When deciding what to play next, I weighed a bunch of factors and eventually narrowed the pool of possibilities down to either ReCore or Dragon’s Crown. The latter obviously takes many cues from the legendary Tower of Doom/Shadow Over Mystara, which piqued my interest, but I eventually decided to go through ReCore under the assumption that a newer game would make for a more relevant review. After all, it’s been only 6 months since its release as of this writing. It didn’t hurt any that I’d heard comparisons to everything from MegaMan Legends to Metroid Prime (the latter of which was apparently worked on by some of the same people if the box is to be believed)—stellar company to be in—and there was an adorable-looking robot dog on the cover. I went in knowing almost nothing about ReCore except that critics had given it middling scores for whatever reason. Imagine my surprise when I realized that many of them hadn’t gone far enough in describing the train wreck that this game is, even after 6 months of patching. This is a game that’s middling at its best and soul-crushingly tedious at its worst, a prime example of an open world that exists solely for the sake of having one, not to mention a stunning indictment against the Unity engine when in unskilled hands. Playing through this game eventually begins to feel like actual work, a repetitive slog to find X thing so you can unlock Y thing so that you can collect more contrived Z orbs to unlock a contrived game-y door to actually continue the uninteresting story, which despite being an afterthought nevertheless manages to include internal inconsistencies. When I finally got to the credits and saw how many people worked on this game, the only reaction I was capable of having was astonishment that it took so many people to create so little game of such a low quality.
The likable main character is wasted in this
The story begins decently enough, with main character Joule—thusly named because of a video game law requiring heroines who are into machines to have a suitably science-y name reinforcing the concept—exploring with her robot dog, Mack. The two eventually come across a strange orb with a lot of energy called a “prismatic core” and then have to piece together why they seem to be the only people around, as well as why all the other robots seem intent on killing them. There’s a whole back story to this where earth was destroyed and in this case the writer’s dart happened to land on “global warming melting ice caps and unleashing a super virus that no one can stop,” but that’s stupid and contrived and best forgotten entirely. Point is, people eventually decided to bail on earth, finding a better home free of killer viruses called Far Eden. Ships were loaded up with survivors (who were frozen with cryo-magic to survive the long journey) while robots terraformed Far Eden on their behalf. Joule is just one of several technicians who are supposed to pop in and out of their cryo-sleep to fix things when/if they stop working, but that obviously didn’t work out so well since no one is around and an early area is discovered to have been broken for ~90 years.
I honestly don’t know if any of that could be considered a spoiler or not. On the one hand, it’s pointless sci-fi fluff that has nothing to do with the main plot of the game. On the other, the game’s actual story is pointless and somehow fails to live up to that fluff. I can’t say more without spoiling what actually happens, but suffice it to say that it has the depth and nuance of a Michael Bay blockbuster. Joule is really the only interesting character in the entire game apart from the few robot companions she picks up, but despite solid voice acting and no major moments of character stupidity, there’s so little to work with here storywise that she ends up being wasted. She has no development because nothing interesting happens to her over the course of the game. The game is mostly her running around fixing things in a desert populated by a comical number of killer robots, so it almost feels like she’s been relegated to the role of “janitor of the post-apocalypse.”
Things to know before playing
Some things I wish someone had told me before I started: most of the back story is communicated through out of place voiceovers that start to play apropos of nothing like some kind of crazy voice in Joule’s head. That should tell you everything you need to know about the competency of the writing here. It’s also worth knowing that if you look into the menus upon starting a game, you’ll have the entire plot spoiled right down to the identity of the antagonist, which speaks to how sparse the story is and how little planning went into this game in general. Another thing I wish I’d known is that the game ends with a sequel hook. It isn’t a particularly bad one or anything, but the audacity required to write something so wholly derivative and underwhelming and then try to turn it into a franchise is stunning. I mean, the ending is a prerendered cutscene that lasts for like 5 seconds. No joke.
