Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: ReCore/Microsoft Studios
Screenshot: ReCore/Microsoft Studios
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Like its robots, whose identities can be transplanted into any number of mechanical bodies, ReCore is an old soul in a new frame. This is a game in a classical mold that’s been shunted into 2016 and forced to assimilate. When left to the traditional sensibilities at its heart, it’s a powerfully refreshing throwback, but that spirit has taken up residence in a modern body so decrepit and covered in ineffectual accessories that its failings dampen the goodwill it earns otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, given the involvement of Keiji Inafune, ReCore’s roots go back to the jump-and-shoot simplicity of games like Mega Man. Its hero, Joule, is strapped into an exo-suit that lets her leap to inhuman heights and dash in a straight line at the press of a button, both across the ground and through the air. The developers spend the game building bigger and tougher challenges around this limited repertoire, forcing you to chain together dashes and jumps to weave your way through lethal obstacle courses and scale to dizzying heights. The amount of control you have over Joule’s movement in the air is gratifying, and it’s what makes the game work as a modern take on the 3-D platformer. You’re left enough wiggle room to salvage a miscalculated leap to a disappearing platform or finagle your way off the obvious path. It feels good just to move around in ReCore.

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Screenshot: ReCore/Microsoft Studios
Screenshot: ReCore/Microsoft Studios

Joule is also accompanied by a trio of robot friends that you’ll meet in her quest to save the planet of Far Eden and make it habitable for the last remnants of humanity. Their various personalities and robo-animal shells give them different capabilities in and out of battle. By far the most well-thought-out and well-utilized of these is the rocket-launching spider-bot. It has the ability to latch onto rails and sprint along them like a sentient roller coaster, with Joule being flung into the air once it runs out of track. Several of the game’s most memorable sequences combine these with your jumping and dashing prowess to create thrilling playgrounds hundreds of feet above the ground.

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The shooting part of the game is less exciting, but understandably so. You hold a button to target a hostile robot and hold down another button to shoot. There’s a color-matching element here, but it’s also perfunctory—for maximum damage, shoot red bullets at red enemies, blue at blue, red or blue at purple, and so on. There’s no nuance in the gunplay, but that serves to make fights another extension of the game’s superb platforming. When you have to jump out of the way of giant lasers and rings of fire, the last thing you want to worry about is whether your crosshair is still trained on the annoying little drone that’s repairing a bunch of murderous cyber-wolves.

That doesn’t mean gunfights are a breeze. You’ll be battling a lot of nasty robots, both in the eerie alien desert of ReCore’s over-world and the linear dungeons you’ll find buried in its sands, the latter of which make up the meat of the game. The battles get more arduous as you progress, and between all the attacks from your enemies, Joule, and her companions, things eventually become so visually hectic that it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening. This is especially problematic when late-game enemies are powerful enough to kill you in a couple of hits and some of their attacks cause you to get stuck in place. As a result, death is sometimes swift and incomprehensible in a way that doesn’t feel fair. You’ll never lose that much progress, but you will have to sit through one of the game’s excruciating load times. (That’s assuming you’re playing on Xbox One. In my experience, the Windows 10 version of the game reduces those load screens by more than half. I saw a difference of as much as 45 seconds.)

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Loading screens—whether they’re 20 seconds or 60 seconds—aren’t an issue in and of themselves, but some of the game’s design decisions highlight and exacerbate them. There’s a layer of tedious leveling up and gear crafting built on top of ReCore’s svelte platforming interior. To keep your robot buddies up to snuff with the competition, you’ll have to feed them cores yanked from inside wild bots—said yanking involves a frustrating tug-of-war mini-game—and build new parts from the scraps of your enemies, provided you were able to find the specific pieces you need, a task that can be much harder than it should be, even when tracking the missing material on your map.

You upgrade your crew inside Joule’s home base, which you can instantly teleport to from anywhere. Of course, you’ll also have to sit through a load screen and then another one when you teleport away. You also have limited space for your spoils, and if you’re full up, it’s time to abandon what you’re doing so you can stash them away at home and get back to business after you’ve sat through the requisite loading screens. Those RPG bits are required to keep the combat’s difficulty down, but when the game they adorn is this elegant and their means demand this much downtime—if you’ve saved up a ton of cores to feed your friends, you’ll be holding down the A button and watching bars fill up for minutes at a time—they’re more of an annoyance than the added spice the developers intended them to be.

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Some of ReCore’s open-world aspects are similarly misguided. The one thing it failed to borrow from every other game of this type is a mini-map that sits on the screen at all times and shows the relevant stuff around you. Instead, you have to pause the game, pull up the full map, and try to remember the direction of that chest you’re after. There’s a fast travel system to help with getting around, but it’s only accessible from predetermined points, so you’ll have to run across the desert to reach one, pausing occasionally to look at your map, and then warp to where you really want to go. Those same fast travel points also let you swap out your robot buddies, which you’ll need to do often since their unique skills are required to reach certain areas and collect the doodads that open up new dungeons and progress the game. Bafflingly, you can only have two friends with you at a time, so if you find a glowing rock that only your robotic gorilla can smash, but he isn’t in your crew—well, you know the drill. Get that map ready.

All of those annoyances detract from what’s an otherwise enjoyable excursion into a rare, time-honored genre. ReCore has inherited the basic philosophies that made its earliest ancestors oft-imitated templates: simple yet challenging levels, an intriguing environment, and a charming cast of iconographic characters. They don’t make them like ReCore anymore—big, lighthearted releases that are unapologetic about being games. But they also don’t make big games with this many razor-sharp edges. Perhaps if ReCore had been a larger production—there’s a reason it’s not launching at the full $60 price tag of most games—its infuriating flaws would’ve been filed down. As it stands, this old soul manages to delight, but its shiny new body could’ve used some work.

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Purchasing ReCore via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.

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