The Spectrum Retreat - Brutal Backlog

March 16, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

We reviewed The Spectrum Retreat
a year ago, and I know that Matt absolutely loved it. It sat in my PS4 library, tempting me to install it and give it a go. I’ve finally found some time to do so, but given the amount of time that’s passed, I simply cannot remember anything about the game at all. It’s like all knowledge of its genre has been wiped from my memory. Hopefully there’ll be an introductory brochure in my room when I check in. And maybe an After Eight on the pillow.

Five Minutes In

The Spectrum Retreat
is set in the Penrose Hotel, an Escher-like collection of rooms and corridors which kicks off with a robot concierge directing me downstairs for breakfast. When I’m as wealthy as my protagonist clearly appears to be, I can afford to not have to deal with actual human riff-raff. But wait. Something is a little off. All of the staff are robots. It also seems like I’m a prisoner here, since my watch keeps flashing up messages from persons unknown about “freeing” me. Am I trapped in the hotel, having pleasantries thrust upon me by characters who are doing so out of politeness? Maybe this is what Julian Assange felt like. Where's my skateboard?

Real-world images seep into the digital ambience of the hotel's puzzles.

The restaurant is empty other than a server who told me that one of the other guests left in a hurry. Something was on the floor — is that blood?! — and my reserved table had what looks like an omelette served up. Who knows how long it’s been there. Regardless, it could be four days old and still taste better than whatever passes for food at the Holiday Inn Express. Finally, I get contacted by a very English lady called Cooper. Turns out I am stuck here. Better still, I’ve lost my memory and Cooper wants me to “remember” things at my own pace. As game tutorials go, it’s not subtle but it does the job.

Fifteen Minutes In

The game has taken a significant lurch into puzzle territory. That was unexpected, but I would probably have known if I’d bothered to read the synopsis. But no, show me a thumbnail of a robot butler and I don’t need to see anything else — I am in. Anyway, in order to progress I now need to match the colour of doors blocking my way by sucking that colour onto my watch from a cube. If a red barrier is preventing me going forward, I need to find a red cube which will transfer the colour onto my watch to let me pass. Whatever colour was on my watch gets swapped to the cube — in this case, white, which then prevents me from accessing white doors until I find a white cube… you get the idea. It wasn’t clear how this mechanic worked and the game really didn’t do a good job of explaining it. Might have to knock a star off my TripAdvisor review.

As the system starts to catch onto your movements, digital fragments start to break down

The sudden switch from the opulence of the hotel to a sterile, modular environment with distinct vibes of The Turing Test is a bit jarring, but I’m going to roll with it. Mainly because I love progressive puzzlers like this, even if their story rarely matches the ingenuity of their challenges. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised on that front.

Forty Minutes In

I’m wondering if my comparison to The Turing Test was also a subconscious link, since it turns out Amelia Tyler provided voiceovers in both. She’s an accomplished actress who can elevate the most mundane of games (The Occupation springs immediately to mind), and she is ably accompanied by a ridiculously good selection of tracks which wouldn’t feel out of place on a Philip Glass album. In short, the game probably wouldn’t be as engaging without the quality of its sound, especially as my protagonist is silent.

The last of the first five introductory levels proved to be a bit more of a brain workout than I was expecting. The presentation is bare bones, a functional series of corridors and rooms which house all of the cubes and doors I need to get to the next level. I wouldn’t call it thrilling, but it is nonetheless satisfying when the solution clicks together in my head.

One Hour In

After I complete a floor of levels, I have to return to the hotel to sleep until the next day. Cooper tells me that each floor I finish makes subtle changes to the way the hotel operates, but without alerting the robot inhabitants to that fact. The following morning, I need to find clues to let me access the next floor’s puzzles. More areas of the hotel are opened up to allow me to do so, resulting in a game of two halves: one of exploration to get to the puzzles, and one of logic to solve them once I’m there. This is where The Turing Test stumbled somewhat — it was a relentless succession of puzzle rooms that, while cleverly designed, didn’t mix up the gameplay elements enough to make you appreciate them. Wandering around The Spectrum Retreat might seem like a bit of a plod with its samey hotel doors and corridors, but it lights up a slightly different part of my cerebrum so things at least feel varied.

