In 2016, Dan Smith won a BAFTA award, in the Young Game Developer category. His winning project, Spectrum, was only a prototype, but the positive reception stimulated him to collaborate with the publisher Ripstone Games, to turn the concept into a full first-person puzzle game — The Spectrum Retreat. Two years later, the project ended and went online, reaching the PlayStation 4 on July 10 and arriving on the Xbox One and Microsoft Windows on the 12th. In addition to these platforms, it will make its début on the Nintendo Switch later this summer, but the release date remains unannounced.
The Spectrum Retreat tells an amnesia story. You wake up in The Penrose hotel, with no memories of how or why you arrived there. Every day repeats itself and the only “people” you see are mannequins. You are alone, but that changes when you receive a phone call urging you to escape. Guided by a mysterious woman, Cooper, you explore rooms and hallways, under the promise that reaching the roof of the building will set you free. Easier said than done. To get there, you must unlock the five floors of The Penrose. To do so, you must go to the puzzle chambers and pass a series of challenges.
To complete each trial, you must reach the exit of the chamber, but energy grids block your way. Your tool to overcome them is a phone that allows you to absorb the colour of glowing cubes placed in the environment. Each pigment you get allows you to walk through an energy grid of the same colour. The principle is simple, but more variables appear as you progress in the story. Combining these puzzles with a narrative and a hotel for you to explore, The Spectrum Retreat tries to succeed in many departments, but is it successful? This review dissects the game to find out.
As soon as the game fades in, you wake up in your room to the sound of someone knocking on your door. When you open it, the experience starts subverting your expectations. A mannequin speaks to you. Once you step outside and start exploring the area, an uncanny feeling continues to grow. People may associate hotels with crowded locations, but this one is desert. The setting is familiar and unfamiliar. This contradiction makes you have an escalating feeling that something is wrong. As you wander, many questions go through your mind.
Where is everyone? Who are these mannequins? What is this place? The wish to find answers makes you want to explore more. You also have many feelings — curiosity, unease and even solitude. Through its first level, the game makes you reach your own conclusion that something is wrong, instead of having a character tell you. This is a sign of elegant design. As Flint Dille and John Platten say in their book The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, “don’t show it, play it.” However, despite the strong introduction, the rest of the game struggles to have the same quality.
Score for the introduction: 10
Throughout the game, you start to remember. You have few glimpses of why and how you got into this situation. These memories appear on the levels as hallucinations of furniture, documents and sounds related to the events that led you to the hotel. You must connect these fragments in your mind to understand the plot. This game is a puzzle in both gameplay and story. This type of narrative has appeared in many successful titles, including BioShock, Gone Home and Fallout 4, all of which have Metascores higher than 85/100, but this style of storytelling takes a turn for the worse in The Spectrum Retreat.
The game suffers from two problems in this department. First, although it tries to tell a competent story that can hit you in the heart sometimes, it is predictable. About halfway through the narrative, it is possible to guess the big “twist,” albeit with some details missing. This is the biggest sin a storyteller can commit. In this fragmented type of narrative, the writer needs to give you enough information to put the story together, but if you get too many details, the element of surprise goes away. It is a balancing act. One that The Spectrum Retreat failed to get right.
The second issue with this game is the recycling of many narrative items across maps. For example, you find the same newspaper article repeatedly. The scarcity of documents for you to pick up makes the story too simple, which is one of the reasons why it became predictable. If developers had included more story items for you to collect, they could have added more details and twists to the narrative, thus making it less predictable and more engaging. After all, as the screenwriter William Goldman said, “give the audience what it wants, but not how they expect it,” which links to the next topic.
Score the development of the story: 6
There are two possible ways to end The Spectrum Retreat. While they are serviceable in terms of answering the dramatic question of whether you can escape, they both suffer from the same problem — they lack a dénouement. According to novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag, this moment of the story happens after the climax and shows how the characters have changed, compared to the beginning. The game never shows you this, leaving a negative impact on your emotional satisfaction, especially in one of the endings, as it raises many questions about the future, but you never get answers.
The sudden finale of The Spectrum Retreat makes you feel betrayed. In a game that lasts about five hours, according to How Long to Beat, all of your actions have little payoff. The end is abrupt and this can leave a sour taste in your mouth. As Donald Mass writes in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
“Why do endings disappoint? Often it is because they are rushed… The resolution phase of the novel needs to tie up loose ends and, like the final chord in a symphony, provide a moment of rest and relaxation of tension.”
