Played on PC (Xbox Series X codes were not available at the time of writing this review)
Phi Dinh the director of developer Phigames is a fan of films such as Tron and the Matrix Trilogy. The review guide from publisher Dear Villagers informs us that he also has academic experience in AI and has often wondered what it would be like to explore the virtual world of a computer from the inside. If you have ever daydreamed about doing the same thing in the style of a Metroidvania hacking adventure he has made it possible for you with his new release. Let’s dive into a sea of code in the XboxEra review of Recompile.
Welcome to the machine
The game starts with a menu that resembles the sort of basic green screen you used to see a lot in the nineteen seventies and eighties. After selecting Install Program you are dropped into a decades long-abandoned mainframe after an event known as ‘The Collapse’. As a walking figure made up of orange code you need to explore your surroundings and repair them from inside. Guided by a system known as Janus who also has no idea what you are going to find and has no map to help you, your main task is to figure out what the mainframe was used for originally and what events transpired to leave it in its current offline state. This sounds simple but there are various types of security AI defending the current system state who will do everything within their power to stop you from succeeding in your mission.
In the beginning, you only can walk but your situation is soon improved when you come across an upgrade that allows you to jump. Being a Metroidvania type game you are required to move back and forth around the open areas of the map finding new skills (via other upgrades) to navigate through hazards and unlock other areas. Skills such as Air Jump allow you not only to jump again when in the air (basically it is a double jump) but also to jump just before you hit the floor and escape dying when falling from height. ‘Blink’ the Dash skill allows you to cover greater distances vertically and Underclock slows down the bit rate of the system or time itself. Another ability rewards the player with Jetpack flight, but I was unable to find and experience this upgrade.
After traversing various PC parts such as cooling pipes (in a tightrope walker style) and what looks suspiciously like the cooling grid from the top of an Xbox Series X you discover various obstacles such as virtual stepping stones, force fields, powered down escalators, and locked doors. These pieces of machinery, objects, and other progression aids are powered by interconnected logic gate circuitry and makeup puzzles that you are required to solve to progress. Giant buttons are easily jumped on to make use of them but depending on what inputs are required they do not always need to be depressed to be in the required state. This can be quite challenging if your school science days are quite some time behind you like mine are. Luckily you also can hack certain gates and even some of the AI enemies that you are regularly confronted with once you have unlocked the Recompile ability. There is another challenge here however in that you can only hack devices according to the amount of ‘bits’ or in-game currency that you have on you. Different hacks cost you different amounts and these ‘bits’ are gained by fighting and killing the defensive AI that you regularly encounter (typically after enabling a piece of machinery) with a gun that you are armed with fairly early on in a playthrough. The gun can also be upgraded over time rewarding you with various modes. For example, Disrupt is like a rifle with a punch that can kill malicious subroutines, Delete is rapid-fire but with little stopping power and can blast holes in Firewalls blocking your way, and the Overload mode acts like a pump-action shotgun for close-quarters fighting but overheats after only four shots.
Is that Agent Smith?
The enemy AI comes in various shapes and sizes from cubes that slowly fire green energy bolts at you to triangular flying versions with automatic fire enabled and flame thrower carrying fast-flying mini pyramids. You are in theory able to hack these enemies and use them to defend you from others if you have enough currency and the quick thinking to do so. These are terrifying enough but when you come across the bosses in certain areas of the mainframe these are absolutely nothing in comparison. You can get around certain large security AI without engaging them according to Janus, but I only managed this once in my playtime for this review. Giant Pyramids made up of multiple smaller AI firing geysers of flame at you and giant Spiderlike monstrosities are only two of the amped-up entities awaiting you the further you get around the system.
Some parts of the computer system are repairable while others are not requiring you to navigate around them, some areas need powering up, yet others need force fields to be powered off and any fragments of data that you stumble across on your travels need restoring to shed light on the purpose of and final days of the system.
There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.
After successfully getting to the Central Exchange which acts as a hub, you are presented with access points to the other mainframe biomes such as the Hex Databank, the ICO Biosphere, and OKT Communication, which are represented by different colours and styles to make them stand out from each other. It is then a matter of moving back and forth between the biomes upgrading your skills, fighting off malicious AI, and solving logic puzzles to progress further. There are different solutions to most of the puzzles, multiple ways of navigating the surroundings, and different endings depending on your choices and actions throughout the game.
The game is well designed graphically so that you feel like you are living in an environment where code is alive all around you but at the same time the general colour scheme is mostly black and large parts of the map are shimmering and draw themselves into solid structures as you approach them. This can at times be deceiving as shimmering lines can also be hazardous at the edges of rooms and cost you lives if you hit them.
Savepoints can be hard to come across in certain areas of the map which led me to become quite frustrated at times as you need to save often. After a spawn, you have eleven lives before you are recovered from backup at your last save point and these lives can be frittered away very quickly. The jumping mechanic can sometimes keep your momentum moving forwards after landing and that combined with a camera that can disguise drops between platforms unless it is looking down on you from above your head turns certain sections of the game into a precision platformer. The first section of Hex took me countless attempts before I could get to a save point only to find another one just around the corner which was rather annoying.
In my six hours of playtime (which is meant to be the time required for a typical playthrough) I barely scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. I unlocked two-thirds of the abilities and visited all the biomes in the mainframe but was unable to explore further due to the complexities of the game and the time I had available to review it for the embargo.
This game is not a simple proposition, although it may look like a typical 3D platforming game at heart it is a technically complex and at times very challenging addition to the Metroidvania genre. If you are a fan of these types of games it is well worth checking out but be wary if you are not a fan of Metroidvania games. Advertised as featuring intense combat, tight 3D platforming, super-powered abilities, and an environmental logic-based hacking mechanic it certainly lives up to those claims. I would recommend being aware of this before you take the game on.
- A well designed Metroidvania game.
- It feels like you really are inside a Mainframe.
- There is more than one way to overcome challenges.
- Multiple endings exist depending on how you choose to complete the game.
- There is very little hand holding.
- The game is a lot more complex than it appears.
- There is a lack of save points in certain areas which can cause frustration.