The Spectrum Retreat Review – The Hotel Milton Keynes

SPOILER WARNING: Some story elements of The Spectrum Retreat are used for critique here. If you have any interest in playing this game, then tread carefully.

Hmm… Hmmmm… Hmmmmmmmm…

The Spectrum Retreat! You never heard of this game? Well, why would you have heard of this? Another Portal clone to fill the ranks? Yeah that’s great and all, but between Portal, Q.U.B.E, Quantum Conundrum, The Turing Test, Chromagun, Antichamber, The Swapper, The Talos Principle, Kairo, The Ball, DeadCore, and Cylne? You’re not exactly going to be the first on anybody’s list.

This is a first-person puzzle platformer made by one Dan Smith, who won the 2016 BAFTA YGD Award for the prototype of today’s tried-and-tested time-waster. It must’ve been a slow year for young game developers. You’re damn right I’m reaching for the low-hanging fruit! It’s been an awful month, and I attempt to let some of that out on the Worst Game of The Year so far. Don’t worry, I have my reasons (beside being angry that no-one came to my 22nd birthday party).

You play as a young man named Alex, who awakes in the nicest hotel in the world, with The Gimp from Pulp Fiction telling him that breakfast is ready downstairs. You eat your eggs, you drink your cappuccino, you let the day roll in with you making no movements until a woman named Cooper scrambles to tell you that the place you reside in isn’t meant to host you. From there, a twisted net of information follows.

Immediately The Spectrum Retreat throws any sort of ambiguity out of the bloody window. Not content with letting you explore the world and its possibilities of positivity, it thrusts you into the deep end, no time to ask questions or explain the reason as to why we’re here. Better yet, why don’t they explain the point of the place we’ve been “imprisoned” in?

Truth be told, they do but they don’t. There are nine logs scattered around the building, supposedly telling the story of why this place, The Penrose Hotel was made, except the logs that actually explain why this place got made? Stupidly hidden, Logs 1-3? Easy to find. Logs 5-8? Easy to find. Logs 4 and 9? So far up the arse of the hotel, that I didn’t bother finding them.

Yeah, The Penrose looks nice, but what kind of hotel that can be considered the “Perfect Retreat” has only one meal? What kind of hotel has no other guests, or entertainment besides one solitary magician? A library containing every piece of literature ever made? You don’t go to a hotel because of the bloody hotel, you go to a hotel to stay in a city with other interesting things in it. So the Penrose is supposed to be a resort? Liven the place up then, don’t make the place so unbelievably boring.

I hope you like endless white walls with minimalistic art, otherwise, you’re better off staying at a flippin’ Butlin’s or the hotel from Identity, because this world is so unabashedly dull. So dull in fact, that the game can’t wait for you to get out of it, which is why later in the game, it just teleports you to the more “interesting” parts of the maps.

The Spectrum Retreat always does this. It’s so scared that you’ll lose interest that it throws you right into the deep end or at least what counts for the deep end. You’ll be trying to explore this lackluster hotel and this woman Cooper is just banging on about how you need to “find your memories.” As it stands, the narrative payoff is so shallow and see-through that you could use it for cling-film, with nothing being a surprise or at least a surprise that makes sense.

It tries to throw you for a red herring, where you’re led to believe that you’re a kid in some sort of comatose state who is using The Penrose as some form of experimental health treatment… what do you mean “That doesn’t make sense?” Anyway, the actual twist won’t be revealed here, but it’s not set up with a slow burn as one might expect. It’s something that’s quickly put together in the last hour of gameplay, with Cooper acting like she has a bigger involvement in the story than what she actually does. Speaking of Cooper, there’s another point.

Voice acting. There’s a difference between normal acting and voice acting. Normal acting is fine. You have the scenario right there in front of you; you can visualize exactly how the scene is supposed to play out. Voice acting is a bit different, however. Not only do you have to perfectly visualize what the scenes are going to look like but you have to try and get on the same wavelength as your creator.

Here, the voice actors and Dan Smith were on two different wavelengths separated by 600 miles of barbed wire. Cooper’s voice actress (Amelia Tyler) doesn’t necessarily read lines, it’s more that she grunts in-between sessions of tip-tapping on her keyboard. It sounds like she’d rather be anywhere else but here, as there’s not a single second where you believe a word that comes out of her mouth.

The robots that populate the Penrose are also voiced weirdly. There’s a clarity to them, but it feels like there shouldn’t be. Despite the fact that these are robots with visible wiring (implying that these are prototypes or at the very least, not advanced), they somehow have crystal clear vocal chords. Yeah, it sounds nitpicky, but even when they’re glitching out later in the game, they still sound like a guy trying to imitate a robot’s speech patterns giving out.

