After five years in development, Young Game Designers BAFTA winner Dan Smith’s strange and mysterious narrative-driven puzzler The Spectrum Retreat has finally released on PC and consoles, finally giving gamers the chance to stay at the wonderful Penrose hotel. Well… if your idea of wonderful includes creepy mannequins and plenty of tricky puzzles involving colours… it’s certainly no Marriott.
The Spectrum Retreat puts you in the shoes of a man who awakens in the Penrose hotel – a peaceful retreat that alters itself to best suit its guest’s needs. It also just so happens to be run by faceless yet speaking mannequins that are able to move around, so yeah, it’s pretty unique. Of course, you’re not sure why you’re there or what exactly is going on, and only have a strange phone-like device to guide you along. When you receive a call on your phone from a woman who wants to help you escape, your mysteriously unsettling adventure begins.
It’s an intriguing tale and one that kept me guessing throughout. There are certainly plenty of moments where you’ll get an idea as to what’s going on, but not enough for you to see the full picture. The way the tale is presented is clever too, with little bits of information creeping through during both the game’s ‘walking simulator’ sequences throughout the hotel and during the puzzles.
I’m actually quite the fan of a walking simulator where you simply take in the story by examining a mysterious world, so I was a big fan of The Spectrum Retreat’s narrative-focused sequences. The Penrose hotel is a strangely alluring place, but one where you never quite know what the hell is going on – finding out more about it and how you made your way there kept me intrigued throughout.
That being said, the focus on backtracking and the slow movement speed could be a little bit annoying. There are lots of hallways to walk through in the game which are a little bare (fitting given you’re in a hotel), so trudging through them slowly back and forth isn’t one of the game’s most thrilling aspects. The nagging of your female accomplice can be tiresome too, especially when she repeats lines as you’re exploring the hotel or trying to find where you need to go next. Don’t get me wrong, the positives outweigh the negatives massively during the exploration side of the game, but there’s no denying that some flaws are present.
Whilst the narrative-focused sequences play a big role in The Spectrum Retreat, there’s no denying that its meat and bones come with the puzzles.
The game’s puzzles are built around colours, with different coloured barriers placed around each level that block your path to the exit. You can pass through these barriers by equipping the corresponding colour to your little phone-like device, which you can do by interacting with different coloured cubes scattered across the map. When you take a colour from a cube though, you replace it with the one you previously had equipped. With plenty of different cubes scattered across each level (and some in more convenient locations than others), you’ve got to carefully figure out which cube needs which colour and co-ordinate it as you work through each puzzle’s miniature maze. It might sound a little complicated, but the premise itself is simple enough. As you progress though, you’ll slowly find yourself getting more challenged by each of The Spectrum Retreat’s enigmas.
They’re all cleverly designed for the most part and can be pretty addictive to work through. New mechanics are introduced all the time too including the likes of altered gravity and teleportation, so you’re always working with something new as you progress through the game.
It could be a little intimidating at first to look at a puzzle and see the sheer size and complexity of it, but The Spectrum Retreat rarely puts you in a situation where the solution isn’t too far away. There’re always clues to how to progress through a puzzle, be it the sight of the different coloured barriers in the distance or a small window before a barrier that makes it obvious which colour a cube needs to be. The game will never hold your hand too much as far as puzzle solving goes, but it never makes it too complicated either. Add to that some clever moments where the narrative is involved during some of the puzzles (which I won’t spoil here), and it’s easy to see that The Spectrum Retreat does a good job of blending effective puzzling and storytelling together.
Whilst the game’s puzzles are cleverly designed for the most part though, there were a few occasions where they could frustrate. Some of the longer and more complex puzzles often dragged a bit for example, especially when you consider a lot of the game’s mechanics are fairly simply in design and that the walking speed isn’t that quick. There were also times where you mess up and have to completely restart a puzzle from the start, which is a bit of a pain after spending a fair amount of time working through them – I won’t deny that some of my puzzle solutions in The Spectrum Retreat came through trial and error, so being pushed back to the start of a puzzle due to one mistake and having to go through it again was frustrating.
A lot of these issues are minor ones in the grand scheme of things, but noticeable nonetheless. They don’t ever stop The Spectrum Retreat from being a good game, but they do prevent it from being up there with narrative-driven puzzling greats such as Portal.
I really enjoyed The Spectrum Retreat, with the Penrose hotel proving to be an intriguing locale to explore that’s full of secrets to uncover and well-designed puzzles that offer the right amount of challenge to the player. It’s satisfying to progress through the game and it really kept me hooked in and captivated to see where exactly the narrative would go.
It does have its flaws though, with its focus on backtracking, a slow movement speed and the occasional puzzle that’ll frustrate more than it entertains popping up throughout. They’re minor qualms in all, but noticeable nonetheless.
Thankfully, none of them stop The Spectrum Retreat from being an easy title to recommend for those who enjoy an enigmatic tale that’s full of cleverly designed yet challenging conundrums.
Developer: Dan Smith Studios
Release Date: Out Now
Format(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC