On the twentieth anniversary of the original’s 16-bit release, Ubisoft together with developers VectorCell, (they of the really quite bad Amy fame) have decided to release a high-definition remake of 16-bit action platformer title, Flashback. Sure, its not exactly a remake that folks have clamoured for but sadly it does little to endear itself either; succumbing to a writhing mass of flaws, bugs and glitches which drag the game down into a pit of numbing misery.
A sci-fi themed platforming action adventure that combines combat and puzzle solving, Flashback casts you as Conrad B Hart, a secret agent who wakes up on the jungles of Titan with no memory of his own. Luckily, in true Total Recall style, Conrad has seen fit to make a series of recordings to be sought out by his now-amnesic self to clarify the dangers he faces in the form of an insidious alien race attempting to enslave the human race.
As much as 2013’s version throws in a few new shaders to put a presentable face on some really-not-so-fancy 3D visuals, the end result is sadly predictable; a mildly jazzed up and in some cases, bloated husk of the original game that is tragically uneven in its homage; adding additional stuff in where it doesn’t belong while playing it far too close of the conventions of 1993 gameplay design to stand up against modern contemporary efforts.
Take the platforming element of the game for instance. Leveraging the Rotoscoping animation technique (where animators trace over live footage, frame by frame) seen in earlier titles such as Another World and Prince of Persia, the 2D sprite-based Conrad seen in the 1992 version of the game had a bespoke sense of momentum and weight as he stepped, jumped, pivoted on a heel and climbed over obstacles.
By contrast, while the Conrad of 2013 gives the appearance of jumping, hanging and moving in a manner which appears similar to his ancestor, there is something amiss. The feeling of shifting weight on Conrad’s heels is pretty much non-existent here whenever you change direction; making today’s incarnation of the character feel oddly weightless and far less graceful than the playable protagonist seen in the original 16-bit game.
Elsewhere the gun-play, another gameplay element that forms the crux of the Flashback experience, has been jarringly altered for the worse.
Seemingly an attempt to level out the difficulty curve into a plateau in order to entice new, unsuspecting gamers into its grubby embrace, combat in Flashback lacks the definite and abrupt finality of the one-shot kills seen in the original. Instead, players are forced to simply run (or roll) through an enemy, shoot it in the back and repeat this inane little process until the enemy falls over; cursing its creators for not endowing it with enough AI to deal with your seemingly genius stratagems.
You could very well argue that one-shot deaths are the hallmark of cheap, outdated development ideas and to an extent, you would be right; though it is difficult to argue passionately against its removal when the result is the aforementioned all-guns blazing, patience-sapping, awkward cretin-fest that we’re left with here.
To make this cult hero of yesteryear feel more at home; they have put in leveling mechanics into the game where they previously didn’t exist; yet another change to the game that didn’t need to happen. Killing stuff, shooting stuff and completing simplistic A to B missions result in your gaining XP and then choosing where you want to pile your points into; Stamina, Accuracy or Technology.
The inclusion of such mechanics might even be welcome if the game was a substantial enough experience to warrant it; as it is though, you can finish the game within the confines of its meager three-odd hour duration by just sticking the points into whatever you like, with the result doing apparently nothing to stymie or enhance your prospects either way.
Speaking of the game’s length, this is one area of the game which really could have done with some creative TLC. Well, more than the rest of the game anyway.
Lasting at the previously mentioned three-hour mark, Ubisoft’s claim of an ‘expanded campaign’ proves to be an over-exaggeration at best and a white lie with some horribly brown, smelly stains on it at worst. Certainly, the only reason to keep yourself playing is to indulge in the VR missions, which themselves are relatively thoughtless, arena-based challenges focusing on the various enemies and abilities in the game.
Not a whole lot of fun, quite honestly.
Elsewhere the game offers you the opportunity to replay the game using your new and improved stats, the enticement of which is equal to chewing gum for any length of time; whatever sweet taste that existed has long since been extracted and now its time to spit the bloody thing out and move on.
Then, then, there is the voice acting. Backed by script in which “awesome-sauce” is an actual line uttered by the game’s hero, the tones of him and just about everyone else in the game come across as unconvincing and poor. Especially Conrad’s new ‘surfer dude’ style vernacular, whose overblown ‘charm’ and dull humour grates heavily against an oh-so serious narrative all about lost memories, murder and aggressive alien invasion; deftly destroying a story that, for the time of its original release at least, remained somewhat compelling and involving.
As if the flaws brought on by the game and its encompassed array of mechanics wasn’t enough, the game is also crammed full with enough bugs and glitches that it makes you wonder if the QA folks were off on a jolly for the entire time that the game was under development for.
Such priceless screw-ups include falling through lifts, getting stuck in the aforementioned lifts, getting his appendages jammed in all sorts of scenery and vanquished enemies that go into some sort of post-mortem shock where they end up looking like a vague humanoid with no bones that has just deep-throated a rather powerful taser.
One presumably neat little extra that developer thought would be good to have in the game, is an emulated version of the 1993 original. The problem is, that while its good practice for developers to include the original version in these things as a way of acknowledging its fandom, it becomes detrimental to the memory of that game if its executed as poorly as it has been here.
Its a simply broken proposition; its failures ranging from the utter lack of sound during cutscenes to the idea that the 1993 original is being played on an arcade in the new game’s world, causing the cabinet and surrounding environment to take up more room on the screen than the actual game does. Some customisation options here, would have been nice and most likely would have stood the original in better stead with folks these days who are unfamiliar with it.
After all, its quite one thing for a remake of something to be poor on its own merits; its quite another for that same remake to indirectly humiliate the original in such a way that people will look at it and, tragically, wonder what any of the fuss was in the first place.
In the end, VectorCell’s Flashback is the epitome of the rehash that nobody asked for, while the 16-bit original was fine just where it was; lurking in the periphery of the memories of those of us crusty enough to fondly remember it. Destroying pretty much any trace of its previously held cult status, Flashback is worst kind of remake; simultaneously being sub-medicore in its newly fashioned threads while inexcusably ruining the original.
Nobody needs that; some memories are left just fine as they were.
A download code for the Xbox 360 version of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Published by Ubisoft and developed by Vector Cell, Flashback is out now on PC and Xbox Live Arcade, costing $9.99. Buy it here.
A PS3 version is tipped to arrive before the end of the year.