Here’s one for you: two years ago, 20-year-old game designer Dan Smith won a BAFTA in the Young Game Designers category for his prototype of what would become The Spectrum Retreat. What’s more, publisher Ripstone has stepped in to help turn the game into a fully fledged commercial product. It’s quite an achievement for the up and coming game maker, and more to the point, his game stacks up fairly well against other first-person puzzlers on PS4.
It sets itself apart with an interesting blend of environments, storytelling, and explorative puzzle solving. You wake up in the Penrose hotel – a near-future simulated resort that changes to suit its guests – with no knowledge of why you’re there. A woman reaches out via your phone in order to help you figure out what’s going on and, ultimately, escape. Your time is roughly split in half between navigating the art deco halls of the hotel and solving colour-based puzzles in clinical, Portal-esque rooms.
Throughout both of these areas of The Spectrum Retreat, the narrative gradually unfolds as your character begins to recall past events that lead up to his stay at the Penrose. Whether it’s the corner of his old kitchen glitching into the middle of a puzzle or a speaker in the hotel’s restaurant relaying an old conversation, the sombre tale is doled out piece by piece as you progress. There are flaws in the story, and the acting can get a bit hammy, but it successfully adds a layer to the game that makes it more than a straightforward puzzle game.
However, for many, the puzzles will offer the meat of the experience, and these are both numerous and well designed. On each floor of the Penrose is a door that requires a code, and behind them lie a number of chambers you’ll need to get through to return to the hotel and unlock the next floor. The device you hold acts as a phone, but it also has the ability to absorb the colour from glowing cubes dotted around each environment. All you need to do is reach the exit, and to do so, you’ll need to move colours between these cubes in order to get through and over various obstacles. Like all the best puzzle games, the core is very simple, but the mechanic is built upon and subverted regularly to keep you on your toes. While the difficulty curve is largely well judged, there are definitely one or two spikes that had us stumped far longer than later puzzles.
At least on a par with the puzzles, though, is the Penrose itself. It’s a fascinating setting to explore as you work your way up each floor. You’re finding and solving the puzzle rooms in order to escape, but to remain inconspicuous, you must conform to a predetermined routine; each morning, the Manager of the Penrose will knock on your door, greet you and invite you to the restaurant, and you must then sit at your reserved table to have your breakfast. This aspect of the setting is played with to create a surprisingly eerie atmosphere, and though The Spectrum Retreat isn’t a horror game, it still managed to make us jump a couple of times, in part thanks to the slightly unsettling mannequin-like staff.
The hotel is a well crafted environment, but beyond searching it for codes in order to progress, very little is done with the various areas. In addition to the protagonist’s story, you’ll find snippets of the Penrose’s history hidden throughout the hotel, making each room worth exploring fully, but there’s usually little to no reason to return. The art style at least means each location is pleasant to look at, and the contrast between the ornate Penrose and the sterile, minimalist puzzle rooms is pretty striking. Graphically the game generally looks good, but there are one or two occasions where the game will freeze for a split second, which is a little jarring. Fortunately, these small performance hiccups are few and far between, and you’ll likely be too engrossed to really notice.
The Spectrum Retreat is a pleasant surprise. The colour coded puzzles are intelligently designed and present a decent challenge, while the Penrose hotel is an absorbing backdrop that creates an unsettling atmosphere. While it’s a shame more isn’t made of this setting, the game’s storytelling, design, and puzzle solving is a compelling mix, and for less than a tenner, provides a unique experience across its six-hour runtime.