Ah, the stereotypical psychological thriller scenario of waking up in a location with no memory of who you are and the quest to learn about how you got there. The Spectrum Retreat introduces that generic plotline but throws in a puzzling twist that leads to scratching heads and confused squinting at colours.
Dan Smith Studios’ The Spectrum Retreat has already made its way onto the Xbox One, PS4, and PC back in July 2018 and has now finally been ported over to the Nintendo Switch. I was excited to jump into the first-person puzzler and experience what looked like mind-boggling challenges that lay ahead. I had previously read of a story being present but nothing expected me for the narrative showcase I was thrown into.
It isn’t the type of game that gives you a story at the beginning, then leaves you to wade through the puzzles until you reach the end story segment. Instead, you flit between interactive story segments, and then through puzzles that grow progressively harder. There’s also a thriller element to the game that catches you off-guard.
To understand The Spectrum Retreat and its mechanics, you have to actually play it. I could go in-depth and talk about the dramatic story, but I wouldn’t want to risk spoiling too much considering it’s only suited for one playthrough. I will touch on it though.
You wake up in The Penrose, a hotel that is run by smartly dressed robots with an odd focus on caring for you and ensuring your stay is a pleasant one. You’re shortly contacted through a special phone by Cooper, a woman who states she wants to help you escape. To do this, Cooper has you going through various rooms decorated with colour coded puzzles that need completing in order to reach the elevator at the end.
To understand The Spectrum Retreat and its mechanics, you have to actually play it
This is where the focus of the game seems to want to be. The puzzles were what won the developer a BAFTA after all at the 2016 BAFTA YGD Game Designers Game Making Award. It’s clear to see why when you experience the mechanics.
These mechanics are used to complete the challenges with the phone you pick up at the start. The phone is capable of picking up one colour at a time from various coloured cubes around these challenge rooms. When you’ve absorbed a specific colour —leaving the cube you took it from now clear— any gates linked to that colour will become passable. Holding a red colour will unlock red gates and bridges for example.
While colours can be carried through unlocked gates it’s not possible to transfer them to another cube through gates. Walls tend to have holes that allow you to target blocks to transfer too, encouraging players to assess the environment more in-depth and plan routes.
As you progress, elements continue to be introduced. Room rotations, more colours, moving cubes, and even cubes that regenerate to their original colour add to the bafflement.
This does mean that it is possible to require restarting that room if you mess up. Thankfully I only had to resort to looking at a walkthrough for one challenge, but it turned out I had the right idea, just not the execution.
There’s an almost Portal vibe to the puzzle rooms, inviting you to a bland, lab/off-site setting that requires you to reach an elevator. While the puzzles are challenging without feeling overwhelming most of the time. There are a fair amount of puzzles to get through, so returning to the hotel offers a nice break from rubbing that chin of yours.
The hotel works around you with the hotel’s robot staff expecting you to stick to a routine. When you divert from the routine —such as going through challenges or exploring areas— the hotel stops functioning. Little by little, it starts to break apart the more you regain your memories.
Memories of your past begin integrating into The Penrose as a result. Picture frames show fuzzy family photos and audio focused flashbacks sound out at key moments. Various rooms from your past also end up embedded into some areas of challenge rooms and with objects to look piecing the story together more.
at one point I spent 10 minutes walking around the hotel in silence. This was made even duller by being stuck with the walking speed and lack of running.
The atmosphere builds itself perfectly with strong dialogue adding more tension as it goes on. The challenges feel more focused and calmer, and the hotel has an uneasy feeling with a few jump scares that catch you off guard.
I honestly feel that the sections based in The Penrose completely overshadow the challenges due to being so incredibly well written. A weird result considering the game feels like the attention is meant to be on the puzzles.
The Spectrum Retreat looks great running both docked and un-docked, but it does suffer from some jagged shadows that are glaringly obvious. Everything looks polished with a subtle bloom adding a stylish flourish to the clean looking environments.
In addition, the game utilizes haptic feedback to inform when you’re looking at an interactive object no matter how far from it you are. This comes in handy during the challenges when trying to use the awkward and sticky aiming sensitivity and instead resort to using the vibrations as a guide. Interactive objects can be anything from something to look at, and any object that can give or take colours.
I missed some vocal clues a few times due to not squinting hard enough at the terribly small subtitles, which made me realise there’s no hint system. You do get Cooper occasionally repeating clues, but at one point I spent 10 minutes walking around the hotel in silence. This was made even duller by being stuck with the walking speed and lack of running.
I honestly feel that the sections based in the hotel completely overshadow the challenges due to being so incredibly well written.
The biggest issue I came across was the terrible placement of “New game” on the menu right next to the “Restart challenge” option. Every time the menu is opened there’s a short delay before it becomes responsive which often leads to accidentally starting a new game instead of restarting the room. Thankfully there’s a confirmation screen to get through first, but still, it’s an unwelcomed placement and needs changing up.
There’s not much in terms of music in The Spectrum Retreat to talk about, instead, most of the audio comes with high-quality voice acting and powerful diegetic sound. The whoosy sound of the phone absorbing colours is always a treat to hear, and there’s something unnerving about the voices of the robots.
The Spectrum Retreat is an incredibly well-created game, but sadly it doesn’t feel like one I’d sit through again and again. It does a fantastic job being dramatically captivating as well as puzzling, but it suffers from being overly linear with not much to explore or change. There are hidden, glowing boxes that contain documentation dotted around the hotel, but other than that there’s nothing to keep players coming back.
An amazingly well-written psychological thriller that gives you puzzler-themed breaks from the story by having you complete colour coded puzzles is exactly what The Spectrum Retreat is. While the puzzles do tie into the main story it’s the change of tone between the hotel setting and challenge rooms that mashes the two genres together in harmony.
The end result is a video game that feels gripping, looks sleek, and makes your brain work. I certainly recommend picking it up but don’t expect to have multiple playthroughs. Do expect to revel in a fantastically written story however.
Developer: Dan Smith Studios
Publisher: Ripstone Ltd.
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
A Nintendo Switch code was provided in order to complete this review