Recent years seem to have brought about a boom in the genre of psychological first-person puzzle games. Having roots in games like Myst, modern hits such as Portal and The Witness have found critical acclaim by utilizing simplistic gameplay (often paired with a game-specific gimmick or mechanic) used to overcome increasingly challenging puzzles, combined with subtle storytelling used to pique the player’s curiosity (or approach more ambitious themes such as questioning the nature of reality, or why people play games). The Spectrum Retreat falls comfortably in with its head-scratching, first-person siblings. Wander the winding halls of The Penrose hotel solving puzzles and wondering, are you a patient here, or a prisoner?
Welcome To The Penrose Hotel. Come For The Staff, Stay For The Eggs Benedict
As you drift towards wakefulness, you hear a soft knocking on your hotel-suite door. Opening it, you are greeted by one of The Spectrum Retreat’s many robotic staff informing you that breakfast is being served in the downstairs restaurant. Before you can even close the door, you receive a call from an enigmatic source named Cooper, informing you that things, as you might expect, are not all they appear. This is a common feedback loop in The Spectrum Retreat, both in its storytelling and its puzzles: presenting the player with structure, and then taking steps to subvert your expectations once things start to become predictable. Lulling the player into a sense of security, teaching you rules, and then breaking them.
While not a new concept in gaming, this trust/mistrust concept is perhaps more prevalent than normal in The Spectrum Retreat. This loop works not only to create a continued sense of unease and mistrust, but also works to reflect your character’s decaying psyche. And for the most part, it works. The title does a good job of teaching you a routine and then breaking that routine just when you start to predict the next move, keeping things fresh. Furthermore, The Spectrum Retreat does a good job of keeping the story interesting by leaving a steady trail of breadcrumbs. This repeatedly mixes things up, presenting new pieces of evidence that force you to reevaluate who you are and what you’re doing at The Penrose. Sadly, this can make earlier sections of the game a bit duller as you learn the routine. For example, you may start with questions like, “Oh, I’m eating eggs benedict for the third day in a row, I wonder if that’s significant?” versus the end of the game where you land a little closer to “What is the nature of good and evil?”
The Notorious RBG (i.e. Red, Blue, and Green)
Much like other first-person puzzle games, the gameplay in The Spectrum Retreat is rather simple. Standard actions like move, look, jump, and interact are all here. The noted exception is your phone, which (aside from receiving messages from Cooper) allows you to absorb and paint certain objects within the world to solve puzzles. Later your phone is also used to teleport you to pads of corresponding colors. This is, of course, the title’s core gimmick, and what sets its gameplay and puzzles apart from similar titles. Many of the puzzles boil down to: “How do I move color X to space Y?” Or, “How do I end up with color Z at the end of this room, so I can teleport to the exit?”
The Spectrum Retreat at large alternates between story-driven morning sessions and puzzle-driven afternoon sessions, with some noted cross-pollination between the two. Mornings consistently follow a pattern like this: wake up, receive an update from Cooper, wolf down breakfast to throw the robot staff off your trail, and poke around the furthest floor you’ve explored to find a keypad to the puzzle areas. Once you’ve accessed the puzzle sections, you’ll need to complete a series of rooms featuring similar puzzles. Once the rooms are completed, it’s off to bed so the whole cycle can reset (with a slight variation tomorrow). The Spectrum Retreat balances these two sections nicely, although the deliberate repetition of the morning portions can become a bit tedious (I became increasingly grateful whenever the game skipped even a short portion of the morning sections, making it quicker for me to get back into the puzzle solving).
A Limited Palette
Aside from bouncing between the title’s two sections (i.e. Mornings and Afternoons), there’s little else to explore in The Spectrum Retreat. There’s a smattering of documents and holo-journals that you can read to help fill in the story (although none seem too integral to the plot). There are schisms and weird spots in the world where audio clips play, replaying key moments from your character’s past. There’s also the hotel’s staff that you can talk with, which mostly add structure and repetition to counteract the game’s increasing chaos and unpredictability. Aside from the rogue call from Cooper, that’s about it. Because of this, piecing together the story of The Spectrum Retreat can be a tedious (and at times, confusing) task. By the end you’ll get the gist of the plot, and perhaps even a little tug on the heart strings, but the story is otherwise a bit forgettable.
From a technical standpoint, The Spectrum Retreat is a mostly solid experience. I ran into a few points where it seemed to chug (despite running on a strong system and knocking the graphics down to the Fast setting). But these hiccups were infrequent, and never inhibited my puzzle-solving. There are also a few points where you’re likely to hit a stalemate while trying to solve a puzzle, or otherwise mess it up beyond repair. Thankfully, for the most part, The Spectrum Retreat is forgiving whenever you need to reset a puzzle. However, there are a few points later in the game when it can be a bit frustrating having to redo longer puzzles just to get to the point you messed up at the very end.
A Promising Start
There’s a bit of history with The Spectrum Retreat and its designer Daniel Smith that’s worth mentioning. Smith won the BAFTA Game Making Award (15-18 category) in 2016 for his game SPECTRUM. As you might guess, The Spectrum Retreat is a clear evolution of Smith’s game-winning BAFTA entry. When looking at the two side-by-side, you can see the DNA woven between them, as certain mechanics and themes were refined, evolved, or removed. While this knowledge may slightly detract from the idea of The Spectrum Retreat’s originality, it’s no doubt impressive to see the evolution between the two games, and to see what happens when a developer is given the time and resources to fully flesh out a concept. It also leads one to wonder what Smith’s next game(s) may be. Will they be a further evolution of the Spectrum series, or something completely different?
The Verdict: Good
The Spectrum Retreat is a fine first-person puzzle title with some interesting puzzles and a mildly stimulating story, albeit one that drags in places. While The Spectrum Retreat might not advance the psychological first-person puzzle genre dramatically, it’s a well thought-out and well-executed game that’s worth your time. Let your subconscious mull over its themes and story while your conscious is distracted with figuring out its comfortably challenging puzzles.