In video games as in cinema, music, industrial design, fashion, and elsewhere, there’s always a sector of the industry bent on going retro. Sometimes retro design is built purely around nostalgia; sometimes a desire to rediscover what made older material compelling and bring those ideas into a modern setting. ReCore, from the creators of classic platformers Mega Man and Metroid Prime - is one of these games. It’s also one of the most horribly unfinished and frustrating games of 2016, joining Quantum Break in Microsoft’s year of garbage exclusives.
Waking up from cryosleep on an desert planet that isn’t Earth, but might as well be for all we care, protagonist Joule Adams is a badass explorer with a metal exoskeleton and daddy issues. I mean that literally: her character arc revolves around searching for her lost scientist father, who narrates the game in an series of unexplained and unmotivated exposition dumps. Is it flashback? Is it an audio log? We’ll never know, and we'll never care. The story is merely an excuse to drive Joule through the desert, and it's a thin one at that.
Joule has friends to get her through the wasteland, but most of them aren’t human. Instead, she hangs out with a bunch of robots built around Cores, glowing spheres that emit energy and can be found by the bucketload, despite dialogue insisting otherwise. Each of Joule’s robo-pals - loosely modeled on a dog, a spider, a gorilla, and so on - has different abilities that can help her out, like finding hidden items, crawling along specially-marked walls, and fighting “rogue” robots (which are also designed with considerable flair). It’s possible to get attached to these mechanical characters, given their super-cute design and animation, but you'll need to cling to that hard if you want to make it through the game as a happy, fulfilled person.
Actually playing ReCore is a bizarre experience for the modern gamer. It feels like nothing quite so much as a PlayStation 2 platformer, a throwback to the days when running along linear paths collecting scraps of metal could pass as a game mechanic. Missions invariably feel like fetch quests, as the the central mechanic involves finding cores to open gates and reveal new areas in which to find yet more cores and open more gates. Those cores come at the end of platforming challenges, combat sequences, or boss fights - but they don’t feel like substantial, meaningful rewards. Very rapidly, the gameplay loop turns into groan-inducing tedium, each new challenge room or telegraphed combat encounter another boring obstacle between you and some arbitrary sense of fulfilment at having ticked off another achievement. And hey, get ready to retrace your steps, because some doors require a specific number of cores to open - and you can only get those by completing the dungeons you missed.
As a shooter, ReCore makes a play towards tactics, with Joule’s rifle able to spit out four colour-coded types of ammunition, matching four colour-coded types of enemies. In theory, this model of combat requires quick thinking, as encounters feature enemies of different colours, and tougher enemies sport multiple layers of coloured armour. There are also risk-reward options that net different types of loot, though it’s never made particularly clear why you would do one or the other, except to get through the encounter quicker.
But despite its feints at strategy, ReCore’s shooting is as mindless as it comes. Joule auto locks-on to enemies, and it’s possible to simply spam fire at her foes, changing ammo colour occasionally, exploiting the crappy pathfinding until every enemy is cheesed into dust. Rather than simple bullet sponges, these enemies are slightly more complex sponges - made up of differently-coloured layers of sponge. If it wasn’t for the colour coding, the shooting would be leaden and stultifying. The colours take it up a notch to only stultifying.
ReCore’s platforming is better than its shooting, but only slightly. Despite a wide array of potential mechanics to utilise - thanks to the aforementioned robotic supporting cast - most of the platforming challenges involve the basics: jumping and dashing. You get two jumps and one dash every time you take to the air, and you’ll quickly get used to the A, A, B combo. If you’ve got a controller that supports it, you might as well set up a macro, because you're going to be jump-jump-dashing a lot. Basic navigation just isn’t that much fun - a game-killing flaw in a platformer - and it’s made infinitely worse by the environments Joule is forced to traverse.
The world of ReCore is a collection of enormous desert landscapes and lengthy underground dungeons, dotted with enemies to fight and platforms to hop - and absolutely nothing else. Self-consciously designed around the player’s abilities, the optimistically-named Far Eden never feels like a real place; it exists solely as a video game jungle gym, devoid of interesting details or storytelling cues. It’s detailed on a technical level - graphically, it sure looks pretty - but that makes its emptiness all the stranger. With such a high-polygon, effects-filled design, you come to expect some sense of reality from the world. Instead, what you get is a series of next-gen Jak and Daxter levels.
Oh, and there’s a materials-gathering, resource-managing, shit-crafting game in there as well, but it’s hard to get excited about improving one’s shit when the basic gameplay into which said shit is deployed is this soul-deadening.
Outdated and clunky next to more refined versions of the same mechanics, ReCore has the air of a new-gen remaster of a decades-old 3D action platformer that never existed. Far from invoking nostalgia, its throwback gameplay just feels archaic - even more so with its solid AAA graphics. And I haven’t even talked about the bad collision detection, glitchy AI, unclear objectives, potentially game-breaking bugs, and maddeningly inconsistent checkpointing (why would you ever put a bunch of busywork and cutscenes before a boss fight, then place the death checkpoint before that stuff?!). But no amount of extra quality assurance testing would fix the basic issues at the heart of ReCore. Despite its iconic, adorable cast of characters, it's better off being broken down for scrap.
Oh, and if you're colourblind? Forget about it.