Games stub


Posted on November 15, 2008

Flashcube Studios reinvents the ball, redefining those classic roll-the-ball puzzle games.

For a game where the primary objective is to get from point A to point B as fast as you can, Spectraball is anything but linear. Each beautifully crafted level is riddled with shortcuts that, in the case of some, make the course beatable in just under seven seconds. At first, it seems like pure fluke that shortcuts can be used to bypass entire platforms, but it quickly becomes apparent that the developers and testers spent countless hours ensuring that the detours were just barely doable, and equally hard to find. Finding shortcuts kind of becomes a game within itself, although I did discover most by accident, these round-about ways of completing levels is what kept me playing for so long. I was ever encouraged by the looming player above me on the leader boards; the first time I played each map would land me in the top 20 (out of a few hundred), and access to leader boards only encouraged me to continue timing every turn and jump to the millisecond, hoping to score top 10. My original goal had been to simply play through each level, following the trail of ethereal blue-glowing “Glorbs,” the collectables that accumulate like currency, but that plan was swiftly thrown away as I found my first shortcut by mistake. The glorbs, although hardly required, are useful guides if you get stuck on a level, and they also help fund future purchases.

The unlockable Arena comes complete with Balls of Steel

Glorbs allow the player to visit the store and ‘buy’ new upgrades and unlockables later on, making it much easier to play the game and complete levels swiftly. I found that in order to get both the glorbs and the top 10 for timing, I had to play each level twice: once to collect the blue gaseous balls, and another to fly past them down the winding ramps at top speed. Although it might sound repetitive, this is one of the few games of its kind that does not infuriate me beyond belief when I fall off of cliffs or incinerate in pools of lava. I found Spectraball relaxing and simplistic in nature, and playing the levels twice helped me to see the sheer amount of time spent on creating the game. Besides, each time I played the levels I found a new way to complete them even faster, and score a few additional glorbs to go toward the next unlockable challenge. The unlockables are definitely a huge differentiator between this game and others of its kin. Being able to use items you find in the game to purchase new Spectraballs, each with unique advantages, definitely helps in making the levels different each time. For example, with the “Ancient Ball” – the one that has a higher jump than the other Spectraballs – I was able to complete stunts that let me skip multiple platforms, in many cases from start to finish, that I hadn’t been able to do with the default ball. In addition to the ball, the player also starts with an ability that I haven’t seen in other ball-based-puzzles before, Power Stop. It’s basically like ripping the E-brake in your car when you’re going, oh say, 120 MPH +. This ability instantly stops the player in his tracks, preventing him from falling into the void of space below the tracks. Just like the Spectraballs, abilities can be unlocked too. I unveiled a total of three in the game, including Power Stop; you can also unlock a teleporter and slow-mo. According to Flashcube, they’re planning to release patches shortly after launch with new abilities, Spectraballs, and levels.

Beautiful bloom and lighting add to the unique feel

Spectraball has a fitting soundtrack, what sounds like a mix between new-age, techno, and electronica, that forces me to reminisce back to the days of scrolling-shooter arcade games. The soundtrack seems to fit the mould that the gameplay makes, and prevents a break in the immersion. Well, with this game it isn’t so much immersion as it is addiction to just beat the level only one second faster! Space-themed levels feature songs that just sound… well, space-themed. There was only one level where the music began to annoy me, and that was because I had played it so many times trying to figure out how #1 beat it so quickly. Of course, along with music comes the physics and the graphics. The game’s graphics are the best I have ever witnessed in a puzzle game of its type; wielding the power of modern bloom effects and water reflection/refraction, Spectraball has a certain appeal that is very easy on the eyes, yet still utilizing bloom like the best of the developers. The game has a rather round appearance, with few sharp juts and almost no clunky outcroppings – there’s just not much noise when it comes to objects to look at, and that’s a major plus to me. Glow effects are fairly solid, but I thought that the starting ball could look a little better as far as the blue lights go; not as well-done as lighting and bloom, but not bad. The physics engine, sponsored by the highly acclaimed Nvidia PhysX team, is also top-notch. The ball will slide or grip, roll or bounce depending on the surface, and it all feels natural. There were a few times when I had accelerated to such a point, with fraps recording mind you, that the ball seemed to no longer grip and began to slide. Aside from this rare occurrence, the physics are about as good as the company boasts.

Timing is a core element in Spectraball

It all sounds so good, but what’s bad about it? Honestly, Spectraball is one of those hit-or-miss games. Strategy-based gamers like myself might find it entertaining and good for training your micro, but players who are looking for a quest or a rifle shouldn’t look here. Spectraball is meant for all ages, so if you are one of those people that won’t buy a game unless it has five or more flags from ESRB, stay away. The game might frustrate some players who have difficulty with timing in puzzle games, but there is certainly no requirement for a high-precision keyboard or mouse. Spectraball might also prove too short, with only 5 (excluding training) settings and about 15 maps, although the different settings do redeem the overall lack of levels. Expanding on the lack of levels, there is no level editor. This is one of those games that would be absolutely perfect for building your own puzzles, especially if those were exchangeable between the community members, and it would ultimately lengthen the lifespan of the game. Fortunately, since the development team seems devoted, if enough people whine about the lack of level-designing toolkits one might be released. There was also a number of times that the game crashed or bugged-up on me during play, often after playing for an extended amount of time, and Spectraball seems to have issues minimizing (sometimes). Minor graphical glitches like tearing in background (black blips appearing and vanishing), invisible-platforms when the countdown-timer begins (these appear as soon as the game starts though, but it does get annoying since the visibility is inconsistent), and elevators having seizures at their destination plague the game.




Spectraball’s versatility between levels and graphical beauty, combined with a spectacular physics engine far surpass its meager asking price; it has left my expectations in the dust. Flashcube’s creation would make the perfect gift for kids this holiday season, from those just getting into gaming to those who’ve been in it for twenty years. Possibly the best $10 I've ever spent.

The Good: Leader boards rekindle a competitive spirit in the puzzle-game genre. Shortcuts hidden everywhere, whether accidental or carefully planned, make the game always surprising and fun. A strong soundtrack and gorgeous graphics make it hard to look away, even while you’re falling to your doom. The ability to play through the game, buy a new ball, a level, and some abilities greatly increases replayability. Only $10 on Steam.

The Bad: Occasional graphics glitches and crankiness when recording video can get frustrating at worst. People new to the genre might have difficulty avoiding “fallouts,” as the courses are very strict and tight, allowing little room for mistakes on the hardest difficulty. Only available on Steam. Occasional crashes after long-periods of play. Spectraball sometimes throws a tantrum about minimizing, and suffers from minimize-induced crashing. Might not be for everyone.