STAFF REVIEW of Flashback HD (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013.
by Adam Dileva

Flashback HD Box art It seems there’s been a trend lately with reviving old classic titles that people used to play many years ago to try and cash in on their fond nostalgia. The latest release to be revived from the classic vaults is the two decade old title that was released on many platforms, Flashback. Interestingly, it’s been worked on by the same studio director and designer of the original game, VectorCell Studios, which you may remember brought us the less than stellar game AMY. Everyone was assured that the remake would be in good hands, which didn’t seem hard to believe as it was part of the same original team working on the remake, which is why I’m a little confused to the way it turned out, but more on that shortly.

Flashback had some very unique gameplay mechanics and visuals when it originally released in 1992. It had a believable sci-fi setting, unique visual style, and gameplay that was unlike most of what else was available at the time. These reasons and more is why Flashback was remembered fondly over the years, as it really did something new for its time. Flashback (2013) is more than a simple visual overhaul, which is possesses, and the core setting and characters stay the same, but many changes were made to try and give it a more modern feel, which at times works more against it than for it. Visually it’s set as a 2.5D aesthetic and looking at a few screenshots you’d think it was a clone of Shadow Complex, right down to the grid map on the screen. The original Flashback was difficult, here though you have a generous amount of health and plenty of checkpoints, which I personally enjoy, but fans of the original might feel it’s been tuned too easy.

The plot starts much the same, as you awaken in a jungle after a crash landing with no memory of who you are or what your mission was. You find a holocube that has a prerecorded message from yourself explaining that you’re Conrad B. Hart and that you’ll need to find your friend to help you piece together who you are and why you don’t have your memories any longer. Slowly as you progress you’ll piece together the mystery by following the carefully thought out bread crumb trail, though you’ll see the ending coming well before it reveals itself. I genuinely enjoyed the story, but the story telling mechanics and the actual flashback segments are something left to be desired.

I don’t actually remember ever playing the original (which was a surprise to me) so I was going to watch some videos of the original after I started the game up for the first time, but to my surprise, the original 1992 version is included on the main menu from the beginning (no having to unlock it) in emulation form. It’s presented as an arcade cabinet (which doesn’t make sense as it wasn’t an arcade release) offering and you will play it as if you’re standing at the cabinet itself. This means no full screen gameplay and you play as if you’re looking at the screen from afar, which doesn’t help as the cabinet and the background take up most of the screens space, so you’re actually only playing in a small window. An odder design choice still is the fact that there’s even artificial screen glare, as if you were playing it in an actual arcade cabinet, which makes no sense in any way. Surprisingly, that’s not even the worst part about including the classic, as for some reason there’s no music in the title screen or any of the cutscenes either. The complete lack of music during these segments made me think something was wrong with my download, but doing some research proves that it was a poor design choice. Why there’s no sound or music I have no idea at all, but it will have you scratching your head. If you’re buying the remake so you can play the original again, avoid doing so, as it’s not done properly in any way.

Flashbacks new visual makeover will no doubt remind you of the visual style that Shadow Complex brought with its 2.5D presentation and visual fidelity. Environments look detailed, particles stand out, lighting looks great, and you can differentiate between backgrounds and foreground easily. That being said, unfortunately the graphics are really the only feature you’re going to remember and not fight against during your playthrough, as many of the original mechanics have changed that I doubt many fans of the original will approve of.

Flashback may look like Shadow Complex, and it’s certainly trying to capture that gameplay essence, it never hits that sweet spot of gameplay, combat, and platforming that’s it’s trying so hard to do. With the analog sticks on the controllers, there’s no more need for a dedicated run button that the original Flashback possessed, which to be fair, is a vast improvement after trying the original game. Ledges will now have a marker to indicate where you can climb up to (by holding up on the stick) which makes navigation a little easier, though it can be toggled off if you wish. The biggest change though would have to be the combat mechanics, as you can aim in every direction with the right analog stick, complete with laser sight to show you were you’ll hit. This also is a big improvement over the originals holster mechanic, but with these improvements comes a bigger emphasis on combat throughout the game.

