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Stylishly confusing, November 24, 2021
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Back in the early 90s, every once in a while I would come across a game that was full of style but didn’t make much sense (typically it would be some kind of French adventure game or RPG, with an 80-page novella in the manual that somehow just made things even harder to understand), and I’d be dragged through a confusing plot and obscure gameplay by sheer force of aesthetics. Recon keeps this tradition alive: I wasn’t really clear on the characters, stakes, and setting until the final few sequences, and my understanding of what was going on changed radically a couple of times though not in ways that I think were intended. And the puzzles are a mix of clever and off-the-wall. But there was enough verve on display to make my time with the game an enjoyable ride nonetheless.
Recon’s first impression is a pretty accurate sample of what you’re in for. The cover image is a gorgeous slab of sci-fi, and the title and chapter screens continue the high production values. Then you’re dumped into a bar with a kitten, and asked to participate in the world’s most awkward character-customization process (you’re required to specify your skin color, which can be “Nordic”, “Caucasian”, “Ethiopic”, “American”, or “Oriental”) As this opening sequence proceeds, it becomes clear that you’re there to check on two of your allies, “X” and “Equis” (it turns out these are actually the same person), and you’re up against the jackbooted thugs of “Faro”, which is not a gang boss as I first thought (nor a card game or grain, for that matter) but an evil corporation that calls the shots in this dystopia.
Things clear up a bit from there, but only a bit, and beyond this Faro mix-up, I also had at least two other moments where a glancing reference or new development made me realize I had deeply misunderstood the main character’s situation and motivation (Spoiler - click to show)the others turned on the “Recon” group that the main character leads, and the ending’s indication that a functioning court system exists and can actually bring down the mighty Faro. The writing is also a bit off-kilter, contributing to this discombobulated mood – there aren’t many typos or out-and-out errors, but the syntax and word choice are often strange in a way I associate with translated works or writing from folks whose native language isn’t English – it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s often hard to scan and understand.
Fortunately, the game is well-paced and doesn’t require you to understand the big picture to work through. Each of its chapters is structured similarly, with a bunch of story progression and narrative choices building up to a major puzzle that gates progress. These are all one-of-a-kind, running from an adventure-game style search of X’s house to pattern-recognition tests. Many feature some fun fourth-wall breaking, and you’ll see substantially different puzzles depending on which of the major midgame branches you go down. Some are a little too out there, I thought – even looking at the walkthrough, I don’t understand the (Spoiler - click to show)Morse code puzzle. But luckily, that walkthrough is comprehensive, and also boasts impressive layout and design. Once I used it to reach the end, I was able to appreciate the aesthetic experience Recon provides – but I do with there’d been some more careful worldbuilding, clearer writing, and better-clued puzzles to go alongside.
Highlight: There’s a surprising amount of interactivity in the mid-game – there’s a major branch that meant I ran into completely different plot and challenges than the ones the walkthrough described, and there seems to be a good scope for different choices in how you treat a potential ally to lead to different results.
Lowlight: The game doesn’t have content warnings, but I would have appreciated one since a late-game sequence features an interrogation that does spill over into what I’d consider torture – most of your options involve verbal coercion, but there is a “hit” option. Making this sequence even less enjoyable, I ran into a bug after failing it the first time, as once the interrogation restarted I was missing some of the options needed to progress (Spoiler - click to show)(I could no longer try to blackmail, or press for a confession), and after I gave up and checked the walkthrough, it turned out that the intended solution is actually pretty counterintuitive since you need to get the target’s stress level outside of the range marked “optimum” to succeed (this might be a display issue from playing on my phone, upon further reflection).
How I failed the author: I just did not get what was happening for like 90% of the game, and I can’t imagine that my generally fuzzy-brained state (Henry’s been having some congestion and not sleeping as well as usual, poor thing) helped matters.