If there’s one thing that first-person puzzle games often fail to get right, it’s the story. When the games in this genre don’t even attempt to present a narrative, the games lack something tying them together but then they do, it always feels a little tacked on or feels like an afterthought. The Spectrum Retreat, the first game from Young BAFTA winner Dan Smith, bucks that trend by presenting a strong and relevant plot alongside masterful first person platforming in a slick and stylish package.
In The Spectrum Retreat you play Alex, a guest at the artdeco hotel “The Penrose” which is staffed by faceless automatons that cater to your every need. It seems like the perfect place to relax and take a break but, this being a video game, nothing is as it seems and a mysterious phone caller is urging you to head up the levels of the hotel and eventually escape. Escape from what? And why? Because of whom? All these questions and more are answered as you unravel the mysteries of The Penrose.
The Spectrum Retreat is broken up into 2 very distinct sections. At the start of every day, there’s time spent at The Penrose. Here you start the cycle of the day, answering the door for your early morning wake up call and head off to breakfast in the restaurant. Once you’ve eaten, you’re free to explore the hotel a little more. As you proceed around the hotel and its various floors, you come across environmental puzzles in order to open certain doors. These puzzles evolve from simply looking around for something that looks out of place, remembering images to looking through eye glasses to find clues. There’s this lovely old school feel to these puzzles which are more a test of your observation more than anything else. They’re not too difficult either as you’re constantly provided with nudges in the right direction via audio clues.
Once you’ve solved the puzzle at The Penrose, you’re then transported to a series of puzzle rooms called “Authentication tests”. These range from a group of 1 to 10 grouped headscratchers that are more traditional in nature. On the surface, these puzzle rooms look akin to those you’d find in Portal or QUBE (an no doubt there will be plenty of comparisons to those games elsewhere) but there’s quite a few differences which set them apart.
During the first series of challenges, the aim is to pass through gates of colour. In order to do so, you have to have “sucked” the colour of the gate from a cube or object in the world of the same colour and have it stored on your phone device (that can only store one color at a time). If you have red on your phone, you can’t pass through white doors so in this instance, you need to get rid of the colour by sending it onto a white cube or object. The game starts simply enough but before long, there’s warp gates that can shoot you across rooms, more colours to use and eventually gravity changing wall panels.
The puzzles in The Spectrum Retreat are all logical and reasonable. There’s nothing insanely difficult here but it does require a little trial and error. The most difficult of the puzzles in this game are those that require you to have some forethought to see the difficulties you’ll have in the future. Without this insight, it’s possible to make a number of these puzzles unsolvable (like putting a colour you need on a block which will overwrite it), forcing you to restart the room the beginning. Thankfully, the puzzles reload almost immediately.
The puzzles escalate in difficulty as you proceed through the Penrose but they also get more enjoyable. They’re puzzles that are designed to make you feel intelligent, grand in their design but simplistic in their solution. As a test of your grey matter, they are deeply rewarding. It’s a game that pats you on the back for your efforts to, rewarding you for your success by unravelling more of the plot.
The narrative to The Spectrum Retreat is one that’s best approached cold and is difficult to write about without spoiling. Drip fed through text logs and audio clips, the story is emotionally powerful to begin with and becomes very thought provoking and politically relevant before it ends. It only gives you just enough information to keep you hooked and to keep you guessing and when the game finally lays its cards on the table, it reveals itself as a brave move by the developer that might divide opinion. For me, the game lands its most powerful moments beautifully and 2 days after finishing the game, is still occupying my thoughts.
The story itself is offset by another narrative – your escape from the Penrose – which is narrated and guided by some excellent voice work by voice actor Amelia Tyler playing the character Cooper. There’s this raw feeling of realness to her vocals which carries a lot of stress, emotion and mystery into the game.
This is accompanied by a music score which is sublime. There’s 2 songs in The Spectrum Retreat which are some of the best I’ve heard this year and complement the themes perfectly and sit alongside the art-deco nature of the The Penrose Hotel.
It’s The Penrose Hotel though that stands as a shining beacon of mystery and oddity in this game. It encapsulates that feeling of getting lost in a hotel ( if you’ve ever got off a lift on the wrong floor of a hotel, you’ll know how identical each corridor seems) perfectly with looping rooms and Möbius strip corridors that come in on themselves. The first time you witness this, it feels so smart and as the game progresses, it only gets smarter. This is compounded by the autonomous staff of the hotel that never move but always feel like they’re watching you. There are moments when The Spectrum Retreat makes you feel like Mario surrounded by ghosts, as if everyone stops when you’re watching them but move while you’re back is turned. It’s creepy for sure, giving a constant feeling of unease.
There are very few negative things that I can say about The Spectrum Retreat. During the early parts of the game, there’s quite a bit of backtracking. At the time, this felt like unnecessary filler (the game does remove this as you progress) but as you get towards the latter part of the game, I became thankful that the game had given me the chance to get used to the layout of the hotel. The Spectrum Retreat isn’t a visual powerhouse either but the art style more than makes up for the occasional jagged edge. My only genuine complaint would be that there were 2 puzzles in the game that felt like they needed more visual clues on what to do. These puzzles are ones that introduce something new to the game for the first time and it would have been nice to have a better visual representation on what to do. Trial and error solved this but those 2 puzzles held me up longer than the rest of the game combined.
The Spectrum Retreat is one of the single best first-person puzzle games I’ve ever played and one of my personal favourite games of 2018 so far. Expertly created puzzles, a setting which is as equally enticing as it is unsettling, a thought provoking narrative, excellent music and top draw voice work combine to form a truly enjoyable puzzle game that’ll have me leaving a very positive Trip Advisor review.
The Spectrum Retreat launches on PS4 (reviewed on a standard PS4) on July 10th, Xbox One and PC on the 13th of July, 2018 and Switch this Summer.
Developer: Dan Smith Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a copy of the game from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.