As much as I want to, I can’t recommend Spate. I kind of will anyway, though, because I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, it evokes bad memories of Never Alone in the sense that actually playing it is kind of boring and frustrating due to prevalent bugs. On the other hand, I’m an insane person and can appreciate a game filled with completely random floating top hats and other such weirdness. It’s not an expensive game these days by any stretch of the imagination, either, so while I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t completely detached from reality (this game should come with a “you must be this abnormal to enjoy Spate” disclaimer), it’d also be a lie to say that I didn’t enjoy it on a certain level.
Like the story, for example
Let’s get this out of the way: Spate only lasts a little over an hour (though with all the bugs and problems I encountered, I got something like twice that, but that’s not really a point in the game’s favor). Since it’s so short, the story is incredibly focused and the characters don’t get fleshed out a great deal. In fact, there are only two or three characters in the entire game once you discount the occasional talking hallucinations, and most of the story is filled in through the main character’s surprisingly solid narration that kicks in as you move him from left to right. The rest of the story comes from conversations, with most conversations being between the main character and a talking robot who keeps showing up.
The setup is simple: you play as Timothy Bluth, an alcoholic private eye in a (vaguely) Steampunk-meets-noir world who’s investigating a businessman’s disappearance in the Xzone, a mysterious place that was closed off after strange storms coincided with a bunch of people disappearing. Bluth also has an ex-wife in addition to a dead daughter he frequently hallucinates throughout the game. Spate doesn’t get into too many details, and I had no idea where the story was going as I played, but I ended up liking the way things were resolved despite the game’s shorter length not allowing for too much elaboration. It’s short, simple, and sweet.
The tone isn’t very consistent, though
It’s also all over the place tonally, which is less than ideal. One moment Bluth is talking to absinthe-fueled hallucinations and seeing his daughter’s face in the sky, and the next the reoccuring robot character is saying something completely random that has no bearing on anything. It serves as comic relief, I suppose, and the robot’s likable enough as a whole, but there were two or three moments where the non sequiturs struck me as being more distracting than likable.
Alcohol makes you more athletic!
At its core, Spate is a simple platforming game; most of the gameplay consists of running from left to right, occasionally jumping over pits, swinging from chains, dodging flamethrowers and buzzsaws, and using green pads that launch you into the air. There are also one or two times where your forward progress is blocked off and you’re required to piece together a simple puzzle to proceed. It’s not a constant barrage of gameplay, however, because there are times where you just run from left to right like a 2D walking simulator as weirdness unfolds around you.
Bluth is an alcoholic, and so he frequently blacks out (even having finished the game, I have no idea what the purpose of the game occasionally fading to black is since you wake up in the exact same place) and hallucinates random weirdness around him. Giant hands, bizarre physics, huge waterfalls with skulls—these are normal in Spate, and things get kicked into overdrive whenever you have Bluth take a swig of absinthe, which causes the screen to twist and contort and allows him to jump much higher than usual. I never found drinking to be necessary to progress, but it was interesting pressing the button every so often to see if the elements in the background became any crazier. As for whether this weird little feature justifies the slower pace of certain sections or not, that comes down to personal preference and I’m not really considering it a plus or minus.
Foreground objects shouldn’t block your view
There are also two flying sections where you have to navigate through tunnels of hazards, and one of these is where I first noticed one of the game’s more irritating problems: things in the foreground blocking your view. I understand that these create a sense of depth, but if you’re losing sight of your character for 1-2 seconds when there’s a risk of crashing or falling into a pit, that’s 1-2 seconds too long to take control out of the player’s hands. Certain sections become a real pain because of this, most notably the section in the video below where you’re having to land on bouncing platforms while foreground elements scroll in front of the camera and make it difficult to tell where you are. It just seems senseless.
The bugs here are just too much
I have no idea if there’s fall damage in this game. I’ve certainly seen the main character survive long falls without dying (which only sends you back a short ways in most cases, but in the case of the waterfall section will send you back quite a bit), but I’ve also seen him fall from much shorter distances and die for some random reason. My working theory is that there’s no fall damage, but that there are scripted deaths that you can stumble onto if you do things in the wrong way. The fact that I’ve finished the game and still don’t know if there’s fall damage speaks to just how buggy the game is, though, because being unable to tell intentional design apart from bugs doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the game’s state.
I must have stumbled onto every possible bug this game has to offer. I got frozen in place and wasn’t able to jump or move, I saw the playable character fall below the world after a little end-game exploring, I teleported after the physics started going crazy and discovered that certain objects that look solid don’t actually have collision detection, and I even managed to fall through a solid platform at one point and die as the moving platform trapped me and moved too far down. As in the video below, I also encountered a number of occasions where Bluth’s run speed was reduced to something like half of normal while his animation remained the same until I pressed the button to have him take a drink. This is just the stuff I captured on video, too, with many weird moments of being killed by hazards nowhere near me and other such irritations that I didn’t manage to record.
There are also some spelling mistakes
This game has been out for over two years at this point, and yet there are still numerous spelling errors that I noticed in the subtitles. First, though, let’s talk about the subtitles—you have to re-enable them every time you start up the game rather than Spate saving your preference. I know that’s not as big of a deal here since the game is so short, but I still played this in something like three different gaming sessions (in addition to having to exit out of the game entirely at one point to fix the weirdly stubborn “frozen movement” bug that persisted even after reloading my save), so it really started to get under my skin. As for the typos, I noted three in particular that stood out: “Your the guy,” “havn’t,” and “I’ve gotten use to.” This is the most minor of minor issues at the end of the day, but at the same time, it’s not unreasonable to expect this kind of thing to be fixed two years after release.
Checkpoint saves without indication
Spate uses checkpoint saves, which is annoying, but understandable enough given its short length. The real problem here is that I have no idea when the game is saving. No icon ever seemed to show up to indicate this, and yet my progress was clearly being saved while I played. At first, it appeared likely that Bluth’s blackouts were actually save points. The game would start me off beyond the last blackout when I’d resume playing, however, and I began to get a bit paranoid of exiting out of the game because of a bug, only to corrupt my save in the process because it was saving and not telling me about it. This is the kind of strange oversight I can’t recall seeing in any other game.
The graphics are okay, the music is great
Graphically, Spate uses a lot of color while still maintaining a sense of bleakness, and its character designs are also pretty solid, with the robot in particular having a memorable design. The game runs much harder than its relatively modest graphics would suggest, however, and I doubt that it’ll come as much of a surprise to anyone to find out that this game was built in Unity. That’s not to disparage the engine, of course, but the low number of developers capable of wringing reasonable performance out of it makes it appear to be a difficult thing.
The first time I was writing this all out, I was comparing Spate’s early music to Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, depending on where you live and when you bought it) and was looking for a page to link to when I noticed that I misspelled prophecy as prophesy. In trying to fix the typo, I managed to break that page, and then in a great feat of stupidity, I broke this page and deleted all the text. Then I had to piece the whole review back together from a preview because of my carelessness, which was weirdly time-consuming. The point of bringing this up? Only to tell you to use your imagination or Youtube to find a comparison, because breaking everything once was more than enough. That aside, Spate’s early music is definitely similar to Fahrenheit’s, though later on it started to remind me of the beautiful cello cacophony in Arcanum, which is arguably even better.