Recon

by Carlos

2021

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Fast-paced, but critical parts may zoom past the 1st time, December 2, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Recon has maybe the coolest stand-alone puzzle in the whole comp: the bookcases that clue you to a computer's password. It's a funny moment for me, and yet, it doesn't feel quite right in something with the plot of Recon--how you're a rebel leader who plans to meet up with his girlfriend at a bar in a dystopian Baltimore, but she is missing. Cue warnings that the police, or rather the restrictors under the control of a large conglomerate called Faro, know about the meeting followed by a chase through the city and up to an earthscraper, in order to find allies and information to see where and, eventually, why your mate disappeared. Along the way you-the-player also learn why you are so motivated to take down Faro.

There are plenty of ways to die, and quite frankly, they're interesting and fill in a part of the plot that playing through can't. There's a real choice between disguising yourself fully and getting a bionic arm. Each gives different puzzles, which feel a bit like the author showing off technical prowess, but they're also effective, and many give a sense that you need to hurry. While a torture scene felt a bit clumsy and was thankfully not explicit, there was certainly the expectation you had to abuse your captive just right, balancing threats and violence, which was a bit unpalatable but certainly created tension.

We don't get to see a whole lot of dystopian Baltimore, but there's certainly enough: checkpoints, smuggling and the like. The main reveal is inside a biological/cyborg-ish research facility. While it explained why your girlfriend X was missing, I really didn't grasp the whole story until I played through a few times and did some proofreading for the author. Meeting X, your girlfriend, felt a bit flat, too. People's reactions to traumatic and irreversible incidents don't feel right. But the thing is: there is, in fact, a happiest ending, with a surprise at the end if you survive. Check that: two surprise endings. One is about your pet/friend Blanco, and it always shows up. The other can be happy or sad.

And I think one thing originally off-putting about the game was that I shoehorned myself into final choice where neither really made me happy. It does have a save feature, but all the same, I thought this was The Ending. Some of this may be since things get lost in translation ("thanks for your time" after a dramatic ending is polite, but Recon is not a polite game) and the blurb and game mention too much about the "social and economic gap," which isn't the way to keep things fast-paced. Recon does better when it shows this, via a flare-up at a city border checkpoint. There might be a bit too much "Hey, here's where we go next" dialogue as well. And in some cases, the tries at quick "let's hurry" dialogue fell flat to me, like when you leave a tied-up captive behind. But we have pretty clear cases of betrayal among family and friends, and that's a good foundation for a story. And there are a lot of ways to die, which feels appropriate, given the high stakes and the dystopian feel I assume the author wants to give. These ways added color to the Baltimore the author envisioned, and so if some felt a bit out of the blue, I was glad for the detour (you get bumped back to the chapter's beginning) and the explanation that, yes, Faro's power is pretty stifling! The part where you contact another rebel leader, Olga, felt very good too. There's a third character that adds drama and tension.

I have to admit I wasn't clear on if Blanco, your companion, was an actual cat, or more like Red Dwarf's cat, or something in-between. I may have missed it. In fact, I did miss something critical about Blanco the first time through. But Blanco is a trusty sidekick in fights and makes for an interesting character I'd have liked to see more of. Perhaps Recon's too-puzzly puzzles made me miss out on a few details, or perhaps I was tired when I played it. I needed a re-read to understand things, but on the other hand, it was fast-paced enough that it was no problem, and if you enjoyed either disguising yourself or accepting a bionic arm, you have a ready-made path through with the other option. So that should work out well.