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ReCore for Xbox One hands-on review: Great vision, flawed execution

ReCore impressed audiences with its announcement trailer back during E3 2015, promising to be one of the first truly interesting new IP’s to make its way onto the Xbox One. Not only did the game bring a splash of artistic ingenuity to the console that hadn’t quite been seen since Sunset Overdrive came out, but it also boasted industry veteran Keiji Inafune (widely regarded as the father of Mega Man) as its producer. While we didn’t learn about any of ReCore’s vital mechanics until much later, it was clear from just a brief glance of the game’s character and world design that it intended to be truly innovative.

While ReCore does often achieve that goal of creating engaging and innovative mechanics, it often does so at the expense of overall quality. The sheer volume of mechanics that are introduced throughout the game is overwhelming at best, and frustrating at worst. The game does have a spark of genius that always manages to shine through to create genuinely fun moments, but those moments are too often overshadowed by other elements of the game that never quite reach their potential.

A lackluster narrative

In ReCore, you play as Joule Adams, one of several technicians in charge of the terraforming process on the desert world of Far Eden. Recently awoken from cryosleep with only the companionship of her K-9 Corebot Mack (yes, it’s a robot dog), Joule finds out that not everything has gone according to plan – and she aims to find out what exactly happened. The story of the game takes you through several story missions scattered throughout the large open world of Far Eden, and is supplemented by a relatively vast array of audio logs that are scattered in all sorts of nooks and crannies of the game world.

Unfortunately, ReCore’s story never really takes off in the way that it seems like it ought to. Narration throughout the game from Joule’s father along with the discovery of audio logs helps to paint the picture of what seems to be a truly interesting world. While the world that all of this background content creates seems interesting, ReCore seems to struggle connecting that world to the game itself.

Unless you’re willing to devote a ton of time and energy to connecting the dots, the game’s missions and audio logs might as well be completely unrelated. As someone who’s always looking to dig all of the lore out of a game, I felt like the story missions each had just a little bit more to offer in order to make ReCore something really worth reading into, but just kept falling short.

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Collecting cores is crucial to the upkeep of your Corebots

The Corebots are a fun presence

That’s not to say that the story had no redeeming qualities, however. While Joule’s character comes off as flat more often than not, her Corebot companions are always a fun presence. The three Corebot personalities – Mack, Seth, and Duncan (A blue core, a yellow core, and a red core respectively) – all manage to have distinctive and charming personalities despite not having any actual voice lines. Even though you can switch these personalities into whatever frame you’d like, you can always tell who’s who. The roles that the Corebots actually play in the narrative is minimal, but having these companions along with me during the lonely journey through Far Eden was always welcome.

If you’re not the sort of person that obsesses over story elements, then ReCore actually has a lot to offer you. Like I noted earlier – this game can be a mess sometimes. There’s such an abundance of mechanics that they often trip over each other to throw a wrench in ReCore’s gameplay experience. When ReCore’s gameplay works, though, it works really well.  To give you an overview, ReCore’s gameplay can be broken up into three parts: gun management, Corebot management, and mobility management. In other words, this game demands that you’re paying attention to everything, all the time.

Colorful combat

At the center of those three elements is an ability to memorize the patterns of the fairly extreme variety of enemies in ReCore. Most of the non-cannon-fodder enemies in the game are actually just “corrupted” versions of Corebots very similar to Mack, Seth, and Duncan – they even have the same attack patterns that your Corebot companions have in combat.

While on its own that would only leave you with a few different types of enemies, the complexity of the game comes from their color variation. Just like your Corebots come in the flavors of blue, red, and yellow, so too do the enemy Corebots. Each one  of these colors, when applied to an enemy Corebot, applies a totally different property to that enemy’s attack that you need to be prepared to react to at a moment’s notice.

To give you an example, let’s say that you’re fighting a corrupted K-9 unit. After playing for a little while, you’ll have noticed that these guys have a very specific attack pattern for their special move (known as a “Lethal Ability” in ReCore) – they charge up for a short while, and then rush at you very quickly.  This is where color differences kick in. If that K-9 is currently blue, he’s going to hit you with a powerful stun that you need to wiggle yourself out of quickly.

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Platforming can get tricky, demanding serious aerial precision

If he’s red, he’ll leave behind a trail of fire and – if he hits you – set you ablaze. These are two vastly different effects that an experienced player needs to take into account before they plan their moves, and the mechanics become even more thought-provoking when enemies start to shift colors in the middle of a fight.

This color difference affects more than just the way enemies behave. Joule’s rifle bolts can switch between red, white, blue, and yellow with the D-pad at any given time, and you often times need to wildly switch through them as your situation demands.

Matching the color of your rifle projectiles with the color of the enemy you’re firing at causes the enemy to take double damage, making color switching absolutely essential when fights start coming down to the wire. When enemies are green, purple, or orange (yes, that happens too), they can be damaged by either of the two colors that combine to match. The only catch is that they’re given some extra abilities.

Salvaging corrupted cores

There’s also a system where you can execute weakened enemies by ripping out their cores, engaging in a tug-of-war style mini-game in the middle of the fight. The system actually is one of ReCore’s best mechanics, and offers you some meaningful choices when you’re in combat. Ripping out the core of your enemies offers you a ton of core energy, which you can use to power up your Corebots – the tradeoff, however, is that doing so means you won’t get any crafting materials from that enemy. You need to keep a balance in mind to make the most out of each fight.

