Review by Lindsay M.
How do you review a game that, in your heart, you know is good… but that you struggled with an absurd amount?
That’s the interesting situation I currently find myself in. I’ve been open in the past about my (self-described) limited mental capacity due to chronic illness, and for that reason I usually do at least a preliminary search before I pick up a game to review. But The Spectrum Retreat’s description involved “Art Deco” and “puzzle,” and I inexplicably found myself drawn to it like a moth to flame.
When I started the game, it was immediately apparent that the story had a hold on my heart. You wake up in a strange hotel staffed entirely by robots, with no other guests in sight. As you begin to unravel the mystery of where you are and why you are there, you must continue acting completely normal to advance the hotel simulation while finding clues and solving puzzles to discover where you really are.
The hotel environment really is a gorgeous piece of artwork unto itself, a presumably painstaking work of love inspired by the Art Deco movement. Art Deco spanned many arts, from graphic to sculpture to architecture, and nearly all are evident within the confines of the hotel. Every arching line, every door with a linear pattern, and every poster has visual representation of the art style. I see hints of famous buildings: the aforementioned doors remind me of the interior of New York City’s Chrysler Building, but the railings in the lobby are reminiscent of the later Art Deco style of Streamline Moderne, where buildings are inspired heavily by ships (and ships were indeed also decorated in this style).
While I could go on for days about how this small detail reminds me of this building and this other detail reminds me of this poster, I don’t think anyone is here for an art history lesson so I’ll move ahead. Back to the story in The Spectrum Retreat.
With the help of a mysterious voice on the other end of your phone, you need to find the bits that don’t really “fit” in the hotel in order to solve the mystery of where you really are, and why. Perhaps this is why I felt compelled to examine every small detail: the voice told me to look for something different, so every surface needed to be inspected. It’s not immediately clear why voice should be trusted, but they are. I find her to be soothing and familiar.
It is in the narrative that The Spectrum Retreat really shines with its Art Deco heritage. That’s right, the story suits the artistic movement graphically represented. Art Deco was about trusting social and technological progress, and isn’t that what we are doing here? Trusting mysterious robotic hotel staff to guide us through our day?
Once you find the door that isn’t like the others, and find a way to unlock it, you enter one of a series of puzzle-solving stages. The game progresses following that pattern: explore the hotel, break into the different door, solve a handful of puzzles involving blocks made up of bright light and laser grids. The learning curve is well-planned, adding one new element at a time.
An important note regarding the puzzles and accessibility issues: a patch has been released that includes settings for Deuteranopia/Protanopia and Tritanopia, so those that are colourblind are still able to play. Kudos to the dev!
Despite the reasonable learning curve, my darned brain didn’t seem to want to grasp the concept of the puzzles, and this is where the game became polarizing for me. I hated the puzzles with a passion, and I don’t say that lightly. I struggled. And I struggled. And I struggled some more. Then I gave up and had to look under walkthroughs. There is something in my brain that doesn’t want to connect A to B in this case, and my cognitive ability just falls apart.
It’s not to say the puzzles are bad. They’re quite good, but require a sharp mind and often a good chunk of patience to get through – two traits that I wouldn’t describe myself as having. It begins by moving one colour between blocks of light, allowing laser grids to become disabled and you to pass through. It sounds simple enough, but my brain couldn’t even grasp the moving-colour part for several levels.
As you move through the days in the game (there are five), the puzzles become so much more difficult. More colours are added. And bridges. And multi-level puzzles. And then gravity goes out the window and you need to start walking on walls, as though you’re in a neon-lit Inception film. I love the idea of it and don’t like actually doing it, but again, that’s on me and not the game or it’s design.
And there is the basis for my dual, and completely opposing, views on The Spectrum Retreat. How can I love and loathe the same game? And does that make it good or bad? And how do I judge good versus bad for the sake of this review? I could make a pros-vs-cons list. I could go with my gut reaction to the puzzles levels. Or I could follow my heart, which is aligned with the art and the narrative.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve played a title as polarizing as The Spectrum Retreat. On one hand, the story and the setting are intriguing. On the other, the puzzles are infuriating and I can’t seem to make sense between solving them and the story. But after much soul-searching, it’s obvious I need to give the edge to the positive. If I could easily write a 3,000 word essay comparing the architecture, art assets, and possibly even the narrative to an entire artistic movement, that is what stands out to me. Not the infuriating time spent trying to solve even the early levels, or the times by brain hurt while the walls because the floor, but the pure thought and planning that went into the overall experience and design. It’s quite remarkable and well worth the experience.
– Lindsay M.