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The Spectrum Retreat Is A Gorgeous, Unsettling Indie Puzzler – Hands-On

Indie puzzle games are everywhere nowadays. A quick search of the “puzzle” tag on the Steam store results in over 120 pages. Of course, we have our gems like The Talos Principle and Fez. But for every gem, we have many less delightful titles. It takes a lot to stand out in my mind, which is why the pristine world of The Spectrum Retreat grabbed my attention and left me anxious for more.

As the only guest in the Penrose hotel, you awaken with no memory of your past self. Here, robotic butlers treat you like royalty, but they do not let you deviate from your day-to-day routine. One morning, a disembodied voice contacts you. She believes you are held against your will. It’s time to break out.

The Spectrum Retreat presents itself in two distinct segments: the hotel and the puzzles.

The Penrose Hotel

The Penrose hotel is narrative focused, with you doing your best to act normal while trying to escape. Here, your partner chats with you to unlock different areas and dictate your way around.

Furniture and decor are retro-modern. Doors, beds, and carpets are lifted straight out of a 1920’s movie, but they’re infused with sharp edges and bold colors to give The Spectrum Retreat its distinct look.

Puzzle Areas

Set in between narrative events, puzzle areas are sleeker gameplay focused spaces. Each room has colored or white blocks, with each block representing a different forcefield in the space. To escape, you must swap around the different colors to unlock the way forward.

For example, one room may have an orange and a white forcefield, with respective blocks of the same color. To pass through a forcefield, you must hold the same color in your device. However, you can only carry one at a time.

So, imagine the white forcefield is first. You have orange in your device, and there is a white block next to the white forcefield. Next, you would swap the orange color with the white block, providing you with the white color to pass through the white forcefield. Then, you would swap the color again to pass through the orange forcefield. Rinse and repeat with more challenging block locations and extra colors.

While reminiscent of Portal, I appreciate developer Dan Smith’s effort to create his own style that not only feels unique but stands in respectful contrast of the chic hotel areas. In doing so, the game eases you in and out of puzzle-solving mode naturally. Players receive a break after the challenge and are rewarded with more of the story.

Even when you’re not directly involved in a puzzle, The Spectrum Retreat is always testing you. The Penrose isn’t merely a linear path through the narrative. Instead, you’re solving smaller puzzles like discovering which piece of furniture is out of place to progress.

In contrast, there are small story elements in the puzzle solving sections. Occasionally you’ll find a brightly lit corner that triggers some exposition from your past. From my demo, it seems that these sequences serve to keep the overarching plot outside of the puzzles while additional details come from within.

The five puzzles from my demo were well-paced. I never struggled too long on one section, and the color swapping mechanics became second nature by the end. Dan informed me that challenges would scale quite considerably. Hopefully, they continue to do so at an organic rate.

Also, I’m surprised at how well the small plot segment hooked me in such a short period. My time in the Penrose hotel was satisfyingly eerie. The robot butlers are a tad too comforting. My experience has me reminiscing about my first time entering Bioshock’s city of Rapture. Though the cheeky Atlus is replaced with a more straightforward female voice, with suave, immaculate art deco visuals replacing the cold and unilluminated underwater city of Rapture. While many puzzle-based games have some comic relief, this story seems ready to unsettle you with little in the way of comfort.

Winner of the BAFTA Young Game Designers Award at only 18, creator Dan Smith has put years of work into this game. Smith started developing The Spectrum Retreat at age 15. He is now 20 with this being his first official game release. The Spectrum Retreat hits July 10th on PlayStation 4, July 13th on Steam and Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch later this summer.