Adventure Gamers Awards
Dan Smith’s The Spectrum Retreat takes the popular concept of mashups and applies it to two distinct subgenres of adventure games. First, there’s an exploratory narrative adventure set within the Penrose Hotel. Second, there’s a colour-based puzzler that is clearly inspired by the Portal series. Both halves take place in a real-time 3D environment and provide a lot of intriguing material to work with. However, while these elements are interesting enough and/or reasonably fun in their own right, and they feel like they should mesh well together, the forced combination doesn’t quite manage to work as well as it should in a number of noticeable ways. In fact, "not quite" will be a familiar refrain throughout this review.
When the game first begins, you awaken as the typical silent protagonist in a hotel room with no memory of who you are or how you got there. Stranger still, a robot hotel manager knocks at the door with your morning wake-up call and suggests you head down to breakfast. Before you do, you’ll collect your cell phone where odd text messages about acting normal appear. After eating, the person texting you establishes vocal contact. She’s a woman named Cooper who kinda, sorta intimates that you’re trapped in the hotel and that she’s going to help you escape. It quickly becomes apparent that the hotel is a virtual reality simulation of some sort. You will have to find various security ID numbers to enter into keypads located on five different floors in order to access the second part of the game. But we’ll come to that.
Most of the experience in the hotel itself is spent exploring using the mouse and WASD or arrow keys in typical first-person fashion. The Penrose is nicely detailed with an Art Deco vibe, although the corridors are understandably rather repetitive, as would be the case in a real hotel. There are a few interesting areas located off the lobby such as a restaurant, library, and swimming pool. Most of these locations are initially locked, only becoming accessible as the game progresses over the course of five days.
Each day you will gain access to a new floor in the hotel, but before you do, you’ll have to repeat the same initial actions. The Penrose Hotel is designed to accommodate you as a guest and it has a set schedule, which means you do too. In other words, you’ll start each morning answering the knock at the door, listening to the hotel manager, and then trekking down for breakfast. It does make sense story-wise, and there are a few variations to events as you go along, but this is one of those spots that doesn’t quite work, as it’s a rather long hike to and from the restaurant and does wear a little thin after a couple of days.
What wears out its welcome even faster is the voice-over for Cooper. Her voice itself is pleasant sounding enough but the delivery with… uh… well, I’d like… I mean… all the sort of… stuttering and, um… pauses… it really… well… the experience is… that… um… it never, really… it should follow one train of…but then… All right, enough of that. Suffice to say that the way Cooper delivers her lines gets to be really annoying, really fast. You can turn the voices off and subtitles on, which helps alleviate problems as the subtitles do not contain all the pauses, sucking of air, and sometimes odd inflections that the actual voice demonstrates. For the sake of the review, I powered through with voices on – the manager gets quite a decent performance, as does the rest of his robot staff – but I found myself really, really wanting to get through the hotel sections as quickly as possible so as to not have to listen to Cooper. It’s another area where the game doesn’t quite work, as it’s here that most of the story is revealed through Cooper’s stammering, the odd text-based Penrose Hotel designer journal, and periodic flashes of memories bubbling back to the surface.
Flipping the coin, the other half of the The Spectrum Retreat is spent hacking the hotel in an attempt to escape. This is accomplished by entering one of the security access codes you find into keypads on certain doors. These doors open into a utilitarian space that exists dimensionally next to the hotel. Such areas, called “authentication challenges” in the game, are made up of claustrophobic sterile metal and glass corridors. It’s here where the inspiration of the Portal series comes into play.
As you wander through the narrow confines, you will find glowing coloured cubes, either laying on the ground or set on metal pedestals. A small white circle in the center of your screen indicates where you’re looking. When you line it up over one of these coloured cubes and click the mouse, that colour is swapped with whatever colour you currently have stored in your cell phone, which starts off white. Initially you’ll just be dealing with red and white cubes, but by the end of the adventure, green and blue will have been added into the bunch as well.
The reason you need to grab these cubes is that the authentication challenge corridors are lined with various colour-coded force fields. You can only pass through a force field if your phone’s colour matches that of that force field. As you’d expect, most of the force fields are placed vertically to block your progress. However, some of them lie horizontally and form bridges. To cross these, you have to make sure you don’t have the matching colour in your phone. For example, if you find a red bridge and you have red in your phone, then you’ll fall through. But if you have any other colour then you’ll be able to walk across just fine.
The gameplay here consists of shuffling colours back and forth between your phone and the different glowing cubes in order to bypass all the force fields blocking the path to your goal, typically a doorway leading from one authentication challenge to another. For each floor in the hotel that you bypass, you’ll get up to ten challenges in a row before being returned to the hotel to start the next loop. All told, the game contains thirty-three such challenges.
