Dan Smith is the one-man band behind The Spectrum Retreat, a Sci-Fi Puzzle Adventure title that won him the Young Game Maker Award in 2016 from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Dan started the project at the age of 15 and finished the game this year after a 5-year development cycle. So how does the finished product stand up?
The Spectrum Retreat starts you off inside the simulated Penrose Hotel, where the protagonist, Alex, is forced to live the same day on repeat. The hotel is staffed by an abundance of well dressed, yet unsettling robots. These robots are designed to serve you, offering you wake up calls, directions to breakfast, and your own reserved table complete with eggs Benedict. Oh and a helpful warning about the spillage Mr Crow left behind in his hurried exit from the breakfast lounge.
You’ll notice cryptic messages coming through on your phone, which suggests that all is not as quaint as it first seems. Your new contact soon reveals herself as Cooper, an employee of the company running your simulation. She swiftly explains that you are being held against your will, and intends to help you separate yourself from the simulation. As always, it’s not as simple as walking out the front door.
Cooper explains to you that you need to break down the simulation, and you do so by completing stages of puzzle rooms. It’s a story you’ve heard before, in a different coating. The premise of accessing these rooms is to find a set of 4 numbers to access a keypad, which are explained to be fail-safes left in by developers to allow themselves to exit the simulation. There are clues as to these numbers left around the hotel, and you’ll find yourself exploring new areas of the hotel, such as the showroom and the library. Once you find your way through to door, you see a drastic change in style. The Art Deco interior of the hotel is exchanged for cold, contrasting metals.
This is where the game shifts into its puzzle element. The puzzles within The Spectrum Retreat are rather intriguing, starting with the use of colour puzzles, requiring you to use your phone to collect colours to pass through coloured barriers. The general layout of a puzzle contains multiple rooms, in which you have to pass through each to collect the colours required to pass through the final barriers and enter the door to exit the level. Once you complete each floor, it’s back to bed for you, so you can start the cycle again. Typically, this is one of those hotels that doesn’t offer lunch or dinner.
While the contrast between the hotel and the puzzles is gorgeous (It’s easy to forget this game is a one-man project, given how good it looks) the game really struggles to make the two mesh together. The puzzles feel very separate from the exploration of the hotel, almost as if you’re playing two different games. There are flashbacks within the puzzle sections, that come in the form of tears. The tears give you a hint to your past life before your tenure in the Primrose. These tears do begin to make their way into the hotel itself also, but never to the extent of tying the two together. The tears do offer a great deal of the story, with readable and interactive elements added further through the game, which helps you to piece together your past. This also comes in the form of blue data cubes, which can be read to give a broader narrative to the story itself.
What The Spectrum Retreat is lacking is something to tie the two distinct styles together. Somewhat frustratingly, the perfect asset is already present, in the form of Cooper. Amelia Tyler, Cooper’s voice actor, does an incredible job here, she carries the weight of the situation throughout and plays out the role of a ‘rogue employee’ incredibly well. The performance carries emotional weight, and while she clearly knows more about you than she’s letting on, her empathetic response to you uncovering the darker elements of your past adds a level of humanity that feels refreshing given the robotic surroundings. That is sadly my point, however. When you go through to the puzzles, Cooper makes her excuses, stating she cannot communicate with you there. It’s a missed opportunity, seeing as this could easily be the perfect tool to tie the two together. Portal comes to mind, with GLaDOS being in constant communication with you throughout, to remind you just why you’re where you are. Something similar would be a perfect fit within The Spectrum Retreat, allowing Cooper to explain the drastically different feel and appearance of the puzzle levels, and to keep you rooted to the storyline, which is inherently brilliant, and sadly detached.
The humanity that Copper and the slow uncovering of Alex’s past are what make the storyline of The Spectrum Retreat so interesting. Yes, the Primrose itself is a very interesting setting, a simulated hotel staffed by faceless robots doesn’t come without a state of intrigue. As is often the case, however, it is the tale of genuine human emotion that carries the weight inside the science-fiction world.
While the story is grand, if not lacking the required tie-over, the vast majority of The Spectrum Retreat’s draw comes from its puzzle sections. Thankfully, these are incredibly solid. The game introduces new mechanics as the days progress, first adding additional colours, then teleportation, and then the ability to change the orientation of rooms, to really give you a migraine. As usual, the puzzles start off at a simple level, to get you used to the mechanical addition, and then throw you off the deep end. The puzzles look fantastic and are executed to a very high standard. there’s a nice level of progression here, never hitting that state of frustratingly difficult, but still offering enough intellectual challenge to create intrigue and captivate the player. It’s just a shame that the story is so forgotten here. You can find storyline elements through tears that pop up, but these can be easily overlooked and ignored.
The Spectrum Retreat’s implementation of teleportation and room orientation mechanics really add to the puzzles, and when all are combined, create some asymmetrical challenges which bring a nice element of challenge to the title that is incredibly fulfilling to complete. With the steady addition, you feel ready for new mechanics to be added, with the game giving you ample time to get accumulated to the new additions before requiring you to bend your mind around the newest brain teaser. The pacing is really spot on.
This pacing does also translate over into The Spectrum Retreat’s storyline, as you repeat the cycle, you’ll slowly watch the hotel break down, with glitches, new tears, and other abnormalities becoming abundant as the storyline progresses. The most notable change is to your morning wake up call. The butler starts off incredibly chipper and welcoming, yet come to the end of the storyline, he is notably blunt and aggravated. Maybe it’s the broken-hearted British tone, but it really stuck with me.
The Spectrum Retreat is a rather staggering experience for one man to create. The title can be completed in about 4-5 hours, a short but sweet affair that is sure to leave a lasting impression. A simple storyline that contains twists and heavy emotion, it’s an interesting world that’s sadly let down by the sense of separation that plagues the title. Tying together the hotel sections and the puzzles with the use of Cooper’s voiceover would surely remedy this, but overall The Spectrum Retreat is an astounding first entry from Dan Smith and bodes well for his future endeavours.
The Spectrum Retreat is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.