Platforms: XBLA (reviewed) | PSN (TBA) | PC (TBA)
I know that accepting change can be stressful, but sometimes a little fresh blood and new technology can lead to truly great things. Case in point, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which thrilled even the most suspicious fans while preserving everything we love about the series. Reboots don't have to be crap.
Sadly, Flashback 2013 is the other kind of reboot: a bland and soulless simulacrum of a classic game that has lost almost all of its identity, but retains just enough superficial resemblance to constantly remind us that something's badly amiss. Nagging at us. Like grit on a freshly-grazed knee.
Adding insult to injury, this homogenised tosh is apparently the game original developer Paul Cuisset "really wanted to make" back in the early Nineties. Then again, he probably said much the same thing about Amy. It's possible, if not likely, that Flashback was just a happy accident all those years ago.
Time for a quick history lesson. Flashback: A Quest For Identity told the story of an amnesiac hero who went from face down in a Titan jungle to invading a hostile alien home planet, a surprisingly thoughtful and tough tale portrayed through stylish rotoscoped visuals. Many still have fond memories of playing it on Amiga, Mega Drive or MS-DOS, though may have forgotten how tough and demanding it was in terms of instant deaths and precise timing. Little has changed in terms of the storyline between 1992 and 2013, once again casting us as Conrad and featuring classic locations like the thick jungle preserve and the oft-remembered Death Tower TV show. Everything is almost where you left it, but just slightly rearranged, giving you the unsettling feeling that someone may have broken in and tampered with your stuff.
Thankfully Flashback makes a great first impression. Though the new Unreal-powered visuals replace rotoscoping with realism, the remake has brilliantly replicated some of the original backgrounds and packed them with detail. The Titan jungle teems with natural life, while back on Earth, the grim futuristic cityscape looks utterly gorgeous. Plus, the Death Tower is still deeply disturbing. Though some of the foreground elements (like, erm, the player character) exhibit cumbersome animations - something I'd never have expected here - the visual upgrade feels like a true remaster and director's cut rather than a simple HD port job.
So Flashback 2013 looks like Flashback 1992. Unfortunately, within seconds, Conrad decides to open his mouth and loose a noxious torrent of poorly-acted, horrendously-scripted, unfunny, trite and frankly upsetting drivel that doesn't stop until the very end.
Conrad used to be silent (beyond the occasional snippet of text), you see, and this lent Flashback a mysterious and enigmatic tone. It was tense and unsettling, and we were able to read ourselves into the amnesia-suffering agent, interpreting him how we chose. I always assumed that he was nervous if not downright terrified, fighting off an implacable force of monolithic evil singlehanded with no memories of his past. Turns out, however, that he's a wisecracking, obnoxious, sarcastic, generic, focus-tested, too-cool-for-school idiot who comes off like a low-rent Nathan Drake. Utterly unlikeable and unsympathetic (who actually cracks jokes in this situation? WHO?), fans will find this move deeply depressing. Cuisset was apparently thrilled that new technology let him flesh out the story and characters, but it turns out that 1992 hardware constraints made his game better, not worse.
No-one has anything interesting or amusing to say, and there are no competent vocal performances in the entire game, yet practically everyone lacks the discipline to shut up.
You're probably going to accuse me of being a bitter and "entitled" Flashback superfan now, so let's take the original game off the table and look at this mess on its own merits. Taken in isolation, VectorCell's remake is still one of the most uninteresting, derivative, shallow and mediocre games you'll play this year.
Precision jumping and tense perfectly-timed shootouts have been replaced by yawn-inducing dual stick shooting against simplistic foes and some brainless non-puzzles. Exploration gives way to idiotic bloated fetch quests and finding switches, constantly propelled along by a marker that tells you exactly where you're supposed to be going next. You'll sleepwalk through its entire runtime from one horrible cutscene to the next, stopping only to blast a few enemies and occasionally collecting some explosive fruit, because collecting things is totally on trend right now. A pair of molecular goggles add a new vision mode that highlights interactive elements and hazards, which could have added flavour, yet actually just ends up making a banal experience even easier.
Oh, and this relatively short linear experience with a tight challenge curve apparently needed an experience and upgrade system. Because, predictably, every game has to offer persistent progression now. Flashback is such a crushingly, gutlessly predictable and soulless check-box product that, quite literally, the only useful compliment I can give Flashback is "it's mechanically sound." Not a glowing endorsement when a billion and one action-platformers bring fresh ideas and better execution to the table.
If it wasn't called Flashback, frankly, there's no way you'd know that the two games were related. One had personality and achieved its 'quest for identity.' The other is every half-baked platformer you've ever played this generation, only less memorable.
I have to be completely honest with you: much of our love for the 1992 Flashback comes from rose-tinted memories rather than recent experience. The rotoscoped visuals may have aged gracefully, but the stern challenge and instant deaths have not. Worse still, the slapdash version included here is only playable in a tiny letterbox resolution, surrounded by an arcade cabinet bezel even though it DIDN'T RELEASE IN ARCADES.
Yet it's somehow still the strongest part of the package.
- Surprisingly excellent visual makeover
- Includes a basic port of the 1992 original
- Mechanically sound... so it's better than Amy
- Shockingly derivative recycled bland platforming has no reason to exist beyond simply existing
- Painfully awful voice acting and terrible script destroys atmosphere, character and all your happy memories
- Pointless experience and upgrade system, boring dual-stick shooting
- Recycled and tired concepts handled much better elsewhere
The Short Version: If this was indeed the game Paul Cuisset "really wanted to make" on the Amiga and Mega Drive, we're eternally grateful that 1992 technology stopped him in his tracks.
If you're not a fan of the original Flashback, there's little fun to be had in this crushingly generic and soulless product. If you are, don't go anywhere near it.