Spectrum Break, available on Steam for PC and Mac, is a puzzle platformer for masochists. I mean that as both as a recommendation, and a warning. Deceptively simple mechanics and colourful presentation are the wrapping, but inside the package are dozens of levels, each one more maddening than the one before.
You control a little sprite on a surf board, leaving a trail of sparks on every surface he touches, all against a stylish backdrop of falling stars. The little surfer dude can move left and right, and he can jump. That’s it. Simple right? His goal is simple as well. Each level sees him surrounded by colourful outlines, geometric shapes, of various angles and sizes. When the surfer makes contact with an outline, it becomes solid. If a solid shape hits an outline, the outline becomes solid. Once all the shapes are solid, the level is complete. Still sounds easy?
It isn’t. The physics engine underneath the action is the real star of the show here. True to the real-world Law of Inertia, an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion. The moment your li’l surfer buddy slams into an outline, it careens off, with predictable weight and spin, starting a chain reaction. Sometimes you’ll watch the shapes crash into each other and you’ll receive that glorious LEVEL COMPLETE. And sometimes you’ll watch your best laid plans crumble, as the path you planned to take spirals away, leaving the surfer plummeting to his death. Did I mention that while the shapes act like they’re floating in a vacuum, gravity is very much a factor for the little surfer? Like an industrial band from the ‘90s, Gravity Kills.
Adding another level of complexity to the formula, every jump is essentially a wall jump. What I mean by this is that a jump will always execute in a direction perpendicular to the surface. So as the surfer moves from shape to shape, you have to stay conscious of the spin and trajectory of the shape he’s on. This creates all kinds of situations. For example, I became rather adept at what I called the ‘teeter-totter,’ knocking a long, horizontal rectangle up, then jumping onto one end of it, causing it to spin as it floated up, then using the new angle as a ramp to propel the surfer up to the top of the level and the shapes above.
Making plans like the maneuver described above is the source of all the joy and madness Spectrum Break provides. Completing a level generally consists of, first, a period of trial and error. Try something, fail, try again. Similar to other cruel platformers like Super Meat Boy and Celeste, Spectrum Break quickly gets you right back into the action. Inevitably, you will start to develop a plan, but the challenge lies in the execution. Successful execution brings great joy. But watching a complex strategy crumble into chaos as the shapes tumble off into space will drive you mad. And then you’ll try again.
Spectrum Break is designed with speed running in mind. The timers are built right in. Thankfully, there is no fail-state for running long on time, so old men and women like myself can enjoy it at their own pace. But I look forward to seeing what the speed-minded streamers will do with Spectrum Break. Each level has a hidden red square to find as well. Often times, it’s not so much a matter of finding the red square, but figuring out how to trigger it. The red squares are basically secondary goals for completionists and higher level masochists.
Spectrum Break was created solely by Jason Hein, a developer based in Ottawa, Ontario. The soundtrack, which is brilliant, was composed by Chris Curtis from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Recommended for speedrunners and fans of punishing platformers in the vein of Celeste.