Some will insist that old-school reboots should remove the clunkyness all the while retaining the charm, but most critics will tell you that’s a tall order. Having your cake and eating it is an ideal world for the consumer, but sometimes you can’t always have both – as is with the case of Flashback. A 2013 reboot for a 1992 MS-DOS game, Flashback takes the idea of a reboot almost too literally.
1992’s Flashback was critically acclaimed for all the right reasons. It was tricky, and therefore rewarding; innovative, and therefore notable. Ubisoft’s 2013 remake is neither tricky nor notable, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. That said, everything I liked about Flashback was entirely superficial. It was vibrant, and looked beautiful on my new 42″ TV. It was nostalgic, which always gives me a kick. It had a Bladerunner style action sound-track, and that goes a long way. Conrad might have a few more tricks up his sleeve, but Flashback doesn’t have any of its own.
Being an Ubisoft game, I was preparing myself for a bumpy ride. I’m always on the lookout for bugs after having issues with every PC port from Ubisoft in the last 2 years, and Flashback was no exception. It has some seriously rough edges. I found myself stuck in a perpetual loop because I had accidentally rolled past a checkpoint location, as you can see here:
As ever, Ubisoft declined to comment, so I’ve no idea if this bug is fixed or not. Only about an hour in, it was annoying having to restart the first level. Other issues included objects rolling under other things in the 2.5D plain, making them slightly out of reach, and a few other physics issues that made me wonder how Flashback would have turned out if re-created by its original programmers without Ubisoft. By in large however, everything worked how it should, but the dodgy voice acting and even worse scriptwriting kept the entire game in a sort of AA limbo, unable to match the quality of some of the simplest indie games of 2013. If Flashback didn’t have the Flashback IP behind it, it would most certainly have been completely forgettable.
The frequency of checkpoints also lessens the challenge, as well as offering the aforementioned bug, and with quite a large amount of health for the game, those simple mistakes you made back in 1992 are only a matter of running away or shooting your way out of them. That’s a shame, because they’ve kept the overt sense of clunk but none of the challenge. I guess it was easier to make a game feel dated, than challenging?
If Flashback does excel anywhere, it’s in how Paul Cuisset and his team have managed to piece together a realistic sci-fi world in a 2.5D realm. In the same way that you might wonder what lies behind the rolling hills of a Sonic 2 world-scape, Flashback teases us with slightly out-of-reach paths leading back into the realm of 3D. Obviously they’re all conveniently cordoned off, but there’s a sense of slightly unobtainable depth that helps create a more realistic world, avoiding some of the more Metroidvania cliches.
As Flashback was published by Ubisoft, fans should expect the stealth approach to be side-stepped for the attack approach. The same can be said here. They’ve removed the ability to distract enemies found in the 1992 original, and unfortunately that mechanic has not been replaced with anything. You attack, basically, and it’s a shame when a game loses a layer of depth the original had, especially when it’s being built as fan service. Why make a game for fans of the original, retaining even the clunkyness, removing much of the depth?
1992’s Flashback was hardly a mechanically complex game, although many of them were fairly innovative, so it doesn’t make sense to strip away mechanical depth in 2013, a time when we’ve come so far, and grown jaded.
It would have been a welcome addition, if they had created enemies that required certain tactics, or made use of things like grenades in order to destroy them. Unfortunately, every enemy can be overcome with the same pistol, and a few dodges here and there. That said, fans of Bladerunner and Total Recall will appreciate the very 80’s sci-fi feeling Flashback has, and it’s a relatively well nuanced game.
Most of Flashback follows this same montage esque running pattern, backwards and forth across levels, with some very basic puzzle mechanics (basically just finding the right path), but when it does try to mix things up, it feels more as though it’s simply dragging things out. It’s a short game, completed in only a few hours, and I can’t say a jet-bike scene – however pretty the changing background is – did much to wake me up from what was otherwise an underwhelming journey so far. The jet-pack scene, which I’ll call ‘additional material’, felt exactly that: something thrown together in addition. The steering was awkward, and I almost felt like I was playing some Wipeout themed Temple Run.
Boss fights are quite interesting, and probably do the most to mix up the same old stale dynamic, but Flashback consistently feels like a strangely unambitious indie project from a team of inexperienced developers – we know that’s not the case, though, since it’s built by the guys who made the innovative 16bit era Flashback. It has a lot of spit, but little polish, and although it’s prettier than when Hollywood goes 80’s, it has retained all the wrong things, introducing all the hallmarks of exactly what is wrong with gaming today: simplicity, gimmicks, shortness of gameplay, mechanical cliches, and slopping writing.
Flashback has all the right things for an enjoyable game – it has upgrades, a story (as long as you remember the original), some nice combat elements, and great art design. Unfortunately, it delivers nothing more. It might be fan-service for some, but those fans I feel will be disappointed when the nostalgia loses its grip, and for the rest of us, we’re left wondering why VectorCell retained the worst bits of the 1992 hit, leaving out the best bits. Flashback isn’t a failure, but it is a good example of how not to bring an old-school game back from the dead.