The game feels instantly familiar
True to the box, the game’s little hubs have a feel similar to those in Metroid Prime, albeit to a much smaller degree than in those games. There are rails that one robot can attach to that allow you to reach previously inaccessible parts of areas you’ve already explored, and… well, that’s about it, honestly. You also have a strong robot who can break open glowing boulders and, in a single part of the game, knock down pillars, but he’s virtually irrelevant until you begin your hunt for more prismatic cores (which I’ll get to in a bit). There’s also a flying robot who can be used to break the game pretty hard. Since your starting robot is the aforementioned adorable dog whose special skill is digging pointless things up—again, with a single moment of this being important that’s then never used again—there aren’t a lot of new abilities you’ll be picking up that open up the world, so it’s really more of a vague feeling of familiarity than an actual similarity to the Metroid Prime games. The lock on in combat is similar, I suppose, but in all other senses a better comparison would be Jet Force Gemini; the platforming and shooting in the two are fairly similar (which is to say awkward, though JFG at least has an excuse, having been released 18 years ago), and considering those two components make up the vast majority of ReCore’s gameplay, it seems the more apt comparison.
But Jet Force Gemini had charm and variety that this game lacks the slightest trace of, so the best comparison might actually be something like Mario Party. It seems like a random parallel to draw until you realize that a significant chunk of the second half of the game consists of running through “optional” dungeons that are basically timed minigames. You have the platforming minigame, the combat minigame, and one or two dungeons where you can explore freely without a timer or pointless ancillary goals. Despite Metroid Prime, Jet Force Gemini, and Mario Party being decent-to-great games, however, ReCore fails at being even remotely entertaining to play despite the abundance of similarities.
Combat is pretty straightforward, and you’ll pick up a lot of tips from the virtually endless loading screens that clue you in on its little quirks. The general idea is that Joule has a gun that fires an unlimited number of energy bullet things (much like the first Mass Effect, with running out of ammo being analogous to overheating your weapon in that game, both being resolved by waiting around), and you can also use a charge shot. Since the charge shot homes in on enemies, breaks their shields, often stuns them, and does a ton of damage, there’s no reason to ever use the normal firing mode. Enemies are also color-coded, and you eventually end up with four colors that you have to match with enemies to do the maximum amount of damage. This is awkward on a controller since changing colors is mapped to the analog pad and thus requires moving your left thumb off of the movement controls to reach. Your robot ally will also attack, and you can order them to use their special attack in combat. Spamming this and charge shots while wildly strafing and jumping is an easy way to blow through most of the game’s combat, though Joule is paper-thin and I often found her dying after getting hit by two attacks. Combat also lacks any kind of weight, so most of the time I didn’t even notice I was getting hit until I died. Worse, enemies can inflict status effects on you that are only removed through random QTEs mid-fight. That’s hardly the only issue, either; your powerhouse robot’s special attack creates a ring of fire, and it’s impossible to distinguish his fire rings from those of enemies since they’re identical. Stupid design issues like that make combat a chore more than an enjoyable distraction.
The platforming here is also pretty straightforward and loaded with quirks you’ll only learn about during the million and a half long loading screens, though some of its strangeness comes down more to poor design than deliberately included features. For example, the world is full of objects with no collision detection, so you’ll walk or fall through platforms at times. They seem to have realized this, too, because the world is also full of invisible walls placed in bizarre locations. Spot a shortcut in a cave? Too bad; invisible walls will block your way, forcing you to take the long way around. Explored too far in one direction? You’ll know when it happens, because a giant invisible wall will block you from moving forward, potentially killing you in the process. Even when they’re not just invisible barriers, they succeed at being a contrived limitation. These can be exploited at times such as in the embedded video above where I get to a high platform without the climbing robot, but they’re definitely an irritation for the most part. Then there are the actual mechanics which aren’t explained well and don’t fit the world at all. Joule gets a double jump as well as a dash, but something you don’t find out until a loading screen is that if you dash off of a ledge, you get an extra dash, effectively giving you two jumps and two dashes. This is invaluable for clearing large chasms, and doubly so once you get the flying robot and can chain its float to go even farther.