It is possible to attribute this problem to the budget of the project. But, there is a way to add a dénouement without expending much money. One example is using a narration, with 2D arts, akin to Fallout: New Vegas. Cooper could be the narrator, but now that this review has discussed the stages of the story, it is time to dedicate some attention to her.
Score for the endings: 7
Voice acting by Amelia Tyler
What stands out immediately is the voice acting for this character. Amelia has worked on other titles, including Troll and I, We Happy Few and Star Wars: Battlefront II. There is a reason why even Electronic Arts relies on her services to bring fictional characters to life. Her performance is excellent and her role as Cooper is one of the highlights of The Spectrum Retreat. The keyword for this is “believability.” While some voice actors make the mistake of merely reading a script, Amelia adds some mannerisms when acting, making her characters have a distinct voice and feel more human.
Additionally, the nuances in her tone clearly communicate her emotions. These subtle details make her performance more believable, according to Paul Strikwerda in his article The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately. As a result, although you only hear Cooper’s voice, it is possible to imagine how she looks and what facial expressions she makes. This is the power of competent voice acting. However, creating a good character goes beyond having good voice-overs. The writing also needs to have the same quality and this is where the game struggles with Cooper.
Apart from a few brief moments, her dialogue is only functional. She gives quests and information. Rarely does she say a line that tells who she is. This is a problem. According to Syd Field in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, good characters have two layers — external and internal. In short, the former is what they do in a story, whilst the latter is their motivation. In Cooper’s case, you know what she is doing, but you barely have any insights on what drives her to take these actions. This hurts her characterization, as she becomes two-dimensional.
One way to avoid this problem would be through environmental storytelling. In The Spectrum Retreat, you find written logs from an employee that give more details about the history of The Penrose. One possible solution would be to change the story slightly, so Cooper would be the one who had written these diaries, thus telling you more about her background and motivations, deepening her character. It is a shame to see the voice of Amelia Tyler having its potential restrained, due to a script that does little to develop Cooper and make of her a strong character with relatable motivations.
Score for Cooper’s characterization: 7
Design by Dan Smith
The idea of absorbing colours from cubes to pass through power grids of the same pigment may seem intimidating at first, but The Spectrum Retreat teaches you the basics in an intuitive way. The game uses an approach that the YouTuber Mark Brown calls Invisible Tutorial, which is the design principle Valve uses in its titles, including Portal and Half-Life 2. This concept consists of using subtle clues to teach, instead of relying on intrusive text overlays or dialogue. Using this idea, Dan Smith introduces the mechanics of his game in a way that never feels overwhelming.
As you progress in the narrative, the puzzles get more complex, adding new colours, a teleportation function and even the ability to rotate the chambers. Despite this increase in difficulty, The Spectrum Retreat remains intuitive throughout and it is possible to understand each new element with ease. However, the game still has considerable difficulty. The challenges you undergo need a lot of thought. You must think about every move. There are consequences to your actions, as The Spectrum Retreat features one design decision that some titles avoid.
It is possible to put yourself in an unwinnable situation. Therefore, you must plan your strategy carefully; otherwise, you may need to reset the level. This is a principle reminiscent of chess, a game in which you must think about how your next move will influence future ones. Failure to do so can make you lose a match. In The Spectrum Retreat, it will make you restart the puzzle. Considering that some of them can take you up to an hour, you may lose much time. By designing the game with this philosophy, Dan Smith avoided a common mistake other productions make.
According to the YouTuber Joseph Anderson, in his critique of Rise of the Tomb Raider, it is possible to overcome many challenges in Lara Croft’s game by simply interacting with every object in a room until something happens. In The Spectrum Retreat, it is impossible to progress this way. The game forces you to have critical thinking and this is how an experience in this genre should play, according to Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Although the puzzle chambers offer intuitive and interesting challenges, they are only half of the experience in The Spectrum Retreat.
