Many a time I’ve woken up in a hotel room and forgotten where, in the love of all god, I am.
Normally tired and overworked, but generally, because I’m hungover, I’ve found myself in all manner of spots. Most of these hotels have a generic look about them, with familiar patterns, artists’ prints and friendly staff. It’s all meant to be designed to make you feel safe and relaxed.
What happens though if you REALLY have no idea how you got where you were, why you were staying there or, um, why is that wall glitching?
Welcome to the hotel in The Spectrum Retreat.
In 2016, a young games designer called Dan Smith won the BAFTA YDG award at the age of 18 for an early version of The Spectrum Retreat. Two years later, and working with Ripstone Games, he has now developed things into an intriguing first-person narrative puzzler.
I was lucky enough to take in The Spectrum Retreat at Rezzed 2018, with the man himself standing behind me, watching as I stumbled through levels. I was terrible at the game, but I didn’t put it down to my skills – it just didn’t feel right to be playing a game like The Spectrum Retreat in a huge room with hundreds of people, and a wall of noise and lights surrounding you. It is just not the right atmosphere to a play a game like this. You need to alone, you need your mind completely focused, and you need to be ready and available to be absorbed by the fascinating premise.
The story and narrative – which is, without doubt, an excellent one – involves you waking up in a room in the Penrose Hotel. The room you are in is neat, tidy and comfortable. A calendar lies on the table, with a number of crossed off dates taking you up to the present time. There is a knock on the door and a faceless, well-dressed robot wishes you good morning, expecting to see you at breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Before you trot off, a phone rings and a woman delivers urgent instructions, warning you to be careful in the process. It is here when The Spectrum Retreat begins… and I am not going to say any more about the story in case it I spoil it. All you need to know is that it’s a very good tale and comes with a huge load of intrigue and engagement.
On the gameplay front, and this is where things are very much split into two halves. The first revolves around a first-person exploration game, where you are walking about the hotel following clues and solving puzzles. Then on each floor of the hotel, there is a special key coded room to enter and that takes you into the main meat and drink of things… the puzzle rooms.
These rooms are designed with an entrance, and then an exit on the other side, leaving you with a number of puzzles, obstacles and things to stop you getting there. You haven’t many tricks on your side except a weak jump, but what you do have is the ability to control color. You might find a red cube, which when touched sees you absorb the colour, before being able to transfer it over to another cube, or, letting you walk straight through a red forcefield, or cross a red bridge. By using these skills you get to traverse across each room to get to the exit. There are many different colours that gradually get introduced, then a teleporting skill, then gravity switches. Oops, I’ve said too much.
The gameplay and puzzle elements are very well thought through and for those of you who like a challenge, it’s a bit of a mind stretcher, especially as the reward at the end of working it out delivers a very nice warm feeling. As you would expect, into and through later stages it gets a bit tough, but nothing so maddening that you want to cry. In fact, The Spectrum Retreat very much reminds me of the Portal games, just a bit more serious with its brilliant mixture of story, exploration and puzzling to provide a very entertaining package.
It all looks very good too, with nice clean lines and strange sections in the puzzles rooms. The hotel especially comes with a fantastic design, with some great features that starts to see the whole thing distort and go haywire. It also excels in a number of the sound departments and a big shout out must go to the soundtrack composer who delivers a world-class accompaniment with its lovely swirls and twists that add a great dimension to the gameplay. The voice over is also to a very high standard, with a special mention to the actress playing the phone caller that delivers your instructions.
The Spectrum Retreat comes across as a great success from a special talent – one who has provided a fun, rewarding puzzling narrative game that sticks with you. The location and design are superb and it all comes in at about the right price for a game of this size. Some may find it a little tricky, but if you love a puzzler and an intriguing story then The Spectrum Retreat should ensure you see the Penrose Hotel as somewhere to consider a short stay.