The Adorable Robots of ‘ReCore’ are the Stars of an Otherwise Average Video Game
Microsoft's new exclusive isn't a blockbuster in waiting, but its AI stars are among the best companion characters you'll see in 2016.
Around the halfway mark of ReCore – assuming you're generally sticking to the story and not wandering the dunes and caves of Far Eden in search of bonus blueprints, audio logs or other treasure-like scrap (or, indeed, scrap-like treasure) – protagonist Joule finally encounters another human, Kai. The two of them have been eking out whatever existence they can on this New Earth In Waiting, a dust ball identified as a suitable future home world, albeit after some generous terraforming.
Both have been living inside "Crawlers", bulky vehicles designed to sustain human life for just short periods, the modular complexes intended to house hundreds, if not thousands of people unfinished, empty and, in a lot of cases, wrecked beyond repair. By now, the robotic workers – the "Corebots" – dispatched to Far Eden ahead of humanity's arrival should have the place looking ready to move into; but the state of Joule's surroundings, and all the weirdly corrupted Corebots now trying to kill her, is a tell-tale sign that something's not gone quite to plan.
Kai's been unable to venture far from his Crawler on account of a having an amputated leg – nothing he suffered on Far Eden, but a condition he brought with him from Earth, where some Terrible Disease Or Something has ravaged the population, necessitating this extreme relocation programme. Joule is made up to meet him, and immediately agrees to source parts to build a better prosthetic than the useless stump Kai's working with right now. "I'm glad I'm not alone out here," offers the grateful Kai. "Me too," replies Joule, a character drawn as endearingly optimistic, as always seeing the best in any situation, in any person – or intimidating security robot – she encounters. She's a very likeable hero, so far as these running, jumping and shooting vessels typically go.
And for just a second the player feels relieved, too. After four hours and change of guiding Joule through patience-testing platforming sections above instant-fail falls, across identical desert dunes and over unremarkable structures covered in low-detail designs (rarely have triangles looked so square up close on current-gen hardware, although the game's naturally prettier on PC than it is Xbox One), fighting and falling to charmless robo-enemies and scavenging upgrades-facilitating crap wherever it's there to be pocketed, running into someone "you" can have a conversation with feels like a high. But then it hits you – or, rather, it did me: ReCore isn't simply a game about humans trying to hard restart their existence, but equally, if not more so, about the robotic allies that assist them on their way.
From the very beginning of this adventure from Keiji Inafune's Comcept and Mark Pacini's Armature studios – those guys have some seriously impressive credits to their names, including work on the Mega Man, Metroid Prime and Resident Evil series – Joule is accompanied by a quadruped Corebot, a dog-like creation that goes by the name of Mack. Mack is unwaveringly loyal to Joule – "he" will assist her in combat via the Y button, will dig for anything buried under the sand, and generally appears to be having a great time, all the time. Mack's tail just won't quit, wagging like mad at any opportunity. There's something very WALL-E about "him", and the other friendly Corebots – they mightn't speak, but there's wonderful characterisation at work here, expressed in chirps and grunts, movements and idle animations.
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Kai's Corebot, Seth, is a joy to work with when it joins Joule and Mack. Spider-like of form and designed primarily for ascending structures via specially installed tracks, this timid 'bot is, delightfully, terrified of heights. And this is reflected in how the gangly companion moves – jerkily, at great speed, as if attempting to flee from gravity itself, while Joule clings on via her grappling gun. When she reassures the robot that it's over, that he's done well, that they've made it to where they need to be – and isn't the view amazing – it's a touching little moment of blood-and-guts to gears-and-pistons intimacy that again spotlights the game's excellent personifying of its AI cover-stars. Another, Duncan, is a great ape-like lump that can pound through rocks to reveal new areas, and also bash heads with comparable force.
And by taking lumps of metal, old components and glowing cores of aggressive 'bots – they can be pulled out with that same grappling gun, via a right-stick-mapped tug-of-war mechanic that isn't clearly explained at first, but clicks eventually via trial and error – back to her Crawler's workbench, Joule can turn any one of her faithful friends into an animal, all powered-up armour this and increased attack stats that. Grind a little, exploring the not-exactly-massive map and exploding randomishly spawning corrupted Corebots into itty-bitty pieces to gather useable debris, and even Mack can be levelled-up into a deadly weapon, capable of taking out many a grunt-level enemy with just a single blow. Adding upgraded parts leaves friendly Corebots looking a little cut-and-shut, as colours don't match and some components prefer curves over corners, but the stats don't lie: these forearms, while uglier than the result of a 2CV mating with an SUV, with the tyres burned off and mouldy dice in the window, pack more punch than anything in Real Steel.
