Flashback Xbox 360 review
Delphine classic, Flashback, returns to modern consoles in HD form, but is it still a sci-fi epic?
Before I begin, let me first clarify one fact, I love Flashback. It's one of my favourite retro titles, and to this day I remember my first adventure with Conrad B Hart when it arrived back in 1992. The superb rotoscoped animation, the alien invasion story, the impressive cut scenes and the atmosphere all stuck with me, and my first trip to New Washington will be a gaming moment I'll never forget. It was amazing, pure and simple.
Flash forward some 20-odd years and we have this new, HD remake of the game. This is no fan made homage or a reboot given to a new development team, oh no. Paul Cuisset and some of the original team are responsible for bringing the game back to the masses in HD form. As a fan, I was understandably excited upon hearing that this was happening, and with some of the original talent behind it, surely this would be incredible, wouldn't it?
The quest for money
Available as part of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion on Xbox Live Arcade, Flashback's return will no doubt be snapped up by any veteran gamer who remembers the days of the Amiga and Mega Drive. Conrad B Hart's fight against the morphing alien invaders is a story that should make for an excellent remake, and one that can truly make the most of current technology. So why, then, is it a failure in almost all areas?
First, the story. Although the remake attempts to stay true to the original story, it does so by re-writing much of the actual detail. Yes, Conrad is still an amnesiac, the aliens have still infiltrated mankind, and there's still a race to get to the alien homeworld, but the dialogue, back story and even Conrad's identity have changed, and not for the better.
I won't reveal the details of the story in the interests of avoiding spoilers, but the rewritten series of events is messy, clumsy and so badly voiced that you simply find it hard to care. It's a terrible script (and Conrad's exclamations are cringe-worthy) and as Conrad only gets small parts of his memory back via events spread along the game, it's all the more disjointed. The original story should have been left in place, it was fine.
Dodgy story reworking aside, the game does initially looks good. Whilst it can't impress in the same way as the original did (animation has come a long, long way since then), the core platforming and exploration of the original is still present, and the Titan jungle has much the same feel to it, albeit a more lush and verdant one. The layout of the world has changed, but Flashback vets will still recognise some layouts and challenges, such as finding the injured man's teleporter or having to buy an anti-gravity belt to get to New Washington.
In this gameplay respect, much of the game does try to stick to the classic, and throughout there are nods to the old game. However, as much as the game tries to retain its identity whilst being something new, it also commits all sorts of fatal errors, with combat being amongst the worst, mainly due to one thing... those damn floating robots.
Yep, you may have your own top 10 list of the most annoying enemies in gaming, but I'm pretty sure Flashback's electrocuting robots will quickly end up in that list. These foes are relentless, fast and can kill you in a second (on Hard, anyway). Often they'll come at you from behind an object or off-screen, and in many situations you'll be mobbed by more than one. This also often happens when you're in a tricky predicament, such as high ledge. What does this all mean? Cheap deaths aplenty, that's what.
In my entire playthrough of the game, I must have only died a handful of times due to other foes or hazards. The other thousand times was all down to these irritating and overpowered foes, so plentiful is their appearance, and so often are they placed in unreasonable and annoying locations.
What's more, foes (especially these 'bots) attack at regular and random intervals. Whereas the original has a controlled ratio of action to adventure, the remake is all about action, so much so that many of the missions from the original are watered down, shoot everything affairs. The careful, strategic combat and platforming is all but gone, replaced by rapid fire, clunky combat.
Remember when you had to use your brain and try distracting foes with stones in the original? Well forget it here. Such things are an option (there's even a training tip for it) but you never need them, and trying to be stealthy often leads to death anyway, as foes can detect you with ease, and most can fly around, leaving you open to attack. It's far easier to simply turn off your brain and exercise that trigger finger.
Okay, so the new 360 degree aiming and more fluid combat does make fighting enemies a little more frenetic than before, but it's too much, and it needs breaking up. Flashback wasn't a game all about combat, it was a slower-paced, balanced adventure. Here that's not the case.
Recall, recall, recaaaall
Still, enemy difficulty and design is a subjective thing, and as irritating as it can be, littered with cheap deaths, it's still enjoyable to a point, and some will like it more than others. What's not so subjective, and far less likely to appeal are the bugs, and this is where the game really falls down.
Flashback is buggy, very buggy. Such issues as controls randomly refusing to respond and Conrad occasionally having fits and walking off platforms to his death are accompanied by other glitches such as health stations becoming unresponsive, foes getting stuck in the world, and even lifts causing both Conrad and enemies to fall through the world. It's a very poor showing, and I've even had to reload entire levels due to Conrad getting stuck in walls.
The camera often drifts away, not focusing on the action, and even the staple platform climbing controls are glitchy and sluggish. Audio also clips, cutting off dialogue before its done, but given the quality of the voice acting, that may be a good thing. Overall, it's a mess, pure and simple, and it shouldn't have been given a green light in this state.
Of course, the game does add some new tricks, which should raise the experience a little. The much requested hover bike section, for example, is included. The problem with it, though, is that it's boring, short and totally devoid of any reason for existing. It's a classic shoe horn, and the game simply didn't need it. Avoiding a few road signs with an overly generous time limit is not a good game mechanic.
Another element that should appeal to fans is the inclusion of the original game. Accessed from the main menu, you can play the Amiga version of the original in full. This should be great, except that it has no music and is crammed into a tiny screen. The music made up much of the atmosphere in the original, and without it, it's a very strange experience, and an option to increase screen size would be welcome.
All in all Flashback's HD return is an overwhelming failure in my opinion, and it's lost its identity rather than succeed in finding it. It's retained very few of the original game's good qualities, has ruined the core story, and the over-saturation of combat has turned it into a simple side-scrolling shooter, and not a very enjoyable one at that. Compared to the likes of Shadow Complex, it can't even think about the idea of holding up a candle. Flashback fans beware, this is not the remake you're expecting, and I strongly urge you to try the demo before you buy it. A huge shame.