Moving colours around is pretty straightforward, and even with additional hues introduced it would get fairly monotonous if that’s all there was. However, you do gain a few more abilities over time. In some challenges you’ll find coloured circles on the walls. If your phone has a colour matching the circle, then you can aim at the circle and click the right-mouse button to be pulled across the room – and any gaps in the floor it may have – to where the circle is. You’ll also encounter some more mind-bending actions, as late in the game you are introduced to what can best be described as reorientation plates mounted on different surfaces. When you bump into one of them, the environment will then rotate such that that surface becomes the floor. So if you bump into a plate that’s on the wall in front of you, that wall will now be the floor, effectively reorienting the entire game world around you.
Scene rotation is another one of those elements that almost but doesn’t quite work. On the one hand, it does make for some interesting three-dimensional challenges to overcome. On the other hand, those who struggle with moving through real time 3D environments to begin with will likely be exceedingly frustrated by the disorientation of the world revolving around them.
A number of challenges can be disorienting in and of themselves. Since the conceit of The Spectrum Retreat is that it takes place in a virtual world, it’s not necessarily constrained by the laws of reality. This means that there are a number of challenges that loop back upon themselves. For example, relatively early on you’ll encounter one where you can drop down a short shaft to a lower level. As you proceed along that level, you’ll find another short shaft that you can drop down. After doing this a couple of times, it slowly starts to dawn that there are really only two levels that you’re descending through and that when you drop down from the lower level, you’re actually dropping in through the top of the upper level. The folding of space is a cool idea in theory and some will enjoy it, but again, falling into the not quite category, others are sure to be put off by the confusion this causes.
With the swapping of colours, crossing of bridges, tractor beaming across chasms, and reorientation of rooms, there are a lot of mechanics here on which to build puzzles. While these are all used in healthy combination, the authentication challenges are again not quite as rewarding to complete as they should be. Inevitably, games like this tend to have puzzle rooms that fall into two categories. There are rooms that let you look around and see the pieces you have available to sort out how to use them, and those where you more or less bumble along blindly towards the end, using elements you discover for no other reason than that you haven’t actually needed them yet. Sadly, with its claustrophobic spaces, the majority of The Spectrum Retreat’s challenges fall into the latter category. A few sequences are a little more wide open so you can plan your moves, but the rest of the time, be prepared to do a lot of backtracking as you round a corner to find that you don’t have a colour with you because you didn’t even know until that moment that you’d need it to pass that final force field.
While you can't die in the game, it is possible to get stuck during the authentication challenges. Fortunately such occurrences are infrequent, but there are a few times where, if you’re not careful, you can lose colours or arrange them in such a way that it becomes impossible to progress. In these instances, you have to escape out to the main menu to restart the current challenge, which places you back at the door leading in to try again. There are some bottomless pits you can fall into as well; doing so also returns you to the door at the start of their respective challenges.
The game proceeds back and forth between the hotel and authentication challenges until you finally reach the end, by which time you’ll have come to understand why you’re trapped in the hotel. At the very end, which took me four and a half hours to reach, a token choice is offered, presumably because all of the “cool” games these days offer decisions even though there is no real need for one here. The aftermath is short and rather predictable in both cases, and while the game offers an achievement for experiencing both outcomes, nothing else changes and there’s no real reason to replay to see how the other ending pans out. There is no manual save option, providing only the dreaded single automatic save; hence having to replay from the beginning if you want to see the other finale.
Musically, The Spectrum Retreat is quite minimal – this is a game about colour, not sound, after all. The tracks are made up of short loops that almost sound more like a heartbeat than music. While repetitive, their beating heart nature does tend to help them fade into the background. This rhythmic pulse adds to the tense atmosphere of the hotel sections – especially so as the consequences of passing the authentication challenges start causing weird glitches, such as corridors suddenly transporting you farther along, tables and chairs being affixed to walls instead of floors, and the hotel staff becoming increasingly spastic in their movements and vocalizations.
Sound effects are also minimal here, consisting mostly of your own footsteps. There are also various noises that occur when interacting with colours, tractor pads, and reorientation plates, and they all feel suitable for those actions. Overall the music and sound are solid, and in some cases do enhance the mood of the experience.
With the main mechanics so heavily based on the use of colour, it’s a nice touch that options allow you to choose different colour arrangements for the cubes in the authentication challenges. By default the standard set is red, green and blue, but this can be changed to brown, gold and blue; or pink, brown and blue; or even light grey, dark grey and black. For those who suffer from some form of colour blindness, you should be able to find a setting that works for you.
Ultimately, The Spectrum Retreat feels like what it is: two distinct games that don’t quite impress in their own right and don’t quite mesh together well enough to make something uniquely new. Most of the story is conveyed through such a stuttering voice as to be distracting, and many of the challenges are solved more by happenstance than strategic planning. But the flip side of “not quite” is “almost”, which means there are definitely enjoyable moments along the way, and some of the locations are quite visually appealing. All told, there are worse ways to kill an afternoon or two than a stay at the Penrose Hotel. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into before checking in, and set your expectations accordingly.