I was once told that video games are good for one of two things: stimulation or escape. While a title like The Spectrum Retreat may sound like a fantastic escape game, my time with it would be nothing less than provoking. Whether it was in a good way or not would be a different story.
The Spectrum Retreat is a somewhat story-driven puzzle game centered around a strange hotel known as the Primrose. Every morning you wake up to a knock on the door by the hotel manager, which is followed up by a nice breakfast in the dining hall. This isn't your average hotel, however. All of the staff are faceless mannequins. As a matter of fact, you seem to be the only person there. And they won't let you leave.
When you're not trying to find a way out of this hotel, you're in a scientifically sterile environment not entirely unlike Portal, participating in color based puzzles to make your way to the exit. If you found this to be a bit of a jump, don't worry. I did too.
The game has two "modes" so to speak. There was you in the hotel, and you solving puzzles. The lore-friendly idea is that you must find these special chambers, hidden within the hotel, to access the puzzles, which act as a means of authorization. Completing a set of puzzles allows you to access the next floor of the hotel, which has more levels. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In the hotel walking segments of the game, you're given more story to go off of, slowly (and I mean slowly, but we'll get to that later) piecing together the reason you're there. this sometimes involved revisiting other locations of the hotel to find the access code needed to reach the puzzles.
In the puzzle segments of the game, you're essentially left to your own devices. The voice overs stop, for the most part, and all you need to focus on is the colors. The main attraction to these puzzles is the mechanic of "picking up" colors and placing them somewhere else. When you hold a color, you can walk through walls designated to that color. Victory is found through juggling these colors correctly in order to reach the exit door. As you progress, you're introduced to more colors and new mechanics, such as teleporting and gravity shifting. Though the colors remain the primary focus the entire time.
The Spectrum Retreat does a number of things rather well. Everything is built quite well, to start. The world looks good, the music is fitting, the voice-overs feel real, and the controls make sense. This is especially true for the puzzle levels. The dynamic lighting seen when you manipulate various colors introduces a sense of beauty to the mind benders. There were a few times I simply stopped to appreciate the way the various lights overlapped.
All the while, the clean, muted vibes from the hotel segments effectively highlighted the uncomfortable feeling intended for the game. Creator Dan Smith said in a recent AMA that "[he] wanted to give an unsettling vibe by essentially not acknowledging a lot of the creepier aspects," A sensation he instilled near-perfectly.
The story, while slow to start, would prove engaging by the end of the game. All of the pieces were all laid out over the game's duration, instead of a being directly told to me. Having to work things out myself made the conclusion more rewarding. I found myself muttering the familiar "ooooh, I get it now" as things came to a close. That satisfying sensation is seldom felt in most games today.
Many of these enjoyable and well-designed aspects are unfortunately dampened by a fair selection of flaws. While most of these problems were small and unrelated to each other, there were enough of them sprinkled about to keep me in a regular state of mental dishevelment.
The biggest problem was with the game's initial pacing. A majority of the storytelling and puzzle variety came to me in the back half of the game. For the first two to three floors, I felt like I was doing, and being told, the same thing over and over again. This frustration was only reinforced by the slow walking speed. The game tried to remedy this by teleporting the player father ahead, skipping the unneeded walking. But to suddenly be in the next area without warning proved to be more jarring than anything. It was difficult to maintain interest when all I did for the last two hours was hear about how my child is sick and position colors to get past a hallway.
Ah yes, the hallways. Early on, there was a puzzle where you had to position colors in the correct order so that you can access them as needed down a hallway full of colored walls. Not much longer, I encountered the same puzzle concept. And again, and again. By the ~5th time I saw this, I decided to start taking screenshots of every time I came across this specific concept in a puzzle. I even made a nice little collage of all of them for your viewing pleasure.
While there isn't anything inherently wrong with repetition in gaming, it should never happen so much that I both notice the trend, and still have enough opportunities to make a college afterward. The satisfaction of solving the puzzles was sullied by having it conclude with the dang hallway.
Then there was level 5_01. The final level of the game, this would prove to be the polar opposite of the hallway problem. This is one extra long level, broken into 5 segments. Each segment was a unique puzzle that I hadn't experienced before. I was about 4/5th the way through when I fell into a bottomless pit. This was when I discovered that since it's all one seamless level, I had to start over from the very beginning. And just like that, I was having a bad time.
The way the game handles restarts was bothersome enough. All too easily can you accidentally "save over" a color that you'd need later, or fall into a pit that you can't escape from in the wrong circumstances. These instances, assuming they didn't lead to my death, forced me to accept my fate and reset the level, instead of being able to backtrack at a minor loss or undo my action. This was irritating enough with regular levels. To have to redo what was essentially 4 levels worth of progress after one easily-made mistake diminished what enjoyment I would have had from the level.
The puzzle repetition paired with the frustrating way I had to reset made me want to stop playing the game for good on a few occasions. If it wasn't for my self-imposed responsibility to complete a game before reviewing it, I'd have not made it the end.
It's a good thing I persevered. The final moments of the game were critical in fully appreciating the story that it had been building. It even came complete with a surprise twist. I won't go into any more detail. This, like most game spoilers, is best experienced on your own. Though if you want to know, the game shows you your final statistics at the end. This includes deaths, restarts, how long each puzzle floor took, and more. You can check out a screenshot of my end result, though at the risk of spoilers.
Shortly after I had completed my playthrough, an update was pushed out to the game that added new visual options pertaining to color blindness. It featured alternate color options from the standard orange, green, blue sort. It also added a comedic "impossible" color option, where each color was replaced by a different shade of grey. Since it wasn't part of the game's initial launch, I can only assume an interested, colorblind player had reached out to the developers to request this addition. It's good to know that they're listening and willing to accommodate the community.
Taking everything into account, I'd rate the game:
The Spectrum Retreat does a lot of things rather well. But it's hard to enjoy even the best cookie when there's the occasional surprise raisin. This balance leaves my final thoughts somewhere in the middle. I'd recommend this to fans of first-person puzzle games, on the caveat that they will likely grow bored in the first half of the game. Though general gamers could take it or leave it. Available on Steam, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4 for $12.99, I'd recommend this most on PC, as aiming in the puzzle sections can be a touch difficult on console controllers.
Developer: Dan Smith Studios
Publisher: Ripstone Ltd.
Available On: PC, Switch, PS4 (reviewed on), XB1
Release Date: Jul 13, 2018
Disclaimer: A free copy of this game was provided to me for the purposes of this review.