Platforms: PSN | XBLA
Paul Cuisset is totally rebooting Flashback, and I'll give you a second to recover if you missed the news yesterday. Breathe. And relax. Since the timeless platformer is such a beloved piece of gaming history, genuinely tense and frightening in parts, seeing Conrad's struggle to regain his fractured memories get the shiny Unreal treatment is both exciting and horribly worrying. On the one hand, this new version is apparently the game that Cuisset always wanted to make, but simply couldn't due to the technological constraints of the early nineties - and he's back at the helm. On the other, he and VectorCell were also responsible for Amy.
At first glance, everything seems to be exactly where you left it. Delphine Software's colourful hand-drawn aesthetic may have been replaced by the more realistic stylings of Unreal Engine 3, but after a pleasingly accurate rendition of the action-packed intro complete with harrowing aerial chase, the lush forest is pleasingly familiar. Everything from Conrad's jacket to the design of the foliage, enemies and collectible holocube looks spot-on, but now boasts a fine level of environmental detail. Plenty of disarmingly classic elements remain, not limited to jumping into a random hole in the middle of the woods to access New Washington after performing a favour for an old man.
But then Conrad opens his mouth, delivers a sarcastic wisecrack and scampers off to collect some exploding fruit.
It's still early days, but this reboot will rely on how closely it resembles your Flashback, the version that you both remember and created in your mind's eye.
See, much of Flashback's plot and characterisation actually took place in our heads back in the 1990s, delivered via environmental details, artwork and the odd snippet of text dialogue. As players, we had to piece it all together and engage with the game, filling in the details ourselves. I always imagined protagonist Conrad to be a rather vulnerable protagonist; helplessly outgunned in the face of an alien invasion, and more than a little frightened.
Not any more, though, since our amnesiac protagonist is now fleshed out with voice acting of his very own, and he's just too cool for school. Like a low-rent Nathan Drake, Conrad seems to have a sarcastic answer for everything and everyone (even himself), and appears totally nonplussed about the fact that he's stranded in a mysterious jungle without any memory, surrounded by robotic drones and gun-toting assailants. Perhaps that's how you imagined him, but it remains to be seen whether voiced dialogue will develop Conrad as a fully-fledged character, or if VectorCell have just crammed in some cheap VO just because they can. Certainly, early impressions are more than a little disconcerting.
Anyway, that's enough kicking and screaming against the 21st century. In terms of gameplay, Flashback's core platforming framework remains the same mix of well-timed jumps, rolls and grabs, peppered with plenty of exploration and the odd bit of decisive gunplay. However, the reboot has been somewhat expanded with contemporary features. Your pistol, for example, can now be aimed with the right thumbstick. You'll take advantage of an on-screen map that displays which direction you ought to be heading, and recharging molecular glasses that highlight interactive environmental features. Though the animations are still unpolished and clipping issues abound in the demo version (they're apparently the next thing on VectorCell's to-do list), the platforming seems to be fairly fluid in terms of nailing those all-important grabs.
There's also an incredibly simplistic levelling system at play, which occasionally lets you improve Conrad's endurance, technological ability or damage. Many of these features conspire to make the demo play a little like a stripped-back version of Shadow Complex, right down to the engine.
Interestingly, while the first level is broadly similar to the original in terms of overall goals (explore the jungle, find some ID keys, activate a light bridge and buy a grav belt from an old man), Cuisset seems to have tinkered with the specifics, making them feel a lot more modern. You'll now meet an injured reporter and find his personal teleporter to gain an ID card. A light bridge need to be activated by powering them up with tree sap, which boils down to following a pipe and paradoxically shooting bits of it. An old man sends you out on an honest-to-God fetch quest to collect some fruit before parting with his all-important grav belt. We've experienced this sort of contrived padding before, not in the original Flashback, but in any number of mediocre platformers during the following two decades - so we'll have to wait and see whether Flashback feels modernised or homogenised.
Indeed, it's very much a case of watching and waiting. Here's hoping that Flashback retains enough classic identity to appeal to expectant fans, yet packs enough new content and features to warrant a full reboot rather than a simple HD port job. And, of course, being a decent game in its own right won't hurt matters either. We'll find out whether Cuisset can atone for Amy's sins in "Summer 2013."