From the outset it’s not too difficult to figure out that the location depicted in The Spectrum Retreat, the Penrose Hotel, is not real. Or that it’s clearly a simulation or virtual testbed of some-kind. That’s not to say that figuring this out robs the narrative of some big reveal towards the end, but simply to point out that this setting instantly drew us into to the experience. That, and it comes from BAFTA award winning young developer Dan Smith, who began work on the full release after showcasing a prototype at the young age of 18.
With The Spectrum Retreat you get essentially two games - one a guided narrative with little to no focus placed on exploration or interactivity, and one that is a series of puzzle rooms along the lines of the original Portal or Q.U.B.E. A puzzle game that deals in clinical tech environments and various colour-based challenges to navigate through and reach an exit. And we say two games because the shift between the two styles happens regularly and has the jarring ability to create the feeling of separate experiences tied together kind of flimsily. Where the extended puzzle sequences, that offer both genuine challenge and memorable designs, are authentication rooms that need to be solved to gain deeper access into the simulation.
As for the narrative side The Spectrum Retreat offers an interesting mystery that deftly introduces political intrigue and personal history in addition to the initial questions of why a simulation, and why the Penrose Hotel. As a ‘valued guest’ each day you need to make your way to the restaurant for breakfast and then to an upper floor to find a secret room – which will lead you towards the puzzle-side of the experience to delve deeper into the simulation and hopefully escape. Initial impressions are mostly positive thanks to the wonderful art deco design of the hotel and the clean almost iconic design used to represent the robot-staff. Then there’s the impossible architecture of the hotel itself, where hallways have a way of looping in ways that directly add to the general feeling of being trapped in a simulation.
But, the limitations of this side of the game begin to show if you decide to deviate from the path laid out for you or the instructions given by a mysterious programmer who hacks into your ‘feed’ to help you uncover the truth. And by deviate we don’t mean turn left instead of right, but when trying to interact with any object that isn’t the one or two story-things that isn’t simple set dressing. As an indie title one can overlook the static nature of the Penrose Hotel, but only to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with narrative pacing and enjoyment. Walking from your room to the restaurant and then back upstairs is fine at first, but the third trek feels a little boring. Which is made even worse by the lack of a run button.
This all ties directly into the one major problem with the puzzle side of The Spectrum Retreat too, in that by being told how many levels there are to complete without a feeling of gradual narrative progression – pacing is also affected. And so, the strongest aspect, outside of some story beats and reveals, becomes the variety and generally clever and intuitive puzzle design. Based around using colour to progress via either zapping a red block to green and using the newly acquired green to walk through a previously green barrier or using the more complex gravitational and teleportation elements that are introduced later to add complexity. And a feeling of ingenuity to solutions.
It’s a shame that the two sides of The Spectrum Retreat don’t really come together, creating a cohesive narrative adventure filled with engaging puzzles to solve. But even though the Penrose Hotel quickly becomes boring to walk through, there’s still a lot to like – from the art direction to the story and the often-wonderful puzzle design.