Score for the puzzles: 9
Exploring The Penrose
The Spectrum Retreat is a game that consists of two different experiences — the puzzle chambers and the moments when you explore the hotel. The former deserves praise, while the latter also impresses in early moments, with a strong and uncanny ambience that makes you ask many questions, stimulating you to go after the answers. However, despite the memorable introduction, exploring quickly stops being interesting and becomes a burden that hurts the pacing of the experience. This problem happens for two reasons. They are:
As stated, every day repeats itself. You always wake up and go to the restaurant for breakfast. Only afterwards, you head to the puzzle chambers. This creates a big problem. You are always going through the same environments and this cycle gets tiresome, after a couple of runs. While the locations change slightly each time, to show the memories discussed, these variations are insufficient to keep these areas fresh and interesting. The situation gets worse. You can only walk. Sprinting is out of the equation, making repeated environments even more tiresome.
The developers try to counter this by making you unlock new portions of the hotel after reaching certain points of the narrative, but there are only a few of these and they fail to sustain your engagement for long. They have the same art direction of everything that has come before. Additionally, due to the low number of items related to the story for you to pick up, there is little incentive to explore, as there is nothing for you to find. Reading this, you may argue that this is a project with a low budget, hence why developers had to build a small world and create few assets, but the next section argues otherwise.
2- Unnecessary areas:
Whilst you walk through The Penrose, you explore many underutilized places. For example, to reach a puzzle chamber, you first need to get a code to unlock the door that guards it. In some occasions, the developers created an entire floor, just to have a door for you to unlock. The most notable example is the kitchen of the restaurant, as the developers used unique assets to create it, but it has no items to pick up and the story never requires you to go there. Why did they spend time and resources creating locations that have little to no use?
A possible solution to this problem would be to scrap the idea of having multiple floors and make the entire game happen in only one. The resources saved by not building underdeveloped areas could go into making the ground floor larger and adding more narrative objects for storytelling, hence making exploration more engaging. The main goal of the story would need to change. Instead of the game requiring you to go to the roof, it could give you the mission of unlocking the main entrance. But now that this review has covered what you do in the hotel, it is time to talk about how it looks.
Score for the exploration: 6
For this section of the review, KeenGamer interviewed Antuan Robinson II, visual arts graduate from the Las Vegas Academy of Arts, so he could share his thoughts on the art of The Spectrum Retreat. After a study of this game, he had positive remarks to share:
“The visuals have a very clean contemporary and modernist look in its interior design, with earth-tone colors and very light art-deco elements. When you leave the hallway, and enter the lobby, the visual’s true colors shine, sporting a level of polish in its art direction you do not see in many other games.”
He continued his praise, going as far as saying that The Spectrum Retreat has an art direction that rivals the BioShock franchise, in some occasions. However, nothing is perfect. While the game has many successes in this department, it also has flaws.
“Some of the creative visual decisions feel a little underdeveloped, and therefore clash heavily with some of the other components. The game is very audacious, and always makes an attempt to give its visual elements a very distinct identity, which in itself, is something that not many games do.”
Despite its faults, Antuan still reckons the art direction of The Penrose deserves applause, but the game also has another type of environment, with a different art style. Antuan also shared his thoughts on it.
Score for the art direction of The Penrose: 9
Art direction of the puzzle chambers
In these sections of The Spectrum Retreat, Antuan believes that the art takes a turn for the worse, as he reckons these areas seem “uninspired,” lacking any elements to make them stand out and become memorable.
“While, on the surface level, everything looks strong enough, and nothing will detract from the experience, more could have benefited if the developers had put time and resources on all elements of the game, rather than just its beginning.”
However, despite the drop in quality, Antuan still regards the experience as positive and unique, even thinking of its art direction as “much above the average” for the video game industry.
“The game has a very rich visual design, and pushes itself above with its audacious approach that puts it one step above many other games, and it most certainly shows.”
Antuan praised the environments of The Spectrum Retreat, even comparing it to AAA experiences. However, there are more visual elements that come into play, in addition to the art style, as the next section explains.
Score for the art direction of the puzzle chambers: 7
While Antuan praises the art direction of The Spectrum Retreat, he also believes that its visual experience has significant issues, due to its lighting effects. He elaborated on four main reasons for this:
“The lighting can look dull, and objects, such as curtains, lack any mass as the shadows do not feel as if they reach deep enough into the volume of the shapes. Some objects such as the red carpets can seem textureless.”
“The gold effects can look astonishingly bad, especially if an entire room is full of metallic material, which is really distracting. Thankfully, this isn’t encountered very often, and, when used in smaller portions, which it often is, it looks nice.”
“The reflections on the floor are very poor though, often having a heavy amount of glow and feather that do not fit the art direction very well. The bloom is a little excessive.”
