The Spectrum Retreat
In 2016, Dan Smith received BAFTA’s ‘Young Game Designer of the Year’ award for game making. Now, two years on, we get to see what the fruit of that early success (and subsequent partnership with Ripstone Games) has been, with the release of his first game, The Spectrum Retreat. Set in the near future, this first-person puzzle game is often tough, always rewarding, and presented with a confidence which belies the designer’s relative inexperience.
You wake in a room at the Penrose Hotel to a knock at the door from the hotel manager, an immaculately dressed robot who seems keen for you to be enjoying your stay. As you make your way down to the dining room for breakfast, along deserted corridors decorated with empty picture frames, your phone receives a call from someone introducing themselves as Cooper. They are here to help you escape the hotel — where it seems you’ve been held for a long time against your will and without memory why. This call changes the tone of the game immediately, as the decadent art-deco stylings give way to the uncomfortable idea that you are not a guest, but a prisoner.
In order to gain your freedom, Cooper instructs that you must navigate each of the six floors of the hotel, gain authentication codes to allow the elevator to reach the next floor, and eventually reach the exit on the sixth floor. These authentication puzzles are the core gameplay of The Spectrum Retreat; room after room of energy doors which can only be bypassed if you hold the matching colour on your phone, which is achieved by ‘swapping’ colours with large cubes in the area (a simple press of the R2 button). This use of getting through doors is flipped on its head when encountering light bridges, which you must hold a different colour to, in order to not simply fall through it. Your phone device is the only intrusion on your HUD, and the primary way of navigating The Spectrum Retreat; calls from Cooper direct you on your way and offer assistance, as well as displaying the current colour that you hold on it and how far through each stage you have progressed.
It seems simple enough to begin with, but as the number of available cube colours increases from two to four the basic colour-switching mechanic evolves into a futuristic version of the classic ‘river crossing’ riddle of the fox, chicken, and bag of corn. The Spectrum Retreat requires a good deal of mental tracking as you must remember which coloured cubes are where, the order you need to place them to unlock longer sequences of doors, and avoid stranding yourself without a way out from behind locked areas afterwards. The later introduction of a teleport function (pressing L2 will launch you towards a coloured bumper to reach different parts of the levels) and floor switches (which rotate the entire room by ninety degrees and opens up new paths in the level) pile on the complexity with a rewarding difficulty curve, as you must use all of your acquired knowledge of the game’s logic together to continue.
You’ll often find yourself making use of the ‘Restart Challenge’ option after a misstep too many, but there is no frustration in this due to the lack of any pause when reloading. The entire game remarkably runs from the outset without any loading screens at all, which are no doubt obscured in brief conversations with Cooper when entering the elevator each time. The result is a game which does not take you out of the action, but instead encourages you to push on without the waiting penalty that other titles accidentally end up punishing a player with.
The Penrose Hotel shares more than just a name with the series of impossible mathematical shapes which MC Escher used in his art — corridors stretch out in ways that don’t make sense for the spatial constraints of the building, and in some areas dropping down a path will land you back where you started. The Penrose Hotel is a character in its own right, much like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. As your progression through the colour-switching challenges compromise the very integrity of the world, dead pixels and static leeches through the walls and previously non-descript furniture strobes erratically in your presence.
Time slips frequently occur, and you’ll find yourself having arrived at your destination immediately as the world around you warps. It’s a subtle inclusion which fits in with the events of the game and doubly serves to cut down on dead time spent retracing your steps in familiar corridors. More entertaining are the hotel staff (a handful of the same helpful robots as the manager), their dialogue tripping and stumbling as they struggle to keep to their original script in the face of a system failure.
In between each level of puzzles, you must return to your hotel room to ‘reset the cycle’ with your new authentication codes in place. The hotel lobby acts as a hub world of sorts, with new doors opened for you to explore and gather clues as you must go through the same morning routine with minor differences each time — a glitched-out Groundhog Day — before you can sneak away to solve the next sequence of puzzles.
The Penrose Hotel itself has received a lot of care and attention in its creation, from the opulent design and high ceilings, to smaller details like glistening wet footprints, or dust motes suspended in shafts of light. The light effects are very impressive, giving the dining area in particular a warm romantic glow. The NPCs and some of the objects lose some of their sheen up close, as flat textures and simple shapes swim into focus. In stark contrast, the puzzle areas are sterile in their design, as the limited colour palette of walls and ceilings take a backseat to the cubes and doors. The design on these levels however, is extraordinary. Each level feels distinct in its challenge, and each floor, wall, or cube feels precisely placed to demand an exact action from the player.
Minor gameplay issues are present, mostly in terms of dealing with the jump button and the player’s momentum following on from a fall or the use of the teleport mechanic. Small objects are frustrating to navigate with the micro-jumps your character is capable of, and climbing stairs will often launch you into the air at the top which becomes very jarring, even if stairs don’t appear that often. As the teleport function hurls you through the air at a high velocity instead of relocating you at the target, the landing pads have a tendency to bounce you back from them. These pads are generally set up to allow you to cross bottomless pits, so finding yourself pushed down one after working your way to the point where you can cross the chasm can feel deeply unfair.
Special mention must be made of the soundtrack and audio design in The Spectrum Retreat. The score complements areas with its versatility, as it pitches from soothing, to triumphant, to ominous stabs of discordant noise as your interactions with the increasingly suspicious hotel staff take a turn for the worse. The voice acting and script is superb — whilst the robotic staff have no emotion to play with, Cooper’s dialogue is natural and well delivered; her uncertainty and frustration at the situation she’s trying to release you from rises as the story unfolds. The story is a sad, shrewd tale of insurmountable medical bills and a family’s grief turning into something darker. This is revealed steadily throughout the game from collectable data cubes which give you behind-the-scenes emails and diary entries from the designers of the Penrose Hotel. Hallucinations of your former life burst into puzzle rooms with documents to inspect and conversations from traumatic events in your past help you piece together your own identity and what has come before. New twists and turns arise in each level until you finish the game and can finally see the whole story in one piece — akin to a playable episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series.
The five-plus hours of gameplay in The Spectrum Retreat is well balanced with steadily more difficult challenges, an increasing number of tools in your sci-fi phone’s arsenal, and an intriguing plot which will have you scouring the world for extra story content. At the end of the game you are granted a document to display your statistics from your playthrough; timestamps from levels, number of colours switched, and number of deaths and retries. This chart will no doubt appeal to fans of games like Portal or Antechamber, for which communities have sprung up with the aim of completing them in the fewest number of moves, and grants instant replayability for those looking to find the most efficient runs possible. The Spectrum Retreat is a satisfying and imaginative mystery and puzzle game with an elegant design which will keep players on the edge of their seat, and leaves us excited to see what the future holds in store for Dan Smith Studios.