Ever since I watched that gif of the bloke going around smashing keyboards in what looks like a PC World and pretending to hack things, I've thought how cool it would be to become a hacker person. I always thought coding was basically magic and I wouldn't be cut out for it. But action adventure game Recompile has transformed me. Turns out proper hacking actually involves weighty double jumps and shooting antivirus software and uncovering the mysteries of an all-seeing AI, all of which rules.
Recompile is a 3D metroidvania by Phigames that has you guide an athletic program through the innards of a crippled system called the Mainframe. You must navigate this long-dormant network and bring its four sectors flickering back to life. Do this, and you'll be able to install yourself in the system. To what end? Well, it depends how much you learn along the way.
And Recompile makes this journey to installation a real treat. Normally it's a chore watching a bar rise, but boy, controlling this orange fella behind the scenes is a thrill. Even when you've got loads of logbooks to read, which happens to be the game's primary storytelling device. Expect to read lots of diaries penned by people outside the Mainframe who you'll become intimately familiar with, as they describe lives led under the gaze of an AI called Hypervisor.
Each sector of Recompile's Mainframe is home to a number of these logs, each with their own characters and purposes. As you piece bits of info together, it becomes clear that life on the surface is far from dandy, and in fact they're all trapped in a claustrophobic dystopia. Usually logbooks send me to sleep, but snooping on these human records is a real buzz. Not only is the key to your mission buried in their tales, they overlap in interesting ways as you explore the Mainframe's shattered world.
It's largely up to you how you approach the installation process in Recompile. Early on you're dropped into a hub space that's split up into four colour-coded segments, each of which will jet you off to a different sector. Think of these sectors as large dungeons, complete with their own themes. Some will require precision platforming, while another may feature a lot of puzzling. One thing that links them all, though, is bringing them whirring back to life by beating a big baddie at the end. One of them appears to be a huge Toblerone chunk that spews fire at you.
But no matter how dangerous your mission, the Mainframe is a stunning place to reawaken. Each sector really does feel like you're rummaging around the guts of some broken code. Platforms flicker to life as you approach, logic gates snake with light, and generators produce this eery hum. All of these things are put together cleverly to make each area a fun problem to untangle. One that stands out to me is this sunny sector where you're navigating platforms that resemble flower petals while squid-machines circle you ominously.
In a similar vein to other metroidvanias like Hollow Knight, more of the Mainframe becomes accessible as you unlock movement abilities. A double jump might allow you to reach that pesky platform you passed earlier, or a dash might help you bridge what once seemed like an impossible gap. So yes, the game's open-ended in the sense that it doesn't hold your hand and point out the next objective with a big arrow. Barring you from certain areas until you've got the right upgrade is its way of gently steering you in the right direction, which makes for some excellent eureka moments.
Be warned that Recompile's metroidvania-ness can lead to moments of heartache if you miss a link in this upgrade chain, or misunderstand the next step. For instance, I accessed a particular sector earlier than I should've, meaning I got trapped in this dank cavern of agony for hours unsure whether I'd missed something or not. Turns out this was very much the case; in fact I'd missed a substantial chunk of the game and the upgrades required to plough on. Yes, maybe I should've been more vigilant in my exploration, but I do wish Recompile had extended a hand, or made it clearer that I shouldn't have been there.
Still, I can forgive the game's blips because, damn, can your program move. Platforming feels weighty and responsive, with fluid animations that make exploration in Recompile a joy. My only gripe is that sometimes it's a bit dark in its twistier moments, which can lead to some frustrating slips and falls when platforming. Although it does add to the game's underlying melancholy, as your character's orange glow is often the only thing that staves off the darkness of this sleeping giant. The strength of the game's environments are such that you don't need to read any of the logbooks to make you veer from thinking, "Why am I doing this?" to "Should I be doing this?" as you progress.
A successful installation isn't only down to how athletic your program is, though. The Mainframe isn't running your bog standard Norton antivirus, oh no, it's got some strong firewalls with nasty robots that need gunning down. I'm pretty sure Mike from Monsters Inc. set up this software, as each enemy is either a big eye or composed of big eyes. Some fire lasers, some fly at you... actually, correction, so many fly at you. You've got a fairly broad arsenal of weapons to poke them shut, but I'd say Recompile's action feels at odds with a game that excels as an exploration adventure. The shooting is okay, but the robots feel less of a threat and more of an annoyance. For me, at least, it could lose the "action" tag altogether and I'd be perfectly fine with that.
There's always the option to hack Mike's robots in Recompile if you'd rather not pull the trigger. Enter Recompile Mode, highlight an enemy, and you can rewire them to become an ally or fry themselves, among other things. It sounds great, but honestly it's just easier to swat them away with a quick blast from your shotty.
Despite it's so-so action, Recompile is a brilliant adventure and unlocking its mysteries is a blast. It could be a bit clearer when steering you to the next step, but the strength of its platforming and puzzling more than makes up for it. Love me some hacking and code now.