauntlet on a shifting platform where dummy balls are fired at you and chase you until you fall off. The last is a game where massive TNT boxes are the only platforms, and they only appear one at a time. You need to use the blast from one to knock you into the air and land on the next one. In all cases you are scored once again on your time, in this case longer time being better. I’ll say this, I discovered that letting the dummy balls dogpile you was a surprisingly effective tactic on survival/gauntlet game. Otherwise, the mini-games are a fun diversion.
For those worried about replay value (and thus for those of you who don’t care about climbing to the top of the leader boards) the game includes the ability for users to create and upload maps, which means that with a strong community, the game has effectively unlimited levels. Beat that!
The game has a catchy electronic soundtrack, and the ball has a satisfying CLACK when it hits the ground. What more do you need, really?
You’re this ball, see, and you REALLY want to get into the glowy portal thing at the end… because it killed your… dog… or something. Look, it’s a marble game, did you really expect there to be a story? At least they didn’t do something about time traveling monkey babies.
If you have got the patience to give it a chance, Spectraball is a rewarding test of skill and brains. If you are prone to fits of rage, playing this game might require you to replace your monitor after you throw your mouse through it.
8.1 / 10: A decent execution of the classic marble navigation genre, devilishly challenging, with leader boards to keep you coming back and user created content to give you fresh experiences each time.