The initial allure of The Spectrum Retreat quickly evaporates upon closer inspection, revealing an inelegant and clumsy puzzler that tires quickly
The puzzle genre has had something of a renaissance in recent years. We’ve been treated to the gorgeously simple world of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness and a torrent of high-quality Zachtronics games such as Infinifactory and Opus Magnum that allow players to forge creative solutions to tough problems. We’ve had the quaint pop-up-book pleasure of Hidden Folks, the painterly artistic vision of Gorogoa, the intriguing Sexy Brutale, and the relentlessly difficult Steven’s Sausage Roll. Going into The Spectrum Retreat, the first game from BAFTA-winning game designer Dan Smith, expectations are high for a novel, unique and challenging puzzle experience – expectations that go completely unmet.
A disclaimer before starting this review – I didn’t finish The Spectrum Retreat. Maybe if I’d have waded through another few hours of content, the game might have rewarded me with some kind of payoff, but by roughly halfway through the game I was already bored to tears. Many of the problems with The Spectrum Retreat come from the nature of its design – the ‘Groundhog Day’ stylings of its setting cause arbitrary, repetitive gameplay and story segments, as well as producing flat, boring-looking puzzle chambers and environments that don’t really challenge the player to look further than one or two steps ahead.
The puzzles themselves leave a lot to be desired. The key mechanic of the game involves changing coloured blocks – clicking on them to ‘absorb’ the colour into the player (allowing them to bypass certain coloured doors) and replace the block colour with whatever they were previously holding. There’s plenty of promise in the opening levels when the player is just getting to grips with the mechanics – but four ‘stages’ in and the cracks start to show. Some of the puzzles require the player to pass through a sequence of gates, but incorrect planning can lead to a full restart of a puzzle – creating nothing but tedium for the player as they wander through long tracts of bland black corridor. The ‘flow’ state often sought after by puzzle games, where challenge rises to match growing ability, is almost non-existent, the game not reaching much further than its original difficulty, only adding layers of busywork into the equation. The addition of more colours to transfer doesn’t make the player think of all the new possibilities opened up in the same way that a new block does in Infinifactory or new mechanic in Portal does (where they’re used in interesting new ways) but only increases the labour of getting from point A to B. Nothing prompted an ‘ooohhhh’ moment where everything ‘clicks’. Nothing made me feel challenged in a way that needs creative, abstract thinking – merely able to put 2 and 2 together.
This tedium in the puzzles is only further reinforced in the ‘gameplay’ features of the story section – where the player wanders the art-deco nightmare that is the Penrose Hotel, living out the same day over and over again. This understandably makes for a pretty depressing gameplay experience, with plenty of backtracking (a particularly egregious example making the player trudge slowly from the restaurant to the third floor – only to be redirected immediately back to the restaurant… where they are then prompted to return to the third floor) that provides little satisfaction, as story breadcrumbs are littered along the way. The icing on top? These breadcrumbs come with a smattering of technical issues (such as a letter being placed in complete darkness, making it impossible to read, or a woman’s sobs repeating endlessly whilst the player dutifully moves coloured blocks around). The game’s description on Steam heralds it as a ‘narrative-driven puzzler’, but the narrative does not drive the puzzles, rather it gently pushes them along, with the player in tow. Three ‘chapters’ in and The Spectrum Retreat gives no actual plot direction other than ‘trapped – son ill’, perhaps building to a climactic ending – but one the player feels no real investment in pursuing.
I understand what The Spectrum Retreat is trying to do – and this is why it feels so disappointing. So much promise is present within the game, but changes would have to be made from the start. If he was to replace the long black corridors with problems that are solved within the more recognisable (and occasionally beautiful) architecture of the hotel itself, Smith could have gone a long way to fix the dissonance of puzzle and narrative, and the tedium of its repetitive level design. Add in a feature that rewinds time a short way, perhaps, and the full-restart-frustration that sets in after a few incorrectly resolved puzzles would be entirely removed. Up the unnerving nature of the hotel itself to make the story sections a little less bland, and perhaps give off the creepy vibe that an infinite hotel stay lends itself to. The Spectrum Retreat, for me, just doesn’t hold a place amongst the aforementioned group of excellent puzzlers we’ve been treated to over the past few years. It lacks a unique voice or creative direction that prompts the player to think in interesting ways, instead of merely ‘doing the motions’ much like the game’s protagonist.
The Spectrum Retreat is out now on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch