Back in April we included The Spectrum Retreat in our five indie discoveries from Rezzed, coming from BAFTA Young Game Designer winner Dan Smith, and the big reason we didn't give the game its own preview is because the brief glimpse we saw from the very promising young creator was very much a mechanics-driven demo, and it was hard to see the bigger picture of the final product from there. With the help of Ripstone Games this has been made into a "fully-fledged title", as the BAFTA website describes it, and now we've had a chance to check into The Spectrum Retreat on PS4 to see not only how these mechanics have been implemented, but also whether the potential shown by Smith has been fulfilled in the whole experience.
It's very much a game of two halves in the sense that there's both a narrative component and a puzzle one, distinctly separated from one another for the most part. The overarching narrative is that you wake up in the Penrose Hotel without any clue why you're there, all you know is that you can hear a voice from your phone saying you need to get out and that you should be cautious of the robotic staff that works at the hotel. The holiday from hell, in a nutshell.
It's not about digging your way to freedom Shawshank Redemption-style though, it's about accessing the five floors of the hotel by completing various sets of puzzles (which would've spiced The Shawshank Redemption up a bit, if you ask us). By finding hidden rooms you discover a handful of logic-based puzzles at a time, each of which requires you to get to an elevator on the other side to get to the next level and access further floors as part of the most convoluted security measures in the world.
The puzzles are all based around colour. By simply pressing R2 when looking at a block, you can either transfer the colour you have stored on your phone onto an empty white block or take the colour the block currently has on it, storing it on the phone. For example, if you have blue in the device but want red, you can look at the red block to swap it over, and you need to do this because doors won't let you through unless you have a certain colour equipped. The coloured blocks don't move, and it's only by moving colours on and off of them in different positions that you can get through all the doors to exit the level.
With us so far? Good, because Smith layers on plenty of other elements to keep us guessing as our escape plans gather steam, including coloured nodes you can teleport too with the corresponding colour; panels that allow you to walk on the walls and ceiling when you touch them; and a ton of moving blocks and elements you need to wrap your head around. At first, it seems like you're just fumbling around changing colours, but it's very easy to get to grips with it after the first few levels, and you can easily find yourself planning ahead as to what you need to do to reach the elevator doors to the next challenge. It's accessible in the sense that the premise is simple, but as time goes on you'll find your brain really hurting as you try to make sense of what needs to be done. As with all good puzzle games though, the reward at the end is a great payoff.
At the beginning, we found that the two halves of the game were distinctly chopped apart, and that it didn't really feel like there was harmony between the narrative you experienced in the hotel and the puzzles you solved in the back rooms. Even the visual style was totally different, but as we went on this polarisation was revealed to be a conscious decision, and without wanting to spoil too much the two sides seeped into one another in very strange and interesting ways...
Let's be clear in saying that this isn't purely a puzzle game with a narrative included simply to string the puzzles together, as the story draped over the whole thing is not only engaging but also surprising. Having to maintain the same routine of attending breakfast each morning so as to not arouse the suspicion of the hotel staff is bad enough, but things move into the unsettling when the faceless mannequins that are the robotic helpers start following you and behaving rather strangely. There's a whiff of the Twilight Zone about the whole thing, and there's plenty of twists and turns in the Penrose's tale.
Speaking of whiffs, or rather inspirations we should say, it's hard to mention the phrases "robots" and "first-person puzzles" without thinking of Valve's classic Portal, and there's a definite link to be drawn between the two. Whereas Portal relied on dark comedy, however, The Spectrum Retreat is much more on the serious side, positioning itself as more of a thriller than anything else. Meanwhile, the puzzles are distinct and of a high enough quality that you won't be missing GLaDOS any time soon.
Any great story requires immersion of course, and it's easy to find yourself sucked into your dilemma in the Penrose Hotel when the whole thing looks this gorgeous, bathed in an art deco style and polished to perfection both by the game designers and the hotel staff. The juxtaposition between the mechanical darkness of the puzzle rooms and the bright luxury of the Penrose works nicely for points we can't discuss in fear of spoilers, but perhaps what helps most is the soundtrack that helps add poignancy to key moments, without ever becoming overburdening. The environment even contributes to the story, merging with your memories as you slowly unravel why you're really there.
After our first glimpse at The Spectrum Retreat we were cautiously excited but still unsure about how the experience would translate into a fully-formed experienced. Now, after having sat down with the finished article we found ourselves reflecting on whether the final product lived up to that early potential. The answer: absolutely, in fact, our expectations have been thoroughly surpassed.