You start with your pistol and use it for the bulk of the entire game. Eventually you gain grenades and other special items, but get used to your pistol shooting, as relying on grenades will only get you killed. The first enemies you encounter will be small droids that only take a shot or two but eventually you’ll be taking on alien enemies that are able to fire back at you. The music changes to a combat melody when an enemy is nearby, so it’s easy to tell when you’re going to have to try and keep your distance and fire away. The bigger problem with combat is that you’re usually confined to small corridors when fighting, so it’s difficult to get a vantage point you want. Coupled with sluggish animation and sticky controls, you’ll surely get hit many times just trying to climb a ledge or jump away, waiting for the animation to finish before you can retaliate. The later enemies take way too many shots to kill, not even including the invulnerable state that they can go into; in all, combat felt more annoying than rewarding.

As you explore, complete quests, and defeat enemies, you’ll slowly fill your XP bar which will net you a new level and three skill points to upgrade Conrad’s abilities, though they are superficial at best. You can decide to upgrade your Accuracy, Technology, or Stamina bars, each of which will give you small improvements to critical hits, more health, reduced fall damage, etc, but the problem is that you’re not told how much things change and improve. I completely stacked my stamina upgrades, and apparently I got more health from it, but it never tells you how much health you gained by doing so. The same goes for the other skills, as I never really felt like Conrad’s abilities actually were improving, which makes the whole point of the upgrade mechanic completely useless in the end. Also, it actually doesn’t teach you about upgrading the first time you level up, I just happened to find it in the menus after I gained level two and figured it out on my own.

Fans of the original probably won’t be fond of the health regeneration, stat growth, and a map that shows you exactly where you need to go at all times (though it’s not always perfect and can become more confusing than helpful at times). I’m all for having aids and help when needed, but if you don’t want your hand held, you don’t really have a choice here.

There are apparently stealth mechanics in place as well, but every time I tried to use it outside the VR training missions, I always got caught trying to sneak up on an enemy which altered the rest of the enemies in the vicinity. Conrad also has a pair of special goggles that allow him to enable a detective mode-like visual overlay that will highlight obstacles and enemies when toggled on. You’re able to move the camera more so than normal while using the goggles, which will cause you more issues as you try and use them as your move through the level.

New to Flashback is a VR section that you can choose to partake in that will issue you multiple sets of unique challenges that can be completed for extra XP to level up Conrad’s (useless) abilities. Some of the challenges are quite easy, while the other timed ones will actually be quite the challenge since you’ll have to deal with the game’s mechanics fighting against you the whole time. There’s also a section where Conrad gets to pilot a jetbike in a sequence that feels completely out of place in relation to the rest of the game. Sure it’s a nod to the fans, as in the original it was just a quick cutscene and now you get to experience it, but it ends up coming across as filler to pad length to the already short game.

As Conrad starts to piece together what’s going on he will recall visions in flashbacks themselves, though these are done in black and white comic book style and aren’t really animated at all. It’s disappointing that the main plot points come across this bland and it certainly won’t grab your attention. To make matters worse, the voice acting as a whole is on par with some of the worst
I’ve experienced. Conrad’s dialogue comes across as boring and as its being read off a sheet of paper. Though I guess it doesn’t help when the script has terrible lines like “awesome-sauce” and “The only thing I’ll ever be late for is my funeral” to begin with.

The Conrad of twenty years ago was the cool secret agent type of character, where the Conrad of today’s Flashback is nowhere near as smooth or cool as his former self. It probably doesn’t help that throughout my playthrough I ran into multiple bugs and glitches, some of which necessitated some restarts. One time I fell down a pit and was supposed to die, but instead I was just stuck at the bottom, not killed, having to reload my previous checkpoint. Numerous times I also got knocked off a ledge by an enemy and unable to move afterwards, again needing a restart.

Flashback definitely looked good in the trailers with its Shadow Complex style of gameplay, but there’s so many issues within that it’s very difficult to recommend, even with the 800 Microsoft Point price tag. The remake tries to fix some of the original games issues, which is does, but creates new ones and more in the process. The horrible voice acting destroys any immersion you may have if you try and enjoy the story and the constant bugs will also take you out of the experience quite often. Some things are better left to fond nostalgia memories, Flashback is one of them.

Overall: 4.6 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 2.0 / 10


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