Many years ago, there was Portal. The first of its kind, Portal was a 3D first-person physics puzzler set in a world where you, as the main character, had to escape from a variety of devious machinations in an underground testing facility. It was hailed as a genius concept and followed up by the excellent Portal 2, which put more emphasis on story and expanded on the already excellent mechanics, leading to it being hailed as one of the best puzzle games of its generation. Despite this, few games have attempted to emulate the ground-breaking feel of this original series, and none so far have been able to truly succeed in its shadow.
The Spectrum Retreat, like the aforementioned, is a 3D first-person physics-based puzzler with an emphasis on a combination of solid mechanics and a mysterious story. Developed over the course of five years by YGD Bafta award winner Dan Smith (who began its development at the age of 15,) The Spectrum Retreat is set in a luxurious hotel known as the Penrose. Manned by a robotic staff, the Penrose houses a variety of mysteries and puzzles for the player to discover throughout their cyclical stay. Released on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One in July, the game recently hit the Nintendo Switch with a bang; but does it live up to its predecessors and does the Switch have the power to deliver it fully?
I won’t go into too many story details in this review, as to do so would spoil it, but it begins in your room inside the Penrose Hotel- a luxurious resort location in an art deco style. You are awoken by the manager, who delivers your wake-up call face to face, and invites you to breakfast. You are cordially greeted by the robotic staff and enjoy a delicious breakfast in the (strangely deserted) dining room, before continuing to explore the hotel. Through a series of events which I won’t go into, you are given the chance to explore the hotel and discover the answers to a variety of questions; why are you here? Who are you? Why do they only serve one kind of breakfast? As you explore the plot thickens into really emotional territory with a few really effective twists and plenty of tension. I absolutely loved it, and whilst I did see some of the twists coming a mile off the storyline was more than enough to propel me all the way to the end. Whilst not as deep or complicated as some games, it’s presented using very little exposition, though notes and memories scattered through the puzzle areas.
The gameplay is really split into two separate parts. When exploring the hotel the game is akin to a “walking sim” like Gone Home or Dear Esther, mixing environmental details with narrative voiceovers and startling visual effects. Whilst in the puzzle rooms, it is more akin to something like Portal. The visual style switches drastically to a more futuristic, minimalist aesthetic, which ties in nicely with the game’s central conceit; COLOUR.
Everything on this side requires the careful use of colour, which can be absorbed and placed by your “phone”. By clicking on a coloured block you are able to swap it with your current colour, allowing you to go through doors of a matching tint. It’s simpl, to begin with, as you juggle primary colours around the room in order to progress through doors and floors, but it ramps up with each floor you reach. Eventuall,y more colours, gravity and teleportation mechanics are introduced to deepen the puzzles, which by the end are pretty darn tricky. The difficulty is well balanced, and whilst at times I did get a little stuck and have to reset the room I never found the solutions obtuse. It’s a sign of a great puzzle game when you feel simultaneously satisfied by the difficulty yet not frustrated by it. I was really impressed by the verticality of the puzzles, especially in later sections, and by the way, the levels felt simultaneously both geographically consistent and strangely mystical. I was always intrigued to play the next puzzle and consistently got that “one more room” feeling as I searched for the door to the next room, whilst the thematically linked story moments kept me moving forward.
Aesthetically The Spectrum Retreat is stunning, combining art-deco and sci-fi/steampunk to create a unique atmosphere. It messes with you in all the right ways and feels both welcoming and weird. The sound design really adds to this, with the excellent music punctuating story moments and adding tension in bucket loads. The voice acting is also excellent, with the performances perfectly punctuating the writing and epitomising the old phrase “show, don’t tell.”
I only have one real gripe with this version of the game, and unfortunately, that is due to the platform I played on. Whilst I found the Switch a preferred place to play the game due to the ability to pick it up and put it down when required, I also noticed a variety of graphical and technical issues both in handheld and docked modes. Whilst lighting is alright for the most part, shadows, in particular, are janky, with jagged edges and clear pixels noticeable throughout. I also struggled to read quite a few of the game’s many notes and letters, as the low resolution they have been presented in on the console has left them either too small or blurry. Luckily the subtitle option does help with this, but for a game with as much environmental reading as this, it’s very hard to excuse.
All in all, though I absolutely loved my time with The Spectrum Retreat. The 6-hour story is satisfying from start to end, never outstaying its welcome, and whilst some elements do feel a little repetitive at times there is always some change which breaks it up and adds variety. The puzzling is fun and interesting and the settings are full of loads of little details which add to the experience. If have even a passing interest in 3D puzzling or Portal-like games and enjoy a mystery, The Spectrum Retreat is definitely worth a try.
The Spectrum Retreat is developed by Dan Smith Studios, published by Ripstone and runs on the Unity engine. You can purchase the game of Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One and PS4.