The Spectrum Retreat
Released on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and coming to Nintendo Switch
Developer: Dan Smith Studios
Release: July 13, 2018
Reviewed on PC
Imagine the perfect hotel. The lobby shines with art deco glamour, the staff are attentive, helpful, almost invisible, and every morning your favorite meal is prepared for breakfast. Each experience, no matter how small, is optimized to be exactly to your liking. The only catch is that you can never leave.
This is the setting for Dan Smith Studio’s The Spectrum Retreat, a narrative-driven puzzle game with an unsettling sci-fi story to rival the likes of Black Mirror. You awaken in a hotel where every interaction has been tailored precisely for you. The rooms are pristine, the service unquestionable, yet the feeling of uncanny horror grows as it becomes clear that you are the only guest staying in a grand hotel complex staffed by blank, faceless robots.
The Spectrum Retreat follows your attempt to regain your memories and uncover the secrets of The Penrose Hotel. With the help of Cooper, a mysterious contact aiding in your escape, you solve puzzles, read documents, and explore the hotel in the hopes of finding an exit, all under the watchful eye of the hotel manager.
This eerily immaculate setting is the perfect basis for a story strung with tension and unraveling realities, but the game quickly splits into two distinct parts: puzzle gameplay, and story exploration. The Spectrum Retreat presents not one, but two novel concepts, because it isn’t just a story about an uncanny hotel, but also a game which plays with color and visual cues to produce striking and mind-bending puzzles.
Puzzles of Color and Perspective
As a puzzle game, The Spectrum Retreat centers around color-coded puzzles similar to Antichamber or The Witness. On each floor of the hotel, you come up against puzzle rooms filled with glowing cubes of red, green, blue, and white. Your phone acts as a kind of palette, allowing you to absorb colors with a click and recolor the world around you: opening doors and allowing you to progress.
In their most basic forms the puzzles consist of rearranging colours to progress through the chambers, but later the game throws in moving blocks, target pads that launch you through the air, and gravity switches, all of which force you to think through different perspectives and angles to solve the puzzle, not unlike Portal or The Talos Principle.
The floors ramp up in complexity, but feel well-designed and tend not to overstay their welcome. Should you want more of a challenge, however, the game also features an ‘Impossible’ mode where all colors are set to grayscale, from black to white, as well as varying options for red-green and blue-yellow color blind players.
Blending the Realities of Story and Gameplay
However the puzzle sections are not totally isolated from The Spectrum Retreat’s story. In these puzzle rooms reality breaks down and you catch glimpses of lost memories, helping you to uncover how you came to be trapped in the hotel. Puzzles bleed into the hotel exploration side of the game, where you must uncover hidden codes and messages left around the hotel, and follow the stories of the hotel’s origins, the politics of the outside world, and your own murky past.
Unfortunately, while the story itself is strong, these exploration sections are the weaker side of the game. Cooper, your constant guide, doesn’t leave much breathing room for the player to explore. While her helpfulness is a boon to forgetful players, others may find that her prompts take away from the challenge of the exploration puzzles. That said, the game has incredibly strong voice acting, and it’s nice to find a puzzle game that is so concerned about avoiding the frustrating experience of being stuck.
A Story Hidden throughout the Rooms of a Hotel
The main story hinges on the idea of the player regaining their memories, and while it feels convoluted, as it does in so many games, to tell the players that information about their past needs to be drip-fed to them for their own protection, The Spectrum Retreat does a good job of setting up a world in which our slow recovery of memories makes sense. The story is told through repetition and variation; within our Groundhog Day experience we have to pay attention to the small and sinister changes to the staff’s daily cycles of dialogue, and the slow deterioration of the hotel façade. Each day is the same perfect experience, yet each day the cycle breaks a little further, and we explore further into the guts of the hotel itself.
It’s a truly eerie experience and the kind of striking concept and captivating story that is so rare in puzzle games. Eventually, all is revealed to us, the final twist uncovered, and our journey comes down to a choice between two endings. At around five hours in length, The Spectrum Retreat comes across as a game with two clear concepts, yet both deliver on being challenging and compelling experiences, and the game concludes its mysteries without padding the story or gameplay, leaving the player with a satisfying and tightly wrapped story.
The game’s biggest issue is that the puzzle and story sections remain so disparate despite attempts to weave them together, but for players who like a serious narrative to go with their gameplay regardless, The Spectrum Retreat is a singular sci-fi experience. Without giving away too much, what we learn about the nature of the hotel helps to explain the abrupt changes between the strange puzzle-room realities and the world of the hotel itself. The two sides of the game do come together to tell one cohesive tale, with two compelling and fully-realized ideas that are worth experiencing first-hand.