Phigames’ expansive, obstreperous Metroid-like is a world of sharp edges – which should be apparent from the screens across the page. The developer commits fully to its distinctive aesthetic, from the heavy bloom that emanates from every light source (including your avatar, an anthropomorphic program charged with infiltrating a vast world simply called the Mainframe) to the jittery objects that gradually assume solid form as you approach. In places it takes the breath away: the place may be fragmented, but there is an eerie beauty to its sprawling landscapes, particularly when you find a high vantage point and gaze down on its strange, distinctive arrangements of complex circuitry and abstract architecture. If everyone’s PC looked like this on the inside, we’d all be ordering transparent cases.
Striking as it looks, these visuals are among a series of small problems that collectively sap your will to continue. Recompile is difficult, and by that we don’t mean it’s hard to beat. We’ve experienced far steeper challenges than the ones presented here (though the boss fights are exacting in a way that will have you putting them off as long as you possibly can), but it’s been a while since we felt quite so consistently annoyed by a game. There are innumerable small irritants. A tiny, barely perceptible gap between two platforms. Then another, masked by the excessive bloom given off by a nearby light source. A third, this time in a dark area, our avatar’s own glow hiding it from view. When a crack in a glass platform positioned at a vertiginous height causes us to fall for a full 30 seconds before dying – this particular part of the Mainframe being so needlessly large it takes that long to hit the floor – we’re almost tempted to consider a career change.
By this stage, Recompile has become more tedious than frustrating; the opposite, however, is true of its opening hours, which we suspect will turn many players away. You quickly gain the ability to jump and shoot, and soon after you find yourself in the heart of the computer, which forms a classic hub-and-spoke structure. An ASCII-styled interface gives you the most basic of 2D maps, highlighting the approximate locations of upgrades minus the elevation. That’s about all the direction you’re given, and while the lack of a guiding hand can often be a boon in this genre, these environments are large, intricate and often rather samey, resisting any attempt to mentally map them.
The lack of a robust visual language means it can be hard to divine whether you’re equipped to tackle a particular area during the early game. For a good halfhour, we butt our heads against a protracted platforming sequence: a succession of floating fragments positioned seemingly at random, with no environmental features to help us orient or discern precisely where everything is in 3D space. We sigh in dismay as a large, round platform positioned conspicuously in the middle of this gauntlet turns out not to be a checkpoint after all, as we’re deposited right back at the start. Later, we return with a power-up that dilates time, slowing everything down to a crawl – giving us more time to course-correct in midair and deal with the skittish handling of our avatar that causes us to skid off the edge of platforms more times than we’d care to count. Sure, it takes us a long time to reach our destination, but now it’s a cakewalk.
This Underclock ability is particularly fascinating, since it slows the action to such an extreme that you wonder if the intent was to prevent you relying on it too often – in which case, why let the player have it at all, or why not limit its use? It feels, as several other abilities do, like an ungainly solution to its own design problems. For long spells, it feels all but mandatory when engaged in combat, which the world just isn’t built to accommodate effectively. One or two areas provide you with cover, from which you can peek out and peck away at distant enemies before they’ve even seen you. Elsewhere, however, there’s little protection, and with so many fragmented floors you can never be confident that your dash away from incoming fire won’t send you tumbling into the abyss once more. And so you toggle Underclock and blast away, no longer wrestling with those skittish crosshairs against annoying flying enemies that pepper you with fire, often from several angles at once.
These exchanges are at least infrequent, and once you’ve taken a group out they won’t respawn until you’ve left the area. The downside, given each spoke is several zones deep, is that there’s nothing to enliven long journeys back to the hub. The runtime is drawn out by these tediously long treks, across environments that often appear to have been built with forward progress in mind, but scant concern for how you might get back. Three times within an hour we find ourselves trapped in places from which there’s no escape but to repeatedly walk off the edge of a platform until our health runs out; we respawn at the last of the sparsely scattered restore points we activated, at the opposite end to the exit.
Things pick up once we get our hands on a triple jump (which produces a grating sound effect best described as a staple gun coughing) and a multi-dash, though the abilities are spread so haphazardly that we end up with four different weapons before any additional traversal options – at one stage, we pick up three upgrades in ten minutes, having gone an hour or more without so much as a sniff of another.
Some people might well look at all this and be encouraged. We can’t deny we’ve recently found ourselves bemoaning the bland smoothness of certain games, yearning for them to push back a little more, to provide that friction that makes you snap to attention. Alas, a little too often, Recompile only seems to prove we should be careful what we wish for.
It’s been a while since we felt so consistently annoyed by a game. There are innumerable small irritants