Joule also grabs onto lots of impossibly steep rocks, making climbing easy. One would think that this would be a feature that the developers embrace, but they seem to have instead reacted with fear (“oh no,” wrote I in my notes, “the player might reach the part with white sand and rocky cliffs before they finish the part with white sand and virtually identical rocky cliffs!”). As a result, they put in a half-baked radiation mechanic where staying for more than a few seconds quickly saps your health until you keel over and die. This is placed in the most random places, though, and there’s no way of telling which areas are meant to be explorable and offer collectables as a reward and which will instead kill you the second you get to the top. Even if you manage to get away, areas that were previously radiation-free will often continue to poison you since they appear to have placed a giant radiation layer at a certain altitude. Of course, they also use radiation as a crutch to make late-game combat hard, such as in this section where you’re slowly being killed by radiation while waiting for the next wave of enemies.
There are also platforming sections more reminiscent of a puzzle where you have to use clever timing and special floating rings that restore your dashing and jumping in midair in order to reach really far away platforms, or simply land on a succession of small platforms (which is a hassle given how floaty the controls often prove to be). These sections tend to be the stronger parts of the game, though we’re still talking mediocre gameplay fraught with awkwardness at best.
The hunt for the 45 macguffins
Midway through the game, I came upon a door that would only open if I had a certain number of prismatic cores, forcing me to run around hunting down more of them. Needless to say, this was aggravating. There are a number of them littered throughout the world, and while a small handful of them are easily obtained, the majority of them are found as a reward for clearing dungeons. Each dungeon gives you one prismatic core for completing it no matter what, but there are also three blocked-off doors potentially—but not always—containing one or two more that only open up if you’ve also fulfilled the requisite side goal (like finishing within the time limit, finding a certain item, or hitting all of the color-coded switches littered about). If you fulfill all three, a fourth treasure is also unlocked, though I have no idea if you have to complete all three at the same time or if you can do so separately; the dungeons are so grating and minigame-y that I never once finished one and felt compelled to try again for a better result. The point is, you’re going to end up grinding in minigame dungeons for prismatic cores because the story won’t let you continue past a door until you’ve collected enough of them.
That door that refused to let me continue with the story until I had collected an arbitrary number of prismatic cores was annoying, and having dungeons themselves gated off with pointless prismatic core requirements is also dumb, but nothing highlights just how shameless this padding is quite like the very end of the game. Once you fight what appears to be the final boss, you then climb a tower as Joule makes it sound like the world is minutes away from being destroyed by a storm that can only be stopped by getting to the top. This tower has five levels, each requiring five more prismatic cores to continue, so the urgency that was apparent mere minutes earlier is quickly replaced with a casual “I guess we need to go explore to find more cores!” I’m not making that up—she actually says something like that every time. You need 45 of these pointless cores to actually beat the game, and there’s no good reason for this other than having a pointless gate padding things out to make the game appear longer than it actually is. To put into perspective how awful this endgame grind for prismatic cores is, I checked the achievements and 7.9% of players beat the boss at the bottom of the tower. Only 2.86% went on to actually finish the game, though, so well over half of the people who reached that point gave up on the game entirely because of it.
This is grindception
The prismatic cores aren’t the only things you’re grinding for, either. You can yank out enemies’ colored cores and have those turned into energy you can use to improve your robot allies’ stats, or just blow enemies up and pick up the parts they leave behind to craft them new frames that also improve their stats. That’s typical open-world fluff, of course, so it’s easier to forgive than the grind for corebytes. Corebytes are tiny little plug robots who you need to find to open up new dungeons. As a result, you end up hunting for little glowing robots in an empty world filled with sand and rocks that all look alike (and there’s no minimap, nor are you able to place custom waypoints, making navigating around a chore) so that you can open up a dungeon you don’t want to clear to grind for prismatic cores that you need to open a door to actually continue playing the game.
