Metroidvania is a term that does the rounds as much as rogue-like does these days. Much like the latter, it's a catch-all for certain gaming mechanics with the fluidity to apply to any number of styles beyond the original sources. But to the purist, the definitions also get stretched beyond their original meaning, there in spirit if not in body. Thus Recompile: sold as a Metroidvania, largely due to the process of powering up with new abilities as you progress and returning to previous areas to find items. Yes, more Vania than Metroid, although in the early part of this century we'd have been perfectly happy with this being a good old 3D action adventure.
Turn of the century gaming seems quite apt for this tale of a humanoid computer program infiltrating and attempting to repair a corrupted mainframe that would treat you more as a viral infection than a friendly CHKDSK. All very millennial in its digital world, both abstract and familiar; vast chasms of hexagonal platforms, rivers of data and precarious blocks, the brightness of the internal systems contrasting with the darkness of the void. Jagged, exploded platforms shimmer in the distance, gradually reforming as you approach, as to simulate the broken nature of the computer you find yourself in.
Its spaciousness evokes the cyber VR dreams of the nineties in higher resolution; huge chasms with only an AI companion to feed you objectives as you battle enemies and traverse perilous platforms. The cyber atmosphere is mirrored in the interface which is presented as eighties-style ASCII computer text glitching with random letters and symbols as it prints out information about the plot and your mission.
Continuing the computing theme, the game makes a promising introduction to its namesake ability, recompiling, which is effectively a way to change logic gate switches found on the various pipes that run through the world and power the doors and so on you need to reach to progress. The idea being to get the right switch combination to make the pipes flow the correct way. However, while it gives you this ability early on, most pipes are a confusing mess of overlapping connections. You can unpick the connections in the handy pause mode which allows you to examine the environment, but all too often you can sack it off and get through by trial and error by pushing the one or two buttons required at the start of the flow. Both complex and way too easy at the same time.
It doesn't seem to want to be a puzzle game, and it's perfectly fine without, but it seems odd to squander a feature that would add a bit of substance to proceedings. That kind of decision is also seen in the game's best power-up, an ability that effectively puts the game in easy mode about a quarter of the way through, making light of both combat and acrobatics. It's not too out the way, but easy enough to miss if you don't keep a look out. You're not asked to use it, but a lot of moments in the game feel rather tough without it, particularly with checkpoints sometimes being a good walk away. The game feels a little confused, then, in how it wants to challenge you, laying it out then effectively requiring you to take that away instead of refining it (for those who complete the game without that ability, congratulations). But perhaps you can see that as a feed-in to the power fantasy the game eventually becomes. It's a smaller game than it may seem and the abilities come at you fast. One you've reached the last few areas you're effectively unstoppable, reminiscent of the likes of Grow Home, where you literally look back at how far you've come in such a short space of time. And it feels good to easily move through areas where you initially struggled and take on enemies with ease - at least that's one classic element of Metroidvanias it appropriates. On the other hand, it can make the final encounter with an impressively large boss a bit of a damp squib as you finish up your mission.
The lack of conviction towards its features is disappointing. However, the atmospheric traversal through the inner workings of a mainframe is a pleasure for those fond of the cyber landscape of yore. Forgive its shortcomings and it's an entertaining journey.