Man, I wanted to like ReCore.
In its first few hours, both the game and its protagonist, Joule, exude such a scrappy, can-do attitude that I found myself really rooting for it. At a time when so many games are burdened with a grim, superficial self-importance that their actual narratives can’t support, dashing and double-jumping across the mysterious desert landscapes of Far Eden with Joule felt like taking a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, ReCore can’t get by on sheer gumption alone, and it ultimately fails to capitalize on the potential of its setting or its likable protagonist.
At its…ahem…core, ReCore is an action platformer that feels like a throwback to the days of the original Ratchet & Clank, so I hoped it might soar where this year’s R&C reboot fell flat. As Joule, you’ve just woken up out of a cryogenic slumber on the planet Far Eden. You were to be part of the planet’s terraforming crew, turning it from a desert into a bountiful, life-sustaining world so that what’s left of humanity could flee a devastating plague on Earth and make a new home here. It’s immediately clear that something has gone wrong, and Far Eden is strewn with the sand-scorched husks of terraforming technology that clearly never had the chance to fulfill its purpose. It’s a setup for an intriguing mystery–What went wrong here? Where’s the rest of humanity?–but ReCore squanders it.
The game relies on audio logs that you may or may not find in your travels for most of its narrative development, and while it makes a halfhearted attempt to depict a meaningful bond between Joule and her father, it’s not nearly enough to create a real sense of a relationship. Worse, it’s not nearly enough to give us any real sense of who Joule is as a person. The tiny glimpses of her personality we see in her warm interactions with her robot companions and her undaunted approach to the challenges before her had me wanting more, a reason to latch onto this character, but it never comes, so Joule ends up feeling as underdeveloped as the game she’s in.
Like the setting and narrative premise, the gameplay communicates promise early on. Joule wanders the wasteland with a few robot partners called corebots, crafting better parts for them out of the scrap you scavenge from defeated enemies. In my game, Mack, the eager, playful, canine-style corebot who is your first companion, wound up early on with a head of one color, a body of another and legs of another, a great detail that contributed significantly to a feeling that Joule was resourcefully scrounging together whatever she could find and cobbling together makeshift components from the bits and pieces.
Joule ends up feeling as underdeveloped as the game she’s in.
Mack can dig for useful items in the sand, while Duncan, an ape-like buddy you meet much later, can smash otherwise impassable obstructions. By far the most enjoyable companion ability comes courtesy of Seth the spider-bot, who can speed along specific tracks, carrying Joule with him and then flinging her through the air toward her destination. It feels rough, reckless, and liberating, and contributed to my initial hope that ReCore might be the game to reinvigorate the lighthearted, optimistic action platformer.
Unfortunately, like other promising elements of ReCore, your corebot companions never get to realize their potential. While you can switch between corebots with the push of a button, for some reason you can only have two of them with you at any particular time, which is a huge problem when you’re looking everywhere for the so-called prismatic cores you need to collect to access dungeons and advance the story. I repeatedly got to the location of a prismatic core as marked on the world map, only to find that I didn’t have the companion with me whose ability I needed to acquire the core, which forced me to spend considerable time hoofing it back and forth from the nearest fast travel point to swap out one corebot for another.
There’s a difference between a game that takes up your time because it’s presenting you with a worthy and engaging challenge, and a game that simply wastes and disrespects your time, and ReCore is the latter. There’s no option to set waypoints in the world, which means that if you’re heading for a specific spot, you need to keep pulling up the map screen to see where you are relative to your destination. There are numerous spots where you might fall right through the world geometry to your death. And when the combat gets frantic, the camera sometimes can’t keep up, putting you in situations where rogue corebots attack and kill you from one direction before you even see them because you’re dealing with enemies in another.
Like a mirage in the desert, the early promise of ReCore evaporates.
These moments make the game feel like a throwback to early 2000s gaming in the worst sense; all of the frustration and none of the fun. To be fair, there are also moments that recall the joys that a great action platformer can offer. The game’s combat is intermittently engaging as you manage multiple threats, dashing and circle-strafing around enemies, leaping over attacks, swapping the elemental alignment of your weapon on the fly and playing a little game of tug-of-war to yank the cores from weakened foes. But it’s not quite enough. If there were thrilling dungeons to explore, satisfying puzzles to solve or a memorable story to experience, ReCore’s frustrations might be minor blemishes. But there’s nothing special waiting for you on Far Eden, and so, like a mirage in the desert, the early promise of ReCore evaporates.
At first, I wanted to admire ReCore for being rough around the edges and feeling hastily cobbled together like one of Joule’s robots. We could definitely do with more games that have an optimistic, adventurous spirit. But instead of reminding us how enjoyable such games can be, ReCore ultimately makes the genre feel like one that’s better left in the past. It’s all the more frustrating because we also could do with more games that have female protagonists, and when such games don’t succeed, some see it as evidence that games with female heroes are less viable than those that center men. But make no mistake: if ReCore isn’t a success, it’s certainly not because it stars a woman. It’s because it’s just not a very good game.