Part of any great Metroidvania is entering a world to get lost in, usually dimly lit tunnels or underground caverns filled with surprise and danger in equal measure. Recompile’s setting is an intriguing one as you’re a program dropped into a corrupt computer mainframe, tasked with restoring this digital wasteland and gradually discover just what it is you’re actually inside and the origins of its mysterious AI Hypervisor.
It has a fairly minimalist design, as also seen by your blocky avatar, which shares some resemblance to music-based rail shooter Rez and its hacker character’s first form. It’s perhaps peculiar to see why it’s actually being marketed as a next-gen console exclusive, especially from a micro indie studio like Phigames. But then when the game lights up, you appreciate all the subtle beauty from the environment’s shiny surfaces and subtle grooves. The lighting is especially dazzling whenever a part of the system is restored or you find a power-up, the latter having you jump into a sphere crackling with bright sparks and particle effects.
Yet lighting, or rather a lack of it, is the first of many of Recompile’s faults. I get that the idea is you’re exploring a mainframe where certain components have been long dormant, but the problem of a game that requires you to do some platforming in very dimly lit areas means you can’t see where you’re going a lot of the time, making it difficult to gauge jumps. Even then there were many occasions when I’d slip through a crack I couldn’t see and tumble into the digital abyss below.
Recompile’s levels are surprisingly vast with a lot of verticality which, also, means there is a lot of falling. Granted, it won’t immediately kill you – though I’m vexed by any platforming game that includes fall damage – but there are areas where you will fall for over ten seconds before you hit the bottom, which just adds to an already frustrating moment.
While there are some power-ups that will mitigate these moments, such as multiple jumps and air dashes, unfortunately for you, most don’t unlock until the latter half of the game. In some cases, the confusing layout – not helped by an utterly useless 2D map, means it’s also too easy for some essential power-ups to pass you by, as are the checkpoints that only light up when you walk over them. I get the sense that the design is inspired by Breath Of The Wild, providing a non-linear world that seemingly lets you approach different areas as you see fit. Up to a point.
Because although each colour-coded area in the mainframe isn’t gated, it doesn’t take long before you go through only to realise that actually, you’ll need another power-up until you can get any further, in which case you’ll need to backtrack and try somewhere else, and fast-travel isn’t an option. Considering one of these areas has quite a descent, I dreaded having to figure out how to climb back up to the top without also falling along the way.
Combat is also a disappointment, not least because as someone who plays with inverted controls the game only inverts the Y-axis. Fitting with the hacking theme, each weapon is actually named after an executable such as the rapid-fire Delete or the shotgun-style Overload, but they just feel very weak in general, especially your starting pea-shooting Disrupt, though at least you don’t have to worry about ammo. What’s worse is that when you’re being fired upon, it’s very easy to get killed without even realising it. Without any feedback, get hit by a volley of projectiles and suddenly you’re down to the last slither of health.
This is especially bad for the bosses, which are frankly capable of one-shotting you if you stand still for even a few frames too long. In fact, I’d daresay few players would be capable to beating them without using the Underclocking power-up. As the name suggests, toggling this will slow the game down, making it far easier to read and react to attack patterns or just aim properly, but it’s also so agonisingly slow that it drags away all of the game’s momentum. I’m of course all for accessibility options, but this doesn’t strike me as one given that it’s a power-up that’s not available early on, and if it’s there as some sort of cheat mode, it’s not a satisfying one.
What’s meant to be interesting in Recompile is that you’re supposed to be able to avoid combat and hack enemies instead. I suspect however this option will pass many people by, even those who prefer pacifist playthroughs, as the actual hacking ability doesn’t turn up until later in the game. It’s baffling that you can unlock the Recompile ability in the opening hour, and it tells you it can be used to freeze the screen and move a cursor around to hack nodes or enemies nearby, only to discover that these functions are not available until you’ve found these as upgrades.
By the time I was allowed to hack enemies, I hadn’t even thought to make use of it. Conversely, it’s hard to imagine how to avoid confrontation before that as sometimes you’ll be surrounded by hostile programs in front of your narrow path and you don’t exactly have other abilities to help ward them off. What’s not compulsory is manipulating logic gates to solve certain puzzles, although these circuits are less puzzles and more simplistic courses of trial and error.
Recompile’s saving grace is that it’s fairly short, the latter half also feeling more of a sprint than the sluggish meandering that followed up. The collectible logs you find also do a good job of building an intriguing story surrounding the origins of Hypervisor (although the game doesn’t seem to explain that clearly that these logs aren’t just optional lore but necessary to complete the game). It’s hard to deny that it has atmosphere, bolstered by the ambient score from 65daysofstatic that oscillates between piano keys and bleeps, all making it feel like you’re inside a hulking empty supercomputer all by yourself. Sadly, too many issues pile up and short-circuit the experience into a frustrating one.
As a low-key next-gen indie, Recompile looks and sounds the part, really making you feel like you’re a program exploring and hacking the innards of a long-forgotten computer mainframe. Yet while it has what you should expect from any decent Metroidvania while filtering them through its hacking theme, frustrating platforming, rubbish combat, and other questionable design decisions all add up to make for a disappointing experience.
- Lovely minimalist visuals that dazzle when things light up
- Great atmospheric score from 65daysofstatic
- A fairly intriguing story told through the many collectible logs
- Too easy to get lost or lose your footing when everything is so dark with a useless map
- Non-linear only until it isn’t, with a lot of tedious backtracking
- Underwhelming combat, and annoying bosses (underclocking is not a fun solution)
- Recompile tools and other powers are too little, too late