Remakes of beloved classics are a mainstay of any art form. We see books being republished with fancy covers and new forewords, old films and TV shows being remade for a modern audience (to varying levels of success), and famous paintings being the subject of countless reinterpretations and parodies.
Video games are no exception to this, with more and more remakes offering older gamers a chance to relive their childhood favourites, and a new audience the opportunity to experience them for the first time. Sometimes it’s a simple case of an HD filter, as with many Classics HD packages for PS3 and Xbox 360; other times the game will be rebuilt from the ground up.
Flashback takes the latter approach. Rather than simply smoothing out the rotoscoped 2D graphics of the 1993 original, the new game brings the source material to life with beautiful 3D graphics, a revamped combat system, redesigned platforming puzzles, and new mechanics like RPG elements and challenge levels.
Flashback (2013) really puts its best foot forward, with the first couple of hours an absolute joy to play. It opens with a cutscene showing Conrad B. Hart escaping from an unknown facility on a hoverbike, before crash landing in a forest with no memory of who he is. It’s an almost frame-by-frame recreation of the opening to the original, only with impressive Unreal Engine 3 powered visuals in place of the gorgeous - but now dated - rotoscoped style.
With the help of his best friend, Conrad needs to piece his memory back together with hidden data files left by his past self . . . clearly, he knew someone was after him, and foresaw his memory being wiped. But who, and why? It’s an incredibly intriguing plot, more than a little reminiscent of Total Recall, and keeps you firmly planted on the edge of your seat.
The gameplay, too, really makes it hard to put the controller down for the first few hours. Combat follows the side scrolling twin-stick shooter design that’s becoming increasingly popular, but does a much better job of it than any other game I’ve played. Aiming your gun, even while on the run, feels natural and easy, never making you feel like you’re fighting the controls as well as the enemies in game.
Level design is stellar, making good use of well crafted platforming puzzles to keep you engaged, and the non-linear level design makes exploring a great deal of fun. If you’re a fan of the original, the re-designed level layouts also draw heavy inspiration from the game’s predecessor. The detail in the art design also really stands out, with the lush woodlands of the opening level decorated with all sorts of bugs and wildlife, in stark contrast to the cold, industrial feeling of the subterranean New Washington.
If the game finished after two hours, it would be fantastic, if a bit short. Sadly, it doesn’t, and everything that makes the first act so great goes out the window as the game goes on.
The intriguing story of memory loss and self-rediscovery is all wrapped up by the end of the first act, from which point on it becomes your standard sci-fi “stop the aliens from taking over Earth” plot. This odd pacing is true to the original game, but it was arguably a flaw there too, and really doesn’t hold up in 2013.
On top of that, the remake introduces a new plot point in the form of Sonia. I say “plot point”, not character, because all she is is a damsel in distress thrown in to try and humanise Conrad. Only, this falls flat because prior to her capture, all we see of Sonia is Conrad callously dumping her over the phone. But as soon as she’s captured, we’re meant to care about her and believe that Conrad does, too? She isn’t even deemed important enough to get a character model in the game, with the only vision of her in a comic-like flashback cutscene. The whole subplot feels more than a little bit tacked on.
Around the same time as the shift in plot, the gameplay also starts to flounder. Smart level design gives way to leaps of faith and other trial and error puzzle design. Additionally, some finicky puzzles involving moving lasers uncover a lack of precision in the controls that was previously not noticeable. A frequently occurring bug which sees you temporarily get stuck on a piece of the environment until you can wiggle your way out turns from mildly annoying in the first few hours to gamebreaking in the latter part of the game, where it almost always guarantees death when it occurs.
Visuals are the one thing that doesn’t falter throughout Flashback, consistently demanding your attention. You’ll travel through a large number of different locales, from forests to factories to nightclubs to bizarre, Metroid-like alien landscapes, and all of these diverse landscapes look immaculate. There are some occasional animation glitches, but nothing too distracting.
If you need more of a flashback, the Xbox Live title also includes the original game, although the port is somewhat questionable. It plays well, but has no music for some inexplicable reason, and the only viewing option is with a border designed to look like an arcade machine. Still, the fact that it’s there at all is neat.
Flashback isn’t a particularly long game, clocking in at around 4-5 hours with limited replayability beyond collectibles for completionists. For $12.95 though, that’s a decent amount of playtime; it’s just a shame that it runs out of steam so early and leaves you wanting flashbacks of the first few levels.