We all know that one puzzle game. The one with the evil A.I.; with the cake (or lack of it). Every first-person puzzle game seems to get compared to it, and for good reason. Portal (and its sequel) are among the best first-person puzzlers around, but after so long it’s time to stop these comparisons. Yes, first-person puzzle games did take the ideas from Portal and use them, but all the best ones used them in new and unique ways. Q.U.B.E had you extruding boxes, and The Spectrum Retreat has you placing or carrying colour to order to teleport or pass through barriers. You heard that right, you carry colour.
Not only that. When you start the game, you wake up in a strange hotel room and are greeted by a faceless robot, where it’s mouth is a glowing speaker. You learn the hotel is called the Penrose Hotel and that you are not allowed to leave.
I want to leave! Let me leave!
Without diving too much into intricacies of the story, as to not spoil anything, you are contacted by a mysterious person who wants to free you from the Penrose. With no memories of who you are, where you are, or why you are there you follow their instructions. You learn about the hotel, and how it works. Your ultimate aim is to reach the roof but must pass the challenges in order to unlock more floors.
This is where The Spectrum Retreat differs from almost every other puzzle game. It has two specific sections of a video game. Two methods of playing. One is the puzzle game where you manipulate blocks by filling them with colour, carrying said colour through a barrier, or using this colour to teleport. The other side of the game is a clue finding game, closer to an adventure game (without an inventory), but with some horror elements thrown in.
The Adventure Game
This aspect has you finding clues, like all adventure games, but also is where most the story is housed – or hoteled?? The Penrose itself is amazingly detailed, yet also somehow sparse. Every corner is eerie, and it feels like something isn’t quite right from the start. Every time you return from puzzling, something has changed. There are glitches, the hotel staff starts acting weirdly, and the clues get more and more elaborate to find the door codes. These door codes are used to access the puzzle aspect of the game.
There are times where you will have to backtrack, up and down, and all around the hotel. After doing this multiple times you are then teleported part way, but these feel very inconsistent and doesn’t feel like it shortens the journey as you will then have to make it the whole way back. These parts feel very repetitive, and don’t add anything to the game. These corridors are great to walk down once or twice, but past that you should just be teleported through them to the next room — but this could be the point. That said, Dan Smith – the sole developer under Dan Smith Studios – has created a strangely pleasant hotel facade that you find yourself wanting to go to, but that has this dark disturbing underbelly.
There are plenty of secrets the Penrose has to spill but you have to experience them firsthand — most of them are pretty shocking, or at least slightly disconcerting.
The Puzzle Game
In the puzzle game section of The Spectrum Retreat, as said before, you carry colour around and throw it back at cubes or use it to pass through the same coloured barriers (among other things). Now, I’m colourblind, so this theoretically should cause me issues. However, very cleverly Dan Smith has chosen colours which are the least likely to be confused by the majority of colourblind people — these colours being red, yellow, blue, and white — and has added in colourblind options for the three main forms of colourblindness. I am using one of these but tested without and it caused no more issues, it’s just clearer with the option on. It’s always great when a developer really thinks about accessibility with a game where colour is the main mechanic, like in Hue by Fiddlesticks Games symbols can be used to differentiate between the colours.
“But what about the actual puzzles?” I hear you say.
This is a good question and one which I will answer in the vaguest of ways (sorry). The puzzles make you think, and really have that “Eureka!” moment when you solve one. However, like all good puzzle games, that moment doesn’t last long as you do a double take. “Yes, I solved it!” But damn I’m stupid for not realising that before. You find yourself stumped on a puzzle which should be easy and feel stupid for solving it – but at the same time, you feel like you are just as intelligent as the late Stephen Hawking. It’s this duality which makes or breaks puzzle games for me. If you don’t feel like the biggest idiot, while also feeling like a genius god-being the game falls flat. The Spectrum Retreat nails this feeling with its puzzles and it’s the best compliment I can give about any puzzle game.
There are, however, a few issues. The first floor of puzzles is just the perfect length to introduce you to the mechanics, and expand upon them, but past that each floor feels one or two puzzles too long. The final puzzle is usually completed through guesswork and bashing your head against a wall, instead of looking for a solution. Luckily, restarting a level is pretty much instant (about 1 second at most), so there is no need to sit through a loading screen each time — a very good feature in general.
The Spectrum Retreat is what puzzle games aim to be!
The idea of having a duel experience, where one section is just for puzzles, and the other is for story and clue hunting, where, as you progress in one, the other becomes harder, where when you complete each floor of puzzles the Penrose hotel changes itself and secrets are exposed, where each floor of puzzles also comes with new challenges and mixing them together keeps you on your toes, just all feels amazing. It blends so well and keeps things interesting. With only a few issues, The Spectrum Retreat is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys a good puzzle game. This honestly is among the best of them – and with an interesting story to boot. The most surprising thing about it though is just how good the voice acting is, and I don’t even need to add the caveat of “for a one person studio” as it genuinely is amazing on its own – Ripstone’s (the publisher) extra resources really went to good use.
Note: a copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.