'ReCore', launch trailer
It's a shame, then, that Joule can only ever keep one Corebot by her side – you switch between them via the LB button. Going up against some of the game's surprisingly cheap bosses with extra firepower on hand wouldn't have gone amiss, especially considering ReCore's prolonged loading times (which will, hopefully, be patched post-release into a more tolerable wait). But the Corebots aside – their adaptability and personalities being the star turns of this game so far, said caveat necessary because I'm not quite at the end – there's not a lot else going on to truly lock the player into committed sessions, and to give ReCore more than a fighting chance of breaking free of cult-only appeal.
(Aside: there's something quite GameCube-y about proceedings, about the game's overall style, but I can't put my finger on why. It's probably got something to do with the Metroid Prime series connection of Pacini, who directed said Nintendo trilogy. If you play this and get that same vibe, let me know so that I can reassure myself that I'm not losing the plot completely.)
While some of the grinding can quite literally be beneficial to your health, that it's basically built into the story progression proper is a bummer.
The way that enemies possess different coloured cores, and switching to the same colour of (infinite, but cool-down-style rechargeable) rifle ammo deals the most damage to them, is a neat idea on paper that's bungled, somewhat, in practice. You really need a third thumb to get the most out of it when up against multiple foes. Your left is on the left stick for movement, the right on the right to switch between targets locked onto with LT, while the D-pad controls the colours: that is, obviously, a problem. And standing still to switch colours in the most volatile combat situations is a one-way ticket to another loading screen, especially when Joule is locked into a dome force-field which only drops when all enemies are defeated – getting pinned against the barrier will see your health bar smashed to smithereens, Joule easily stunned and unable to dash away from a barrage of attacks.
As previously implied, the platforming isn't as precise as it might be, Joule a touch too twitchy when in the air – tip the camera to more of a top-down direction, to best see the marker indicating her landing point, or you'll consistently see her fall to a (mercifully instant) respawn. And while some will love the metroidvania-style backtracking to previously visited areas to employ new skills and Corebots in order to reach fresh vantage points, the lack of environmental variety is a drag. It also means it's very easy to lose track of exactly where you're heading to, and the in-game map isn't always clear with its markers (fast-travel, via speaking to a cute little robot called Violet, does at least cut out some of the desert walking).
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The constant fetching of magical "Prismatic Cores" to access previously unexplored buildings and bunkers, and turn on terraforming tech, is a chore, too – here's your next destination, except, oh dear, it seems you need to find more of these sparkling orbs before you can enter. Bad luck. You'd best head here, here and here, to see what you can find; no doubt there's going to be some Bad Things in your way, too. The same unlocking system applies to "CellBots", hovering keys-cum-batteries that power up hovering platforms and open gates, several at a time. Rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. While some of the grinding can quite literally be beneficial to your health, and that of your Corebots, that it's basically built into the story progression proper is a bummer, and a clear indication of a short game doing whatever it can to prolong play time.
It's not a full-price, triple-A-styled blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination, and Microsoft's weird radio silence on ReCore in the run-up to its release – from where I've been sitting, it just seems to have slipped out without so much as half-hearted fanfare – certainly does it no visibility favours. But there's something in here, the seed of a great game at least. That potential is most identifiable in the Corebots, in how they're each unique, both in aesthetic and artificial but palpable emotion. Joule might have been another Jade from Beyond Good & Evil: a whip-smart female protagonist whose likeability stems not from her looks or cool move set, but how she tackles the problems before her and uses guile and ingenuity as effortlessly as she does a firearm. She's definitely a leading character of better-than-usual art department care and attention, but she's shown up by her co-stars, consistently: they mightn't have hearts, but these 'bots both little and large are the beat and the pulse that drives ReCore's ephemeral appeal.
ReCore is released for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows on September the 13th in the US and September the 16th in Europe.