And now, some positivity
ReCore isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played. It’s certainly put together sloppily, poorly written, poorly executed, with every single one of its systems undermining the effectiveness of another, but there are still far worse games out there. The paragraphs, pictures, and videos below will certainly make it seem like one of the worst games in existence, but I’ll admit to having a small amount of fun with it. That really only came about because of its strange climbing mechanics; while climbing mountains is a bad idea since radiation kills you almost every time, you can occasionally scurry up random towers to reach areas you’re not supposed to be able to get to. This is made possible by the fact that slopes are handled in a weird way and getting stuck causes your jump and dash to be replenished. As a result, you can get stuck on steep inclines, then jump and dash from there to higher ground. Breaking the game like this allowed me to do some entertaining things, such as obtaining a core that required the climbing robot without said robot actually being present, and I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t entertaining. Sadly, most climbing ends in being killed by radiation, hitting invisible walls, or landing on platforms lacking collision detection, but the seeds of something genuinely entertaining are here. The developers just went out of their way to punish it.
Commence the negativity parade!
Okay, so in the video above, I’m playing through a dungeon for the first time. A popup comes up at the beginning of each telling you what all of the side missions are for unlocking the extra stuff and potentially getting extra prismatic cores, but this popup has tiny text and only lasts for about 2-3 seconds before disappearing. I got into the habit of taking a screenshot and reading the text from the screenshot since reading all of the text before it disappeared simply wasn’t going to happen. Putting that aside, let’s focus on the fact that this dungeon is timed. The timers for the platforming dungeons are incredibly unforgiving, so you really have to rush through them as fast as possible. Now let’s stop and think about how stupid it is to have a timed dungeon that also features falling boulders and miscellaneous platforming hazards that’ll often manage to kill you if you don’t stop and watch each section for patterns. These things don’t work together, and every single part of the game works against another part in a similar fashion, undermining everything.
For example, combat. At one point there’s a grate that shoots fire that will kill you pretty much instantly if you’re caught in it, and the grate is broken into three sections that are on different timers. You have to watch for the visual cues to avoid being caught up in the fire. The problem here is that there’s a fairly lengthy combat encounter once you jump down into this thing, and some of the enemies are above you. Since you have to lock on to them to actually hit them, the camera angles your view up, which means you’re unable to see the visual cues for the fiery floor. Even if you can, though, enemies can inflict a fire status effect on you that requires dashing back and forth to put out, and the “on fire” effect is the same as the visual cue for the fire grates. Moments like this where the different systems actively work against each other are maddeningly amateurish and frustratingly cheap.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg
The robot who attaches to tracks is an especially interesting case since this is really the only way the world opens up. The problem is that tracks are everywhere, but there’s never any indication of which way is forward. As a result, it’s easy to see a track, only for it to end suddenly in quicksand, killing you because you were actually moving backwards along it instead of forwards. Worse, despite moving along each part of the track being automatic, the camera is locked during these parts, and often in the most awkward positions. This means you’re unable to look around for the next part of the track until you detach, and by the time you spot the next part of track (if it even exists), it’s usually too late to maneuver there. Stupidly enough, the camera is also locked when you float with the flying robot, so any hopes you might have of scouting in all directions by floating up high are quickly dashed as the slow turning controls make it impossible to turn around and see anywhere but straight ahead while still having enough height to get to whatever you’re trying to reach. There’s no reason to lock the camera in either of these cases. Zero. It’s a pointless limitation that serves only to annoy the player.
Even all of that is barely scratching the surface of ReCore’s problems. If you fall into a pit because (for example) the game decided you were falling instead of dashing off of a ledge and only gave you that single dash as a result, enemies will remain where they were when you respawn at the ledge you fell from. Them staying in the same place after you fall means that they can kill you or knock you back down the second you respawn. In fact, running away in general is pointless since most enemies can run faster than you, so you can dash away from them and still get hit over and over again until you’re dead. There are even points where the game decides to be as annoying as possible in an attempt to add challenge, so the final boss fight actually turns off the colors entirely if you get hit by a certain attack. There’s also a noise filter thrown on to make things especially difficult to see, which doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think since combat is already a mess of lens flares, popups with information you can’t read in the mess of other popups, and flashing colors and noises. The whole thing is an unmitigated disaster.