“The light cascading from the windows have flat edges, almost as if it were a 2d image, which feels extremely out of place and inconsistent with the style of lighting of other places.”
Despite the flaws about the lighting, he still believes the game offers a solid visual experience. KeenGamer thanks Antuan Robinson II for his participation. Now that this review has discussed what you see, it is time to talk about what you hear.
Score for the lighting: 7
To discuss this topic, KeenGamer interviewed Gabriel Bittencourt*, a Brazilian musician who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music theory in Rio de Janeiro. He praises the music of The Spectrum Retreat, for three reasons:
“It is perfect for a puzzle game and it matches the mystery of the plot very well. It fits the overall feel of the game. Things almost never move and the songs rarely have any sudden changes in rhythm.”
“The choice of going for instrumental tunes in the hotel fits well the art deco of the map, as this type of art comes from the 20s, a period when we obviously had no computers, so every song was instrumental.”
“Furthermore, it is great to see the songs changing to an electronic beat in the puzzle sections. I’m happy to see they created two sets of songs for each part of the game. It shows attention to detail.”
As an audiovisual product, The Spectrum Retreat delivers a solid experience in both fronts, with great art direction and a competent soundtrack. But speaking of sounds, there is more to this department than just music.
Gabriel’s score for the soundtrack: 10
*Interview translated from Portuguese to English by the author.
“Quiet” is a word that describes the audio of The Spectrum Retreat. Whilst you explore the environments, the only sound you often hear, apart from the soundtrack, is your footsteps. Early in the experience, this adds to the eerie ambience of this game, helping to make it an even better experience. However, the lack of noise becomes jarring in some moments. An example is when you jump. When you drop back to the ground, no sound plays. This hurts the feel of the game, as it fails to communicate the mass of the main character’s body.
This problem worsens. Footsteps are barely audible, failing to let you hear the impact of your feet on the ground, resulting in the same problem mentioned above. This is a small issue, but throughout the story, it becomes very noticeable. Apart from this, the audio design is superb, with distinct sounds for the puzzles, which add strong aural feedback to your actions and according to Steve Swink in his book Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation, the more feedback the developers add, the greater the pleasure you feel as you play and the game becomes more engaging.
Score for the audio design: 7
Overall, The Spectrum Retreat is a competent game with conflicting priorities. It has excellent puzzles, with a unique visual style, but it suffers from a poor narrative, excessive backtracking and a lack of attention to world design. However, keep in mind that this is the first full game by Dan Smith, who is only 20 years old. It is possible to attribute these issues to a lack of experience. Nevertheless, despite its problems, this project is enough to put a spotlight on him. He is a promising talent and KeenGamer spoke briefly with him about his future. This is what he had to say:
“I’ve got some ideas, one is further along the rest and my plan is to announce something soon-ish on my Twitter @RealEntropy. I want to continue to create interesting narratives, so I’m exploring ways to do that right now.”
In an industry in which some insiders have proclaimed the death of narrative games, it is reassuring to see a rising star aim for stories. Gamers who love interactive storytelling should look forward to the announcement he mentioned. If he learns from The Spectrum Retreat, he will create something special. To do this, he needs to put more thought into avoiding backtracking, building a world that sustains interest for longer and creating a more compelling narrative. The gameplay aspect, he has already mastered. But after all of this, this review returns to its central question.
Is this a game for you? If you want a puzzle experience that has interesting mechanics and is light on story, then, despite its faults, The Spectrum Retreat will impress you. It will engage you with gripping gameplay and a unique art style that you can compare with AAA productions. However, If you are looking for a title that does all of this and still delivers a memorable narrative, with an interesting world, then this game fails to offer what you seek. But this is only the beginning. Maybe one day the industry will look back at The Spectrum Retreat as the birth of a brilliant career. I believe in Dan Smith.
If you are going to play The Spectrum Retreat, make sure to read KeenGamer’s article with 5 tips you need to know before starting a new game, to get the most out of the experience.
Disclaimer: this review calculated its verdict using the average of every score given throughout. This approach is a method developed by the YouTube channel Strat-Edgy Productions in its video Can You Review a Game Objectively?
|+ Intuitive puzzles||– Predictable story|
|+ Unique art direction||– Excessive backtracking|
|+ Puzzles need critical thinking||– Unsatisfying ending|
|+ Strong ambience||– Repetitive environments|