Flashback Review: What’s Old is… Still Kind of Old. Again.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that rebooting a classic game franchise isn’t the valueless, naked cash grab we have with Hollywood (seriously, Sony Pictures? Spider-Man?). In addition to massive graphics improvement, controls have gotten better in both form factor and performance, sound is immeasurably improved, and you have the internet to explain to you what the hell happened at the end of Earthbound. Occasionally, there are some pitfalls where, perhaps, the re-boot was either nothing more than an attempt to cash in on nostalgia or a legitimate effort but carried out by drunken howler monkeys rather than real programmers. But for the most part, reboots in video games aren’t the eye-roll-inducer they are in film.

And, despite some unrealistic expectations, the reboot of Flashback wasn’t, either. It does have some flaws, but Flashback is a solid and entertaining game with some Metroidvania roots that’s pestered by a few nagging flaws that kept it from really blowing me away.

Probably my favorite single part of the game. Jetbikes are awesome.

Probably my favorite single part of the game. Jetbikes are awesome.

If you’re unfamiliar with the noir-ish 1993 SNES game, Flashback features Conrad Hart, a space-cop, who awakens after a jet-bike wreck to find he has no memory. The rest of the Prince of Persia style game (which was rotoscoped for smoothness of animation) involves platforming and shooting your way to your recovered memory and dealing with a hidden-invasion style plot. For 1993, I give it insanely high marks for an actual video game storyline that had some weight to it.

The Dead Didn’t Rise

I said there were a few nagging flaws, but without this flaw, Flashback would go from “a solid explorational combat platformer with some issues” to “a very solid explorational platformer that needed a better-executed New Game +.” Unlike its base material, Flashback relies on a voice-over to take care of explaining what’s going on. Just like its thematic anchor material, Ridley Scott’s post-studio-meddling Blade Runner, that voice-over was a horrible, terrible idea that should have been aborted like Rosemary’s baby. Seriously. It’s not that T.J. Rotolo, the voice actor who provided the pipes for the narration and in-game dialog is lacking in talent (look at his resume; he’s Frank West). It’s just that…well, despite the fact that the original Flashback team was behind the reboot, not a single one of them can write dialog to save their lives.

This is concept art from Flashback.

This is concept art from Flashback.

I wish I was kidding, but every time I started to really get in the zone with this game (which has a moderate level of difficulty – do not start on Hard), dialog would pop up. Conrad would start talking…and it went downhill from there. Unlike Harrison Ford’s disinterested voiceover in Blade Runner (do not watch any version of this except the director’s cut), Flashback‘s script and plot were so incongruous it shattered my enjoyment. It was John Windham plot and Don Bluth voices. Mustard and chocolate pudding. Cheap tequila and a raspberry vinegarette spring-greens salad. In my gameplay journal, the script (and even the voice that Mr. Rotolo uses) is negatively referenced in three separate paragraphs. They sound like they’re from Saturday Morning Cartoons, and they’re in a game whose plot has more in common with Prometheus.

Moving On

That’s the glaring flaw in an otherwise pretty good game. Movement is smooth and the graphical style lets you know you’re most definitely not on Earth.  Sound, particularly the ambient music, was well executed. I can’t picture playing the game without hearing it in my head, which in my book means they matched the game’s imagery and music very, very well. The controls were a little floaty, but at this late date of Xbox ownership, I’m not ruling out the fact that it might be tired springs in my controllers. Even with some perception of middling precision, the movement controls were forgiving, for the most part, and exploring even with the you-can-climb-this-platform hints turned off wasn’t cumbersome.

This is from Blade Runner. Now imagine Harrison Ford talking like Jonathan Taylor Thomas with a 15-year old's attitude.

This is from Blade Runner. Now imagine Harrison Ford talking like Jonathan Taylor Thomas with a 15-year old’s attitude.

Reflection, not Reproduction

I imagine that one pitfall of remaking an old game, even if you’re the same team, is how “true” to the original version you stay. I bring that up because, having tried to play some retro games and being baffled at their difficulty, it can ruin the fun of an old game or it can just remind you of the challenge without giving you headaches from gritting your teeth. (Not a real-life example – Ed.)

Flashback did a good job of finding the balance. I can tell because when I tried to play it on Hard mode the first time through, which is what I normally do, I got my ass handed to me handily. Even playing on medium, I never felt like I was invincible. Your enemies are solid challengers – right as you get the hang out of blasting melee-based drones out of the air, guys with guns are introduced.

Although it’s not Batman, there are a few gadgets in Flashback, including a teleporter. Devices like this are make-or-break for me – sometimes they’re completely worthless and other

Hey! Hey buddy! You dropped your pocket!

Hey! Hey buddy! You dropped your pocket!

times they’re invaluable tools. The teleporter in this game is valuable and an entertaining way to explore the world and get stealth kills on big bads. The other toys are standard fare – a scanner called Molecular Vision, a 2-mode infinite-ammo handgun, a brief energy shield, and some explosives. Flashback doesn’t over-complicate, it’s got a good level of difficulty, the gameplay is fairly smooth and it’s got some polish, so voiceover issues aside, why is this review not more glowing?

Suffering by Comparison

Part of the problem with Flashback isn’t Flashback‘s fault. It’s Shadow Complex‘s, even though the original Flashback predates Shadow Complex by over a decade. I saw Flashback and in the first couple of minutes of play thought, “Man, this is a lot like Shadow Complex,” which, if you haven’t played, stop reading and go. Unfortunately, Flashback suffered as a result of that thought. Unlike Shadow ComplexFlashback ends somewhat abruptly. It’s almost as if there was a middle part of the game that got accidentally left out*.

Also, its New Game+ mode (which is a thing for me), which would have gone a long way to absolve its sins,  is lacking. Instead of a true New Game+, where you start out with all of your gadgets and find new spots on the map you couldn’t have gotten to the first time around, Flashback just starts you over with all of your stats but none of your gear. It’s a bit of a letdown, particularly because using the transporter in the jungle stage would have been fun.

In addition to the newly developed game, you can play the 1993 version. Unless it’s to see the rotoscope effects, don’t. Like a lot of games, it hasn’t aged well. It does, however, show you how closely Vector Cell followed their original version, which is both commendable and unfortunate – while they stayed true to the 1993 original in story and general gameplay/feel, a little bit of experimentation in expanding Flashback into a longer experience with a more fleshed out story, it might have turned Flashback from “pretty good” to “great.”

Bottom line?

  • Totally worth the $10 – fun, and in a $/hr ratio, I think it was about 1.
  • Do yourself a favor and don’t compare it to Shadow Complex.
  • Staying too close to your source material in a reboot can hobble you.
  • The voice-over. Sweet, merciful God, why?

*The transition from space station to alien world occurs with very little explanation and I felt like there was a lot of room for exploring and plot development prior to rapidly moving into end-game mode.