Two Hours In

The puzzles are starting to take a familiar pattern: namely, work out where the exit is, then work backwards to get there. I’m now dealing with multiple coloured cubes and doors and there are also machines which will delete the colour in your watch completely if used. This led to numerous restarts, until I worked out what the hell was going on. There are plenty of times where you can break your progress and are forced to begin again. I don’t begrudge the level design too much for that. It’s smartly laid out on the whole, but now that I’ve got into the rhythm of working from the end to the start, it isn’t posing a particularly interesting or exciting challenge. It’s more of a cathartic experience, but one which is dropping what appear to be clues as to the nature of the hotel.

When teleport and rotation pads start appearing, things get a lot trickier.

I’m learning about the origins of the Penrose, as well as my character. Glitching real world artefacts and rooms are appearing in the puzzles, laying out hospital bills, letters from banks about loans, and family photos. Apparently a child is quite ill.

This far in, I’m almost tempted to make some guesses as to the nature of the game: The Spectrum Retreat is a virtual shrink, a way for you to get past a traumatic incident in your life. I suspect the kid died, and the protagonist went to pieces due to the stress and debt.

Three Hours In

The puzzle types have evolved slowly, introducing more colours (a total of four) and warp discs which let me teleport across rooms if I have the correct colour in my watch. While playing, I’m also reminded of the conundrums in Q.U.B.E. 2 which proved to be more engaging. There, your aim was to set up a series of Rube Goldberg-like chain reactions utilising numerous blocks with different effects to open the exit. Here, I’m...well. I’m swapping colours. Finishing a level feels almost like completing a sudoku. There’s a brief pang of satisfaction and then all of the steps you took to get there are instantly forgotten.

Four and a Half Hours In

A further twist to the puzzling has been added: room rotation. This was not fun. It’s the equivalent of moving from a normal sudoku to attempting a killer sudoku with a hangover. Whereas previously I could meander about, almost accidentally stumbling upon the solution at times, here my head complains about the shift in dimensions. There are also far more opportunities to break the puzzle, forcing a restart. Fortunately, I think there is only one more set of levels to complete after this.

They look lovely, but it's a shame that you don't have more to do in places like the library.

Six Hours In

I was wrong: there was just one final level on floor five and it was an absolute pain in the arse. I had to complete a series of interconnected rooms, but was stymied by a lack of checkpoints which meant that if I got one part of a later room wrong, I had to start the whole thing again. I see no excuse for this, since it is extending the challenge superficially rather than intelligently. The last puzzle probably took me half an hour, of which twenty minutes was repeating the same two rooms because of level-breaking scenarios I ended up in. Don’t even get me started on the jump button which makes you feel like you’re testing the foundations of the floor rather than making a concerted effort to navigate a set of stairs. It turned out to be easier to jump backwards upstairs, since simple ledges at shin height could not be tackled in the normal direction. Fortunately, there weren’t many staircases in the game or I’d have checked out of the Penrose hours ago.

As for the finale, I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. While I had correctly guessed half of the plot, there was another darker twist I hadn’t picked up on which, while good, had unsatisfying consequences for my protagonist despite offering two separate endings. Since you can only access both endings by playing through the whole game twice — and since I had already just replayed a level more times than I would ever want to — I looked up the alternate ending on YouTube. I was glad I did. If I’d played my way through the entire game again, I’d have been furious. Neither of them really felt like they completed the character’s story fully.

Log cubes like this offer a bit of backstory around the hotel's construction.

This, I think, is the problem with trying to shoehorn a plot into a puzzle game. The challenges will always be the focus of any title in this genre; trying to justify their existence is a tough ask which few studios have managed well — especially when it comes to Portal-esque games like this. The Spectrum Retreat had a decent stab at a story, but it wasn’t enough for me to want to leave a massive tip on my bedside cabinet.

Final Verdict

It may be flawed, but The Spectrum Retreat — the first three-quarters, anyway — was enjoyable to play, if not exciting or memorable. It’s a bit like staying in a Premier Inn. It seems pleasant enough when you arrive. The room is clean and fresh. But after a while you notice that the pillows achieve the unlikely feat of being both bouncy and uncomfortable, the entire building is devoid of atmosphere and, try as you might, you can’t really remember much about your stay once you’ve checked out. Still, there was no sign of Lenny Henry anywhere, so that’s a mark in its favour. TripAdvisor rating: three stars.

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Worth playing? MAYBE - if there's nothing better on your shelf.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.