Last year, I went on a road trip through the east coast of the United States. It was a wonderful vacation, that had me constantly moving from hotel to hotel. They were all nice enough, but I have to admit, none of them had the amenities of the Penrose Hotel. The futuristic hotel at the center of The Spectrum Retreat has everything you could desire. Android servants who will wake you up, a hot meal ready and waiting and a gorgeous view. It has everything you need, except for a way to check-out, apparently.
The Spectrum Retreat puts you on edge right from the start. After awakening from a good night’s rest, you are greeted at the door by a robotic servant asking you to come breakfast. It’s only after it leaves that you are contacted by a mysterious woman by the name of Cooper. You see, the classy hotel you think you are staying at, The Penrose, is not as it seems. Something or someone is keeping you you from leaving, and you have been none the wiser. Sickened by your treatment, Coop has an idea to break you out, but you’ll need to manipulate the high-tech architecture of the hotel in order to truly be free.
The plot is a little all over the place, I have to admit. It’s a mix of sci-fi and horror, while also trying to be a psychological mystery with a message. In trying to mash together these different genres, though, it doesn’t really succeed in any of them. The sci-fi elements, while interesting in parts, are too few and far between. While I wasn’t expecting a full-fledged horror game, not tapping more into that sense of fear seems like a waste of the genuinely unsettling design of both the Penrose and it’s servants. And ultimately, the reveal of who you really are and why you are trapped falls flat. There’s little development given to any character, so finding out how the peripheral characters tie into the story frequently results in an “oh okay” rather than an “oh wow!” The title could have used more time to flesh these details out, or at least forced you to explore the hotel more.
In order to access additional floors of the Penrose Hotel, you’ll need to pass a series of authentication tests. The key to passing said tests is to decipher a series of increasingly complicated color-based riddles. Utilizing the same device you use to talk to Cooper, you can pick up a color, so to speak. For example, at the start of each new puzzle, your device is always white. If you come across a cube that is red, you can swap colors. Now, the device will be red, and the cube will be white. The trick is to be able to place colors in specific areas so that you can easily swap back and forth as need be. This is the one major mechanic that is prominent throughout each section of the game, although later areas introduce new wrinkles such as teleportation devices and floor-manipulating panels.
The Spectrum Retreat reminds me a lot of another first-person puzzle series, Toxic Games’ Q.U.B.E. Both are set in unfamiliar environments with amnesiac main characters, and both also feature color-focused puzzles. That series makes things a little more complicated though, which may be part of the reason why this game feels surprisingly simplistic. Most of the puzzles here have similar conclusions, with the only difference being where you get the specified colors from. After a while, following this same routine just becomes boring. Even when additional mechanics are introduced, the riddles rarely rise above mildly challenging. The biggest frustration I had during my stay at the Penrose was that there was no quick restart for when you get stuck with no escape. Considering the length of most of the levels, this isn’t a huge concern, but it was an annoyance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the puzzles, I just wish Dan Smith Studios did more to expand upon them in interesting ways.
Outside of the authentication tests, you also have to explore the hotel in order to suss out hidden clues. When you get to the next floor of the Penrose, the door to the tests is locked with a keypad. The four digit combination is typically hidden in one of the other rooms of your current housing. It won’t take you long to deduce the code, as Cooper usually points you in the general direction, but I appreciated having the opportunity to at least explore a little more. I do wish there was more to do in the hotel outside of code solving. It’s a creepy place, and not forcing you to venture deeper into it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. I can understand it thematically, but it’s still disappointing.
As I have mentioned, I really do like the designs Dan Smith Studios crafted for the title. The hotel is a cross between futuristic and modern, and it’s architecture gives it an uneasy atmosphere. The look of the robots roaming the Penrose Hotel are equally creepy. They kind of look like mannequins, which as everyone knows, are humanity’s scariest creation. Outside of the hotel rooms, the challenge areas are your typical sterile, but colorful, locales. Nothing wrong with them, just something you have most likely seen done before. There’s not a lot to say about the audio other than it is serviceable. Special shout-out to Amelia Tyler who does an excellent job as Cooper. She strikes the delicate balance between wanting to help you out, but also getting more and more unsettled as she figures out the mystery of your identity and predicament.
The Spectrum Retreat is a study in unfulfilled potential. The plot is intriguing, and its messaging is strong, but it fails to sustain interest. The gameplay is perfectly competent, but the puzzles aren’t as challenging or memorable as they need to be. The potential is clearly there within the framework of the title, but it needed more. More content, more depth and more challenge. I’ll always have a place in my heart for this style of game, but Dan Smith’s puzzler just can’t stand up to the best of the genre.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the game. A copy was provided by Ripstone Games.
The Spectrum Retreat is a perfectly serviceable puzzler, but it rarely rises above mediocrity. There's potential within the ground of the Penrose Hotel, but it's never capitalized on.