Recompile is absolutely stunning to behold. The game is dark, which helps hide some minimalist textures, but the neon lights that bathe the area in colour and the abstract sci-fi vistas that glitch and resolve into their actual structures as you get close are gorgeous. It’s like someone crossed Breath of the Wild with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and then removed most of the floor.
Even the menus and the HUD elements that pop-up when acquiring abilities (more on those later) are very well designed. The map is made entirely of ASCII characters, while the brief loading screen progress bar thematically details how you, a sentient computer programme, are packed, uploaded and then unpacked. The aesthetic is very well realised.
The same can be said of the sound design, whether it’s the occasionally jazzy, piano-focused background music or the buzzing, whirring, and sparking of machinery as you’re passing. Once I put on some headphones, I stopped in the middle of a looped wire and listening to the signal that was travelling around it as it sounded and felt like it was going around me, to the point where it gave me goosebumps. The sound combines with the visual design into one glorious whole.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game isn’t quite as well realised, ironically partially due to the aesthetic design. First of all, you often don’t know where to go. Sometimes this is due to level design, other times it’s vague objectives. I completed two biomes with a similar, clear to understand structure, but a later area shifted to a hub and spoke layout that left me lost after completing one objective. The message for that objective’s completion only appeared after I fell to my death and respawned after 15 minutes of aimless wandering.
Whilst the platforming itself is accurate enough, the level design and aesthetic choices make it feeling quite the opposite. Many platforms are both small and shaped like broken glass that’s been arranged in unusual ways. It looks very pretty from a distance, but jumping your way up lengthy sections of glass shards is difficult at the best of times without them being at odd angles that cause you to slide off the edge. Then there’s platforms that have holes in the middle and others with broken glass panels that you can fall through. It feels cheap, though the punishment is to respawn with 10 health removed. The glitching visual effect can also be an issue as platforms and enemies are obscured as they’re obscured while still affecting your progress or ability to fight back.
After a while, it isn’t that bad. You get used to finding where you’re going, and you can usually read the level design, mostly because they’re huge open areas made up of things you’re supposed to be doing. You later unlock abilities that make it quicker and a little more forgiving. These include a double/multi jump, and a dash ability. These upgrades are found throughout levels and can be missed easily in some cases, forcing you to backtrack through the Metroidvania world to find them, complete with all the fiddly platforming.
Unlocking hacking abilities allows you affect enemies so they, for example, protect you from other enemies, as well as introducing circuitry puzzles to the game. These puzzles and the recompile mode that is used to both solve them and hack enemies seem incredibly intimidating when you first encounter them, but in practice usually involve you inverting one or two logic gates after tracing some pipes to find where. Maybe I’ve played a lot of games with similar puzzles – Bioshock and Marvel’s Spider-Man, to name two – but I found them a little too easy. I didn’t even need to remember the specific differences between the logic gates for most of them, just inverted them to get the solution.
The combat is probably the least impressive part of the game. It’s usually either too easy or really annoying – note, not just difficult, annoying. There’s a few types of enemies, but two in particular frustrate. The cube enemy charges and shoots one beam at a time, which is easy to defeat even when in a group, but are a real annoyance when you’re busy platforming and they’re too far away to deal with. The pyramid, on the other hand, is a flying enemy that swarms you and loves to stop directly above your head, above the top threshold for where you can aim vertically. These enemies have a rapid fire attack that tears through your health very quickly and are usually in groups. You can die in seconds from full health.
I really enjoyed the boss fights, though. They’re basically bigger versions of normal enemies made out of that enemy, and they rotate and twist like someone thinks they’re Rubik’s cubes that they’re trying to solve whilst they try to flamethrower you to death or crush you. They look absolutely incredible, especially as they turn their gaze toward you at the start of an encounter. They’re just really cool, and as you destroy them the destroyed bits come loose and litter the arena. While they’re difficult, they generally feel more fair than the regular enemies.
The world’s openness can lead to you going into scenarios poorly equipped to deal with them. The three upgrade categories – traversal, combat and hacking – are found almost exclusively in their own biomes, which you can attempt in any order you like. I found my way through the area with what seemed like the most enemies, the security area, first, without dash or double jump, and found myself more frustrated that necessary.
In spite of the frustrations present in the gameplay, I still found myself really enjoying the game. It looks and sound beautiful, the combat grew on me once I got some upgrades and battled some bosses, and the platforming issues are tempered by the joy exploring the gorgeous levels. More than that, I enjoyed the story. It’s told mostly through collected logs, but it tells a compelling sci-fi story about a Hypervisor AI and how it went wrong.