Poor ol’ Keiji Inafune. Poor ol’ Microsoft. Initially, it was quite a coup to get Inafune – Mega Man’s daddy – attached to a game that was not only Microsoft exclusive, but also due to be one of the flagship titles for the whole “play anywhere” thing of Xbox One and PC cross-pollination.
Then Mighty No. 9 happened.
After that, the RRP was quickly announced to be £29.99, and the marketing now shouts significantly louder about the fact that some of the development team previously worked on Metroid Prime. No matter who deserves the most credit for the game (something that may never be entirely clear), the truth is this: Recore is a patchwork quilt of greatness, with nicotine stains of bad decisions around the edges.
The plot is sketchily drawn, but it goes something like this: After a terrible disease ravages much of the earth, terraforming work begins for another planet known as Far Eden. Your character, Joule, is part of the maintenance crew tasked with making this desert planet lovely and liveable and generally something like those beautiful vistas that only seem to exist in car adverts. You take control when she wakes from hypersleep, and discovers that (a) she didn’t wake when she was supposed to, and (b) there’s absolutely no sign of the rest of the terraforming crew. Also she has a robot dog for some reason.
It soon becomes apparent that Joule isn’t completely alone. The planet is full of animal-styled robots that were brought along to help with the terraforming (good thing), but they’ve somehow all turned evil and want to kill you (bad thing). Thus the stage is set for a third-person platform shooter, with a strong Metroid/Zelda influence thrown in for good measure.
A central part of the experience is ‘cores’. Each enemy, as well as your friendly bots (you’ll eventually have three), has a glowing core that seems to be analogous to a soul. It’s therefore mildly disturbing that you are encouraged to rip cores from your enemies as much as possible, and convert their energy to help upgrade, and develop new parts for, your companions. Extract a core though, and the enemy won’t drop precious building parts. Some sort of commentary on the duality of man, perhaps? I dunno.
You’ll soon start seeing enemies of different colours, and after a handful of hours your rifle – of infinite ammo, though limited clip which needs to recharge – will have four colours to cycle through. The reasoning behind this colour coding is twofold. Firstly, matching your rifle’s colour to that of your target will ensure that you deal the maximum possible damage (later, colour-changing enemies are introduced). Secondly, there’s an alternate effect associated with each colour that you can inflict by charging up a single shot… and that enemies can inflict upon you by charging their own attacks. You lock onto an enemy by holding the left trigger, and switch targets by flicking the right stick. In this way, fights tend to be a symphony of dodges, ammo management, quick colour switching, and target prioritising. Your robofriend will fight alongside you, and you can also order them to unleash a more powerful, recharging attack on an enemy of your choosing. Combat is fun.
The aforementioned extraction of cores also factors into combat. Once an enemy’s health has been reduced past a certain point, you have the option of attempting an extraction. While locked on, a click of the right stick sends a grappling hook shooting into the enemy core. A sort of tug-of-war microgame ensues, where you pull against the resisting enemy while being careful to not snap the line. Any nearby enemies can easily interrupt by attacking you though, so you need to choose your extractions carefully. The exception, achieved by stringing together an attack combo, is an instant extraction. This does exactly what it says on the proverbial tin, and also doubles as an attack via a small explosion which will damage any nasty bots close enough to your target.
The Metroid/Zelda bit comes from how new abilities (via your robot compadres) give you access to new areas. Almost immediately you’ll see and/or suspect items and areas that you can’t yet access. Your starter bot can dig in certain areas to uncover items, but the robot frames you unlock later have their own abilities. The spider bot can latch on to, and travel across, specially-made tracks; the ape bot can smash through a specific type of rock; and the flying bot allows you to glide long distances and use vents to leap high into the air. This ensures that, in conjunction with the fact that they’re genuinely useful in combat, your robot friends are much more than decoration.
After a brief bit of play allowing you to get used to the basics, you’re told that you’re free to wander off the story path and explore should you so wish. So the stage is set for a great action adventure and, for the first 8-10 hours, that’s exactly what it is. Once you reach the tower that marks the story’s end, though, some terrible design decisions utterly decimate the game’s until-now-near-flawless pacing.
The tower itself is fine, five floors of tricky platforming and challenging combat folllowed by a boss fight. The problem is that the game pulls the age-old bait and switch of open world games, whereby the player is suddenly informed that actually, no, those optional tasks are no longer optional. The previously optional mini-dungeons spread throughout the overworld each have a recommended player level, and minimum number of “prismatic core” pickups required to unlock them. Sure, why not. The problem is that each floor of this tower also has these requirements, which will see a significant leap from the level that most players are likely to be at. Progress in the story therefore slams into a brick wall of frustration, as you reluctantly retreat from the tower and trudge around the world looking for enemies and new dungeons. This is likely to literally double the time it otherwise would’ve taken you to finish the story.
One of the main reasons this is a problem is that Recore’s world isn’t really tightly packed enough to support this approach. Some of the already smallish map is blocked off (forums are abuzz with the theory that the game was released unfinished), and there’s a little too much distance between dungeons. The dungeons themselves are also quite small, with very few offering any sort of decent XP-earning opportunities. There’s too much fruitless searching and re-searching of the same areas for new things to do or new creatures to fight.
It’s also not the most technologically sound game out there, unfortunately. The two worst glitches I came across affected gameplay. In the first, I missed a jump in a dungeon, and found myself repeatedly respawned onto on a rock surrounded by lava… with the platforms I needed to traverse too far above me to reach. I eventually got round this by gliding back the way I came far enough to force the game to respawn me at the previous checkpoint. Secondly, when I finally got to the end-game boss, after a ridiculously long fight I eventually had to admit that he was glitched, and I’d have to quit and lose all the XP I’d earned by killing dozens upon dozens of enemies. In his final attack stage he was rendered completely invincible, which I thought was jolly unfair. The only way to fix this one was to exit the game completely and restart it from the dashboard.
It’s such a shame, because there are a lot of good ideas in there. When Recore is good, it’s really good. The problem is that when it’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating. Some developers clearly still refuse to believe that “long game” does not equate to “good game”.
What’s the bottom line? Recore is old fashioned in a lot of good ways… and a couple of very not-good ones. The sad truth is that the further you progress, the harder you have to work to reach the fun bits.
Review by Luke Kemp. Thanks to Xbox for the review code!