Going into any first-person puzzler, I ask myself a few questions. Why is my character trapped? What is the unique mechanic that drives me through the test chambers? Can I trust the inevitable unseen narrator? These queries keep me going, and the best of the genre have intriguing answers that surprise me. Other games provide expected responses that fail to push the needle one way or the other. Despite a great style and a good start, The Spectrum Retreat finds itself in the latter category.
It’s hard to talk about too much of the narrative without getting into spoilers. Let’s just say that you get what you expect. You wake up in a mysterious hotel room with no memory. Robotic butlers serve your every whim, and your only clue that something is amiss is the lack of humanity around you and a voice from the outside. As the days pass, you begin to rebuild the image of the man you were and complete security puzzles to give you further access to the facility.
If that sounds like a juxtaposition, that’s because it very much is. The Spectrum Retreat draws a clear line between its emotionally charged narrative and its first-person puzzling. There are concessions each way, with brief memories seeping into the tech chambers and a minor puzzle or two to solve in the hotel. For the rest of it, you’re basically playing two separate games held together by strings and bubblegum.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if either half of the game grabbed your attention. The tale being told does its job, but the twists are surprisingly easy to figure out. If you’ve even skimmed what the genre has to offer, you’ll see what The Spectrum Retreat has coming for you a mile away. It effortlessly strips away what interest I had by following the first person puzzler guidebook step by step.
For example, the robot butlers and staff that fill your incarceration destination have a sinister look. The all white bodies and suits evoke Slender Man, and there are even a few cheap jump scares to be had. However, because of the genre, the designers know you’re expecting something beyond this obvious threat. In an attempt to subvert decade-old expectations, they throw away ideas that may be fresher.
Complementary Eye Exam
Thankfully, the puzzle portions of the game are more successful than the Shyamalanian story. The name of the game is shifting colors around. You gain a futuristic cell phone early on in your adventure, and it turns into your makeshift color absorbing portal gun. You can go through gates that match your current color, and you’ll need to shift your chromatic resources around to reach the exits.
At first, figuring out what to do is quite enjoyable. There are moments throughout the chambers where you’re given no guidance and have to intuit the way forward. These built-in tutorials feel great and guide you towards new abilities naturally. I only wish that those abilities were a little more complicated because this natural guidance led to me going on autopilot more than once. There just weren’t enough moving parts to trip me up.
Of course, that’s not the worst issue. It may seem contrary, but The Spectrum Retreat also suffers because it’s too easy to fail. Let me explain.
Safe Deposit Box
One of my favorite things about these types of games is the clockwork nature of each level. You have a set of mechanics to work with, a location to screw around in, and one or two solutions to work towards. Unless your mechanic is movement based, you’re not going to see a lot of speedruns in this category. Once you know what you’re doing, it becomes an automatic process. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.
The Spectrum Retreat betrays this in its very design. During several points in my playthrough, I knew where the exit was and I had a general sense of what to do. In most other games, this is where my brain stops and I move forward, solving the puzzle and feeling a rush. In Spectrum Retreat, I often found myself stuck in these moments. I had left a color behind, or I had opened gates in the wrong order. Either way, I had to do it all over again.
This isn’t to say that having fail states is a bad thing in and of itself. However, when I’m repeatedly getting within an arm’s reach of the exit only to have to go into a menu to restart, something’s wrong. It gets into the type of trial and error territory where no one would reasonably solve the level the first time through. It breaks immersion just the slightest bit, making the overwrought narrative on the other side all the more fake.
Should you buy it?
If you dig in and look, you can find a wealth of games, both old and new, trying to be the next Portal. Games like The Spectrum Retreat try for a little more, which makes it all the more devastating when they miss the mark so completely. With a by the numbers story and simplistic puzzles that frustrate rather than fascinate, there’s nothing here worth recommending. This game is competent but unremarkable, and that’s really the nicest thing you can say.
The Spectrum Retreat is available from Steam. A review copy was provided.