Imagine waking up in a hotel room. Its Art Deco-inspired aesthetic reinforces conformity as you answer the door. The manager informs you of the delectable breakfast waiting downstairs. You rush to the dining room. Before you know it, it’s time for bed. The following morning feels eerily familiar. The calendar says it’s May 20th. Yesterday was the 20th. That same manager greets you with the exact same words as before. Thus begins The Spectrum Retreat‘s Groundhog Day narrative.
The Spectrum Retreat
As a story-driven first-person puzzle game, The Spectrum Retreat introduces its world before any gameplay systems. If Dan Smith wants to make anything clear, it’s that absorbing the game’s narrative is key to getting the most out of the experience. Story and gameplay reinforce each other despite existing within entirely different spaces.
The Spectrum Retreat lulls players into a routine. They wake up, answer the door, eat breakfast, and search for a door with a keypad. After figuring out the code, our protagonist is thrust into authentication challenges. Broken up into five sets, each chamber contains anywhere from six to ten individual challenges. The final test-chamber is a single multi-layered challenge that ties directly into Alex’s character.
Main story sequences are doled out within the hotel simulation while most puzzle-solving is relegated to the authentication challenges. The hotel does contain light puzzle solving, but they serve more as minor distractions than tests of intelligence or logic.
The Spectrum Retreat‘s story is immediately striking. Alex, our protagonist, can’t remember how or why he ended up in this utopic simulation commandeered by faceless robots. This typical plot device allows players to more readily invest in his story. Little by little, as each test-chamber is completed, more substantial bits of his past begin seeping into the simulation. Alex’s slowly recovering memories replace previously blank picture frames, filling in the gaps of his psyche.
An outside party, Cooper, is able to tap into Alex’s cell-phone and communicate with him from the outside. She guides Alex along the way as he attempts to escape the confining retreat. While her performance showcases a range of emotions and natural auditory inflections, her one-sided conversations are a missed opportunity. Alex never says anything in response to either her or any of the hotel staff. Considering how deeply personal this journey is for him, such a mute demeanor feels a little disingenuous.
Just when you feel like you’ve figured out his history, The Spectrum Retreat throws a curve-ball, culminating in an end-game decision that had me questioning whether I chose the right path. It isn’t the most captivating tale the medium has ever seen, but its properly paced drip-feeding makes for an enjoyable escape from reality.
The Spectrum Retreat gets a lot of mileage out of a simple mechanic: Color-coding. Alex’s cell-phone can absorb one color at a time. Each authentication challenge consists of passing color-coded gates in order to reach the exit elevator. To pass a red gate, your phone must have absorbed the color red from a cube in the environment, for example. Absorbing from cubes transfers the phone’s currently equipped color to the cube and vice-versa.
With such a universally understood system of matching colors, The Spectrum Retreat never needs a tutorial. It gradually introduces obstacles and mechanics much in the same way its narrative slowly unravels over its 3-4 hour run-time. The first obstacle is incredibly simple, requiring no explanation from the game at all. You come to a room with an inaccessible gate and a colored cube that matches that gate. That self-explanatory nature continues through to the end.
The Right Way
Its first two authentication challenges ramp up in complexity before entirely new mechanics show up to steal the show. The third authentication challenge introduces color-coded teleportation while the fourth introduces ground switches that re-orient the center of gravity.
The game’s crowning achievement is its balancing. It offers a decent challenge that never borders on frustrating, but it also never feels so simple as to become boring. It achieves this through intelligent design. Every good puzzle game consists of rules. In The Spectrum Retreat‘s case, its most important rule is accessing gates when your cell-phone is the same color as said gate. Simple rules like these can be augmented through auxiliary mechanics or obstacles such as colored bridges or neutral walls the player can’t transfer colors through.
You don’t begin the first authentication challenge with every trick in the book. It starts with a simple introduction before spiraling into more gradually complex challenges that test players’ accumulated skills and knowledge. When teleportation comes into the picture, you’d think it would be daunting. Fortunately, Dan Smith Studios eases this new mechanic through simple introductory stages.
After two or three test-runs with the newly acquired ability, it mixes that with more traditional mechanics and obstacles from the past two authentication challenges, resulting in a logical progression. The fourth authentication challenge assimilates its gravity orientation through a similar set of principles. Begin with a laser-focused approach that makes the new mechanic’s rules identifiable. After players come to terms with the new rules, they can incorporate those rules into the game’s ever-expanding tool-set.
This results in complex challenges with multiple moving parts that never feel unfair. The final challenge, in particular, is a testament to The Spectrum Retreat‘s modular design. It utilizes every single trick the game has taught players. Mixing color-coded passageways across different rooms/levels of elevation, teleportation, and gravity-defying nonsense, the final authentication challenge is a culmination of everything players should have learned.
If they paid attention and got through the prior challenges with a fair level of resistance, the final stage offers the exact same level of challenge. Though it requires more steps and moving parts that can force restarting the level, it’s a perfect bookend for the player’s skill.
Review conducted on Xbox One X.
Visually, it looks fine. The game’s technical merits are nothing to write home about, but it gets by on attractive art direction that masks its underlying simplicity. Unfortunately, at least on Xbox One X, screen-tearing is incredibly pervasive and distracting. It’s something to take note of if you’re sensitive to such visual stimuli. It isn’t the most technically mind-blowing game and with such an abundance of re-used assets throughout the hotel due to the game’s thematic influence, it’s shocking for screen-tearing to exist at all.
The Spectrum Retreat also features completely static environments with no physics interactions in addition to what looks like a completely baked lighting solution. As a narrative-driven experience, a little more attention should have been paid to the visual presentation. I personally haven’t seen screen-tearing this bad since Heavy Rain on PlayStation 3.
Achievements also stopped popping after the first authentication challenge. While I completed the game nearly a full week before this review was posted live, at least eight unmissable achievements failed to register.
The Spectrum Retreat‘s unsettling art design, music, and performances combine to create a reasonably gripping story. Even when you think you’ve gotten the big picture, initially miscellaneous details, such as the game’s political underpinnings, add to the intrigue. While it’s a shame that nothing was done for Alex and Cooper’s dynamic, her performance is almost convincing enough to make up for it. At around four hours long, you might want to consider escaping to The Spectrum Retreat.
Disclaimer: Review code provided by publisher