So narrative-wise, there isn’t a single original bone within the body of the story. Really, that statement could be applied to the whole game. Nothing is explored with a fresh eye, there is no attempt to expand or change what was broken when it comes to games with the same angle as The Spectrum Retreat. This is as cut-and-dry as it gets. This is how lifeless the game is going to be. It’s not here to stun you and it’s not here to blow your mind. It is here to be as generic as humanly possible.

Alright, so you’ve got five floors to figure out here and the puzzles work like how they do in Chromagun, albeit with less pizazz and a devolution of mechanical prowess. You have a device that can absorb the color of certain blocks nearby, and you need to place transfer these colors to the blocks in the correct order, in order to progress further.

These puzzles will also be solved in complete silence, for the most part. 90 percent of the story takes place outside of these puzzle gauntlet rooms, and whatever story is shown inside the puzzles is largely inconsequential. Instead of trying to meld the narrative and gameplay together, Dan Smith has opted to just keep them separated from one another, meaning that you get a really clunky see-saw of exposition and dull puzzles.

The puzzle design isn’t smart, nor is it designed with elegance. A lot of the solutions I had used seemed like I had just cheated the system; Pixel snipes that didn’t seem obvious nor the answer. Once said pixel snipes are executed, they feel like I’ve just used a machete for surgery, and despite my possibly brutish way of barraging through these puzzles, it didn’t stop the game from being so… boring.

The environmental design is disgustingly drab, it’s white walls and steel pipes lining the entirety of this area. It works for Portal, but not for this. Something that’s necessary for puzzle-platformers like this (Portal and Chromagun) is context and I don’t get what the context for these puzzles are in The Spectrum Retreat. So we’re trying to unlock our memories by piecemeal, yeah? So we’re diving into the mind, right? Well, why does my mind look like I’ve sneaked into the warehouse of a Bed, Bath & Beyond?

Nevertheless, this isn’t what broke your debonair delegate, no sir. For you could quite literally make your game take place inside a ping-pong ball and it’d still be fine if the puzzles were meaty. That’s what got me through The Turing Test, but there is no meat to The Spectrum Retreat bones. Just paper-thin skin, disguised as depth.

Way late into the game, mechanics evolve slightly, with the use of teleporting, and gravitational shifts within the playing field. The phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind, but there was already too little to begin with, so just deciding to cut off puzzle mechanics until the last 10 or so level seems silly, honestly.

The biggest problem to face these levels, however, is that because they’re so stupidly simplistic in their nature, they’re padded out to such extreme lengths. You’re practically setting up these winding snake paths that always require the same solutions, and the only thing that changes is where you need to stand in order to pixel snipe them. Yeah, one could argue that’s the point of puzzle games in this nature, but there’s no verticality to any of it, it’s all just standing still and occasionally sucking a color in.

Despite how easy they are, there’s always this chance that you’ll just lock yourself into a corner with no way to escape or continue. You will never feel more aggravated and devastated when you work for 15 plus minutes on a level only to find you that the green block you just got? Yeah, that was supposed to be red for this part, so you need to restart the entire thing again.

Not uncommon for puzzles games to do, but due to how egregiously paced all of these puzzles are, and the fact that the only hazards in the game are rare bottomless pits, it’s draining. I’m already spending my time in these boring warehouses, and nothing is going to get me angrier than backing myself into a corner for messing up this stupid conga line of color.

All of this reached maximum fury within the last floor: floor five. Here, instead of a few puzzles failing to diverge or differentiate from one another, you are placed within the sandbox of one massive literal subway tunnel, with the platforms all being their own separate levels. You have to do these levels one by one, and if you fail once? All the way back to the beginning of the floor.

Can you imagine getting to the final part, only to mess up the algorithm once and have it all be for nothing? Can you imagine all of that hard work wasting away, because the puzzles are designed not only to be “brain-testers”, but traps? Yeah well, it happened to me… twice. All because I have to memorize this pattern like it’s the damn “Through The Fire And Flames”. Just… nope, I’m done.

The Spectrum Retreat is one of the dullest puzzle-platformers that has ever been put on a gaming storefront. It’s rare that you come across something so asinine and cheap in this day and age without it aging beforehand. Not even Myst is such a depressing dive into dull-as-dishwater dragged-on discombobulating diatribe of dicks. Just… no.

No, I’m done, I’m playing Skate 3.

This review of The Spectrum Retreat is based on the Xbox One version of the game.

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