You also get the chance to instantly rip the core out of an enemy without weakening them if you build your combo string up to 10 or more, which encourages you to keep your rhythm in combat. Ripping a bot’s core out also restores a ton of your health, so getting that combo meter up right before you die and bringing yourself back from the brink of failure is an extremely satisfying experience.

Managing your Corebots

Your Corebots are an important part of the game as well. You can bring two of your robotic companions with you at any one time out into the open world, and all of them interact with things in a different way. On top of having unique Lethal abilities that each have different applications in combat, your Corebots each can make areas of the world accessible that wouldn’t be otherwise.

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Obstacles like lattice bots block your path in dungeons

Come across something interesting that you want to explore, but you didn’t happen to bring along the right Corebot for the job? Too bad. Come back later. This unnecessary restriction on which Corebots you can bring with you when you leave your Crawler (a sort of home base, where you can fast travel, craft, and more) always seems like it actively punishes you for wanting to explore, and just seems out of place most of the time.

While you’re exploring the open world, going through dungeons that are focused on traversal, or maneuvering through a particularly hectic fight, the most important tool in your arsenal in ReCore is your mobility. The game often tries to be a platformer, with half of its dungeons devoted entirely to racing through complex obstacle courses, and most of its obstacles requiring you to move around quickly and often.

More frustration than fun

Joule gets a double jump and a dash as her mobility tools, along with a few extra tricks later in the game that come from Corebot abilities. Unfortunately, platforming in ReCore tends to often feel more frustrating than rewarding. Every once in a while, when you nail a puzzle on the first try, you feel like an action hero – it really does have that potential to be great – but too often are you bashing your head against the wall just trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do.

It’s that, I feel, which makes up the heart of ReCore’s problem: frustration without payoff. In any challenging game (and trust me, ReCore can be a challenging game) there is a certain threshold of anger that you’re supposed to be able to put up with as you play. In games like Dark Souls, there is a very natural and consistent arc of difficulty when you run into a difficult part of the game.

There’s the initial frustration, followed by tons of trial and error, concluded with your “eureka” moment – the moment where all the pieces fit together, you realize how it’s supposed to be done, and you triumph. In short, the magic sauce that makes challenging games good is this: it’s always up to the player to meet and overcome the challenge. When you blow it, you know why, and you know how to improve.

In ReCore, while you will occasionally get that magical “eureka” moment, you more often get the “ugh, finally” moment. Instead of feeling that pride in yourself for having overcome a challenge that took genuine skill, you end up feeling like you just got lucky, or that the game just decided that it was bored of beating you up. During my 12-hour play session of ReCore, at least 2 whole hours consisted of me dying over and over again because I felt I just got unlucky.

Almost all of the abilities that ReCore’s enemies have stun you or otherwise slow you in some way, stealing away that precious mobility that you need to survive. It doesn’t matter if you’ve picked up all of the game’s permanent health power-ups to increase your survivability, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve been playing – in many fights, if an enemy decides to spawn behind you and slow you down for even a second, you’ll be stunned over and over again until you’re dead and have to completely restart the fight.

No regrets, but hard to recommend

I couldn’t help but feel confused after the ending of ReCore. Very few games have ever left me feeling such a conflicting array of opinions when they reached their end credits. On one hand, the game shows that, at the center of ReCore, there’s a diamond just waiting to be unearthed. There were plenty of times where I walked out of a fight feeling exhilarated and really appreciating all of the thought and care that went into developing all of these mechanics, but those times seemed to be the exception, not the rule.

When you go through a dungeon and everything just seems to click, you feel like you’re an absolute master. Inevitably, however, that enthusiasm is always crushed by some annoying – not challenging, just annoying – roadblock up ahead. Whether it’s an ill-conceived pacing mechanism that requires you to go on a collect-a-thon hunt through Far Eden or a fight so hectic that it makes ReCore start to seem like a bullet-hell game, there’s always something that sours the experience in some way or another.

ReCore Joule and Mack Ready for Action

Switching around your rifle’s color is vital to success

Even though ReCore is being sold at just $40 compared to the average $60 price point of games nowadays, I find it hard to recommend to most people. If you’re the sort of person who’s a glutton for punishment or is just really looking for a challenging action/platformer game, then ReCore may be the sort of game that could really stand out to you. If you’re looking for an incredible narrative, a vast and interesting open world game, or just a casual thing to sit down with on a Friday evening, then maybe you should wait for a price drop, or see if you can rent it somewhere.

At the end of the day, ReCore is a game that I don’t regret playing. It achieved its goal of creating new and innovative gameplay mechanics and, while it didn’t get everything right, it’s hard to hate a game that clearly tried to do something great. If ReCore was meant to be a proof of concept, then I consider the concept proven – they just have a whole lot of rough edges that need to be polished down before they try making any sort of sequel. I genuinely hope that we see this franchise come back sometime down the road, as there is just a ton of narrative and gameplay potential here waiting to be unlocked. Here’s hoping that we haven’t seen the last of ReCore.

ReCore is available as a Plays Anywhere title for the Xbox One and Windows 10 beginning September 13th, you can order it from the Microsoft Store.

ReCore was reviewed on an Xbox One console prior to launch. The game did have fairly severe stability issues including massive framerate drops and very long loading screens, but those problems may be addressed in a day-one patch. 

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Will you be playing ReCore?