The Spectrum Retreat Review
Not exactly the relaxing vacation you were planning.
Aroused by a curt knock at the door, the room around you slowly fades into focus. The lack of personal effects suggests you’re in a hotel, but the robotic attendant at the door confirms it after instructing you to report for breakfast. Disorientated, you make your way to the restaurant as your phone bursts into life displaying the disjointed message that ‘you are expected’.
By the time you reach the foyer it’s clear something is not right in this place, but on attempting to leave through the revolving doors of the hotel entrance your fears become justified as you are span back into the reception. You’ll make this walk many times, waking up each morning to the same knock, on the same day, to the same robotic attendant. The Penrose is no normal hotel, and it seems you’re in for an extended stay.
The Spectrum Retreat is a first-person narrative puzzle game that splits the gameplay between Black Mirror-esque curated exploration and colour-coded, platforming challenges reminiscent of other titles in the genre, most notably Portal. After being contacted through your phone by Cooper, the game’s narrator of sorts, you’re informed that The Penrose is not what it seems and that she wants to help you escape whatever is you’re in. Navigating the environment through this form of guided narration you’ll uncover the secrets of this strange and surreal location in a bid to understand how you got here.
Progression through the narrative is achieved by completing complex colour-coded puzzles that are split into the five floors of the hotel. In this way, the game has quite a stark contrast between gameplay approaches with each section clearly falling into doing one or the other. Although this works, the game never really explains the reasoning behind these puzzle sections beyond the fact that you just have to do them to progress. At times this has a slightly immersion-breaking effect in comparison to the overarching narrative and its interlinked parts.
The colour-coded puzzles mechanics are novel, yet quickly feel familiar to fans of the genre. That’s not a criticism either, but more rather a triumph of game design that presents a concept that feels fresh, but doesn’t deviate so far from what is already established that it is indecipherable. The puzzles have a manageable difficulty curve and enough progressive innovation on the original mechanic to keep you continually challenged.
In contrast, the hotel presents no challenge but instead an interesting and detailed environment to explore, albeit one immersed in an unsettling aura. Comparable to the Shining’s Overlook Hotel, it’s shrouded in an unspoken tension that verges on a kind of claustrophobic horror at times. The staff’s bizarre behaviour and the seeming instability of the hotel’s reality adds to this surreal quality making the player question the nature of their surroundings. The only criticism that could be levelled at the design is the generic art style that fails to set it apart from similar first-person games in the genre.
The segmented approach to the gameplay also has an interesting effect on pacing, in that it improves it. For a genre that often suffers from pacing issues this slightly different structure appears to work. It does this at very little cost, other than the occasional disconnect in terms of immersion within the narrative.
The game also faces a few similar issues with immersion breaking, such as the distinct lack of a run button, which potentially leads to excessive jumping by the player in frustration at the slow movement. This implies that the player is trying to subvert the rules of the game and therefore reject the world it conjures around them. These issues are minor, but give life to the idea that The Spectrum Retreat could have been a very different game with a merged gameplay and narrative approach. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives in this case though, even the absence of a run function.
Overall, The Spectrum Retreat takes a few small risks in terms of style that seem to pay off. It could have expanded on its Art Deco aesthetic but more than makes up for it with its pseudo-experimental design. It succeeds in convincing you it’s trying something new when in fact the smart game design has just separated the usual staples of the genre into two distinct parts. It does all this to a genuinely interesting backdrop whose exploration is framed by an ambient score that supports its classic sci-fi inspirations. If you’re a fan of first-person puzzle games then this is definitely something that should be on your radar.