A luxurious escape to the Penrose Hotel isn’t quite what it seems.
It’s a well-worn trope in videogames to wake without memory or purpose. So well-worn, I have a funny feeling I’ve used this pre-amble in a previous review. But so it is with The Spectrum Retreat, which sees us rise from a hotel bed to an urgent, sonorous ring. A caller we don’t know. We’re told to act normally. They can’t get into details now, but they’re going to help us get out. What? Isn’t this a hotel?
It’s a beginning that mimics Portal, though here we start among opulence rather than clinical austerity. In a broader similarity to Valve’s classic, The Spectrum Retreat is also a first-person puzzle game, which uses a teasing narrative of unremembered purpose to reward our progress – beyond immediate problem-solving – with enlightening discoveries and alarming twists.
The voice on the phone reveals that we can escape via the roof, but it soon becomes clear that the lift is on lockdown. Despite the benign affectations of the hotel’s staff (faceless and static mannequins), they appear motivated to keep us here, as we perpetually cycle through a single, uneventful day in the Penrose. And then we understand: the hotel isn’t real.
This is a simulation in a virtual environment, designed to keep us docile and serene. The only way out is to subvert the program from within, by finding literal backdoors in the source code. These openings lead to starkly luminous chambers, largely devoid of detail beyond their function. Coloured blocks and barriers are purposefully arranged along the route to the exit. Each barrier is traversable only by absorbing the hue from a corresponding block. Think of a chromatic version of that fox and chicken river crossing puzzle.
These puzzle chambers number close to ten for each floor before play resumes in the hotel, where we learn more about our presence here. The game’s revelations are engaging in and of themselves, being notable enough for me not to want to spoil anything. However, some quite stuttered pacing can get in the way, making The Spectrum Retreat feel like two separate games. The hotel-based sections are too distinct, leaving the puzzles to feel like something of an unwelcome advertisement break.
For better or worse, The Spectrum Retreat does hold itself up to Portal’s stature, and as such it’s left a little wanting in how well it weaves its narrative into the core gameplay. Nevertheless, the gameplay itself does have much to recommend it. The puzzle design is smart and rewarding; it does the important job of building awareness of its rules before broadening the parameters of its tests.
What does need more work is how the game deals with failure – too often, we became trapped in insoluble corners. Many of the challenges are not designed elegantly enough to allow mistakes and consequence-free experimentation. The final puzzle spans the length of several of the game’s regular challenges, yet requires a full restart should the player find themselves stuck. There’s that nagging doubt, too: were we really stuck, or should we have spent another 20 minutes trying?
Some infrequent technical issues compound this issue; more than once, we were forced to restart when we became stuck on scenery. Yet, the desire to continue was sustained. We pressed on, exploring the next floor up, and then the next, edging closer to our escape. The secrets of the Penrose Hotel are worth some inconvenience.
Coming back to that nagging Portal comparison, then: it is a fair comparison to make, and it is sometimes an unflattering one. Where Portal began in a sterile environment that surprised us by revealing a richly detailed world behind the curtain, The Spectrum Retreat can feel like it pulls the opposite trick. As anti-climactic as that sounds, perhaps the best comment on its quality is that we finished it twice – the Penrose is a 3-star hotel that delivers somewhere above its status.
The Spectrum Retreat was provided to us by Xbox/Ripstone for Xbox One. It was reviewed on an Xbox One S and X.