In a world of sand, buried treasure might be easy to miss.
New Eden is a world such as this. A home to ReCore’s heroine, Joule Adams, it’s a planet otherwise devoid of organic life. Cataclysmic events on Earth have forced an exodus and, after centuries of stasis, Joule awakens to a find that the bright new future for humanity hasn’t turned out as planned.
Shimmering vistas contain endless seas of dust, bestrewn with the rust of failed terraforming apparatus and robotic titans long since fallen. The project to make New Eden a suitable home has failed, and those that remain of Joule’s species are terrifyingly absent. Yet she has a companion; Mack, her mechanical dog, who loyally follows her into the wilderness. Together, they seek the truth of what happened here, facing down a hostile legion of erstwhile friendly droids in their way.
It’s quite the bleak set-up for a game that, at least in presentational terms, appears to be an homage to the jauntiness of the GameCube era. ReCore is a third-person platform shooter, borrowing subtle design cues from Rare in its soft-edged characterisation, and a similarly Rare-like fondness for item collecting and discovery. With a development team boasting Keiji Inafune as producer (he of Mega Man fame) and the makers of Metroid Prime, the project trades heavily on nostalgia.
With ReCore’s marketing placing that lineage front and centre, you might expect Joule to resemble Metroid’s Samus Aran in form and function. Aesthetically she owes more to Rey from the latest Star Wars movie, especially so in view of her relationship with a cadre of robotic sidekicks. That said, her gradually acquired repertoire of companions serve as an external equivalence to Samus’ unlockable power set, granting access to areas unreachable alone.
Though exploration is but one facet of the ReCore experience, earlier reviews than mine have criticised a lack of variety and scale in the environments on offer. It is true that each of the major areas in this open world are thematically narrow, framing every landmark against the same sand and rock. Those areas are also relatively small for a modern open world. Yet, New Eden is deceptively well laden with things to find, without succumbing to the tedium of a contemporary more-is-more philosophy.
Treasures await you in these sands, the richest of which are prismatic cores – remnants of the toppled metal husks littering New Eden’s dunes. Discovering and claiming these cores is key to progression; the more cores you have, the more areas you can unlock, including optional dungeons that test and reward your skill in combat, exploration and platforming accuracy. Beating them unlocks further rewards, particularly for dedicated players who can achieve all sub goals in a single run.
While I say these dungeons are optional, in practice there is an expectation that most will be completed at least once. A tower ascent in the game’s final act demands an increasing barrier of entry for every floor climbed, forcing Joule back into previous areas to explore once more with the benefit of new companion abilities. Again, other critics have cast scorn here, but I found the balance to be well managed, avoiding fatigue through sensible rationing of the tower’s incremental challenges.
It has to be conceded that, for some, exhaustion may set in from regular back tracking through the main hub areas, although a satisfyingly fresh combat system helps to energise the experience over the long term. This is comprised of several interlocking mechanics formed around Joule’s rifle, her grappling device and the supporting abilities of her companions. The richness of the combat (which I’ll come to in more detail) is complemented by a well paced levelling system to reward repeated engagement.
That rifle, then. Initially offering a single, rechargeable shot type, it can deliver automatic fire or charged shots of various strengths. A strict lock on system allows quick target alternation to strategically build combos, while the later acquisition of colour-coded firepower invites on the fly switching to match corresponding enemies for increased effectiveness. Destroying enemies awards scrap components, which in turn can be used to build more powerful parts for your customisable cohorts.
And that’s worth doing. These companions come into play via Joule’s direction; she can dictate attack of and withdrawal from targeted enemies, while a second ally can be tagged in to replace them with its own attacking style. Juggling these abilities in tandem with ammo management of Joule’s own weapon becomes a graceful dance – literally so when Joule’s double jumps, dodges and forward rushes are mastered as part of the mix.
Beyond simply destroying enemies, they can even be salvaged for their valuable core. When they are worn down enough, Joule’s grappling hook can be used to latch onto and carefully yank out the glowing core. The cores themselves are used to augment your own companions base stats, complementing any new components that you install. It’s a system that at once evokes Pokémon and the fishing mini-game from Ocarina of Time, further leveraging some classic Nintendo heritage.
Here’s the catch. That reverence of the past extends to ReCore’s graphical technology which comes off as distinctly primitive in execution. Poor loading times lead a list of performance issues. For a game that was originally pitched almost as a first party tent-pole release by Microsoft, the end product feels like a small budget indie project one might have seen back in the days of the Xbox Live Arcade program. Its reduced price point softens the blow, but it can’t help but hurt to see such potential held back by conservative investment.
ReCore as a product feels like a metaphor for the principles of its game design. It’s a glistening, multifaceted gem, concealed within a dull and weathered shell. As the first release in Microsoft’s ‘Xbox Play Anywhere’ initiative (allowing play across Xbox and Windows 10 platforms with a single purchase), it’s a shame the experience is undermined by a less than polished production. But despite its faults, it kept delivering right the way to the end. You just need to do a little digging.
ReCore was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.