But let’s move on to technical flaws
I could continue listing a million other problems I noticed with combat and platforming and all of that stuff, but the game’s technical problems are arguably even worse. ReCore is coming apart at the seams, and I mean that quite literally. An obvious starting point would be the loading screens, though, which are a problem throughout, even after 6 months of patching. Every time you open the game, you have to go through a loading screen for the opening splash screens (which most games play right off the bat), a loading screen for the main menu, and then the loading screen for starting a game or loading a save. All together, this takes over two minutes. Every time you fast travel back to Joule’s little home base or move from one open-world hub to another, you get another similarly long loading screen. If you die to a cheap enemy, you get a loading screen. If you so much as look at the game the wrong way, you get a loading screen.
Then there’s the flickering. Visual glitches like that are incredibly common, with the most prevalent glitch being text that gets stuck on the screen. I can’t even count the number of times I was wandering around with a “Mack has found something under the ground” popup glued to the side of my screen from several minutes prior. I even started a new game after finishing to see if I maybe missed some kind of opening cutscene with a better story setup, and when that didn’t turn out to be the case and I quit back to the main menu, the subtitles followed me all the way there. ReCore even managed to softlock on me, forcing me to quit out of the game entirely and restart from the last save. That wouldn’t be such a horrible thing if the game didn’t use an abysmal single-slot autosave-only system that not only takes all control of the save situation out of your hands, but also saves at the most random times. It doesn’t help any that the saving icon is the same color as the sands that will most likely be at the bottom-right corner where the save icon shows up, so I was in constant fear of quitting during a random save every time I exited the game. After all, if the save were to become corrupted, I’d have no backup to rely on, and I’d sooner remove my eyes with a spoon than grind for those prismatic cores again.
This is a short game
My save file says that it took me 13 and a half hours to play through ReCore. The achievement thing says it was actually 19 hours. Personally, it felt like it took 600 hours because of how absurdly exhausting and not-fun all of the busywork ended up being. I suppose the amount of padding makes sense, though. After all, without it the game could easily be completed in 6 hours or less, and since open-world games are judged based on play times for some stupid reason I’ve never been able to figure out (I can jump up and down in a platformer for 3,000 hours, but that doesn’t mean the time was well spent), it’s only natural that they gated things off to make the “optional” dungeons basically mandatory. Especially since they were obviously angling for ReCore to become a hot new franchise with tons of sequels that they could milk buckets of money out of. At any rate, it’s hard to hate on the game for being short when it’s also horrible, because at a certain point the short play time begins to feel more like mercy than laziness.
I hope you like white sand and brown rocks
The vast majority of the game takes place outside, and the outside areas all look the same. You wander around the same white sand and brown rocks until you get to the new area that’s slightly more white sand with slightly fewer brown rocks, and so on with various permutations of white sand and brown rocks. The dungeons shake the visual design up a bit, but rely on the same trick lazy indie developers so often use as a crutch: make things dark with lots of glowing stuff, and don’t forget to add in the nuclear green effects. Needless to say, it’s ugly enough to make you long to return back to the white sand and brown rocks, which honestly aren’t that bad. I mean, it’s all kind of same-y, but it’s at least an inoffensive brand of same-y that doesn’t make your eyes want to flee from your skull. Really, the only things truly wrong with the outside areas are the pop-in and ugly shadows.
Let’s hire an orchestra to play boring stuff!
I’ll never understand the tendency some developers have of going through the trouble of getting an actual orchestra to score their game, only to give them boring, repetitive music that players will tune out in the first five minutes. Not only do the same tracks repeat over and over and over while you play, but several of them seem to be five-second loops that take forever to evolve into anything else. It’s a terrible waste of an orchestra, if you ask me. Why not hire them to play something weird and catchy? Just something, anything that stands out. Instead it’s the same orchestral fluff we’ve all heard in a million other games with one or two tracks that also use a bass guitar. In short, it’s underwhelming, bland, and uninspired trash that you’ll forget as soon as you’re done with the game.