If you found Inception’s dream within a dream within a dream too difficult to follow, you’ll be hopeless at brain-shredding puzzle game Recursed by Portponky. In Recursed, you can easily find yourself inside a room inside a room inside a room... while, uh, carrying the room you’re in.
If this sounds like your Möbius strip of tea, read on and I will tell you Wot I Think.
Recursed caught my eye on Twitter and, although the trailer didn’t really convey how the puzzley aspects came about, I found the idea of “rooms are items and items are rooms” too bizarre to pass up. But the trailer also betrayed Recursed’s bedroom production values, meaning it would likely go unnoticed amongst a crowd of better-looking brethren, especially as Portponky doesn’t command the reputation of, say, Stephen “Stephen’s Sausage Roll” Lavelle.
Recursed is a puzzle-platformer in which your goal is to reach a purple gem and you will encounter genre staples such as blocks to climb on as well as keys and locked doors. However, it is the chests that are the heart of this game. Jump into a chest, and you’ll find yourself in another room.
There’s an important twist though. Suppose a chest contains a key. You jump into the chest, take the key, leap out of the chest… and then jump straight back in. When you do this, the room inside the chest resets. So there’s a key sitting on the floor again. But wait… there’s still one in your hand…
And there’s nothing to stop you taking keys out of the chest again and again and again.
Let me introduce you to how Recursed exploits these rules. Suppose the purple gem is inside a different chest and the gem is secured behind two locked doors. The solution is obvious. Just grab two keys from the key chest and unlock the two doors...? There’s a snag. There’s always a snag.
The keys are monster-sized, so you can only carry one at a time, which presents a real chunky problem. Recall, jumping into a chest resets the room within. If you drop a key or unlock a door on your first visit inside the gem chest, those changes will disappear when you re-enter. You will always be facing two locked doors with one key.
Hmm. Time for a cup of tea and a biscuit, let’s mull this one over. Maybe put on some Vangelis music.
Rooms are items and items are rooms. The solution is to carry the key chest inside the gem chest, so you only have to jump into the gem chest once. The two keys are extracted from the key chest while inside the gem chest.
I hope you’re starting to see how complex this could get but trust me you don’t know the half of it. What I’ve just described is Recursed for toddlers. Soon you’ll be making copies of chests. Soon you’ll be dealing with “static” objects, unaffected by room resets, that glow green. Then you’ll encounter green static chests which are an absolute gamechanger because with those you can construct loops. And remember Uncle Ben’s wise words: with great power comes great incomprehensibilty. And don’t get me started on the bloody jars. You’ll need to dream a little bigger, darling.
Portponky admits functional programming was the inspiration for Recursed’s mechanics but for those of us who haven’t done any (hands up, please) it means internalizing the rules can take a little work. I’ve stuck with Recursed’s upfront explanation of “room resets” but it gets really hairy later, when it can feel like different rules are competing with one another.
The progression and pacing of the difficulty is generally spot on and you will likely blast through the early levels which form an extended tutorial. Occasionally you will smack into a serious headscratcher that is better to skip and come back to later.
Recursed’s brilliance is how it spawns complexity from a few simple constraints. One late level consists of a single room, yet solving it requires Olympian mental gymnastics you probably thought were beyond you. “I am a goddamn genius!” you will cry out when solving it. Actually, I’m underselling here, because you will do that after every level in the Ruins and Temple stages.
Portponky also added 16 bonus levels last month collectively titled The Oobleck Conundrum. What was most impressive about this update was it perfectly matched the tone of the original game. Instead of a yawn-inducing addition like “blue locked doors which need special blue keys”, The Oobleck Conundrum offers something that messes with your head in all the right Recursed ways.
There are some frustrations in Recursed’s design. An undo would have been nice because it is easy to make a mistake. For example, drop the only key you have inside a chest and jump out without thinking – well, it’s goodbye key, sacrificed to the god of room resets. This isn’t a big deal on early levels but later challenges require the player to carry out a long list of carefully plotted interactions; one wrong move and you’ll be jabbing at restart.
I learnt to dread water and not just because it introduces the additional dimension of flooded chests. Unfortunately, Recursed’s implementation of water is a little cheap and this upsets how you experience these levels. For example, how high the water rises inside a flooded chest can feel arbitrary. I found I relied on experimentation to identify how the water levels worked rather than trust instinct.
It’s also a shame that it’s easy lose track of which chest leads to what room once you start making copies. Tell me here which chest is the odd one out.
It’s not a killer issue, but it will slow you down as you find yourself performing recon jumps into chests just to verify which one is which.
One last issue is that many Recursed levels revolve around jumps which are impossible to make. There’s only so far you can jump and that distance is reduced if you happen to be carrying something. This subtle difference becomes the obstacle in many levels but it’s not easy gauging exactly how tough the jump is until you’re in the thick of it. Many times I thought I’d solved a level only to discover, whoops, I actually needed two blocks instead of one so, boom, restart. Plus there are a few levels towards the end which rely exclusively on the nuances of jumping which does not jive with the design of the whole.
But these are not showstopper issues. Recursed is joyously difficult and solving its challenges is deeply satisfying. You’ll have to judge whether it is the right game for you as we all have our particular puzzle strengths and weaknesses; I’ve bested both The Witness and The Talos Principle but I’m extremely poor at Snakebird.
So, Recursed. Don’t play for the graphics. Don’t play for the story. Play for what this game is about: putting your brain through a thresher and loving it.
Recursed is available for Windows, Mac and Linux on Steam for £6.99/$9.99.