This update of Flashback takes all of the intrigue and gravitas of an epic sci-fi story and bafflingly bloats it with terrible plot points and half-heartedly tacked-on mechanics that feel out of place and majorly useless.
The story of Flashback is a fairly simple one: Awaking in the jungle of a strange planet, Conrad B. Hart finds his memory has been erased. He stumbles upon a Holocube, a futuristic recording device, and plays back a warning message he recorded for himself. It tells of a plot against Earth and points him to a friend who can help him get on track.
In the original game, Conrad was mostly silent, so it was left to players to infer his selfless motivation to save the Earth through his actions alone. He was a hero in the original game, but in this update he comes off as an immature show-off who seems more concerned with delivering cheesy one-liners than saving the day.
"Feeling fine!" he shouts after filling up on health at a conveniently-placed energy station. "Time to party!" he says after shooting down an attack drone. In one cutscene early on, which sets the tone for what to expect from Conrad's mouth throughout the rest of the game, he actually says "awesome-sauce." This guy is supposed to be a galactic police officer.
Flashback is a platformer at heart; a linear procession of 2D maps of varying scale Conrad must run and clamber across. Conrad still has a weighty sense of inertia to him, much like in the original game, that calls for jumping a chasm earlier than in other 2D platformers, to account for his movement when he lands. When Conrad lands from a long distance jump, he doesn't just stop; he moves a few steps while slowing down. Shooting, a large part of the game, is handled by free-aiming with the right analog stick and firing with the right trigger.
Besides the addition of voice acting, the other major flaw is that all sense of exploration has been stripped from the game. There simply is no second-guessing your next destination in Flashback because a mini-map and route marker constantly tell you where to go. A large part of the original's appeal was solving environmental puzzles and exploring techno-futuristic settings, but that's been swapped out in favor of expediting your travel from one location to the next.
There's also a lot more combat this time around, though it's hardly satisfying as it largely involves slamming on the trigger as fast as you can to shoot stuff with your pistol. I find it odd that nobody seems to mind when I run through a crowded mall, kill two police officers with jetpacks and a few security drones before stepping onto a train. Is murder legal in the future? Is Conrad known the world over for having an insatiable bloodlust for police officers and everyone just puts up with it? In the original it was more easily tolerable because you didn't have a mall full of people looking on, spectating your gun fights.
Combat is bolstered by a light RPG progression system. Conrad gains levels upon finishing missions and taking out enemies, which earns him skill points he can then deposit into one of three specialization areas: Accuracy, Stamina and Technology. Accuracy governs the chance for critical hits when using the pistol and cuts down on its power consumption, but the effects are negligible – I never noticed any kind of real benefit, despite putting over a dozen points into it. Stamina is a bit more useful, as it increases your maximum health slightly and makes you take less fall damage, while Technology simply increases the amount of critical damage you do with your pistol and grenades. No matter which field I put points into, I never felt like it had any real impact on my game – especially when I decided to run through a section without spending any points just for comparison's sake.
Aside from these issues, glaring drops in frame rate, weak death animations and non-sensical plot points added in this new version also instill ire. There is one laughable scene where a bad guy expresses how he can't let Conrad continue his investigation, then decides to give him back some memories, knock him out and leave him to sleep it off in some alley. Then there are other silly sequences like jumping on flying cars (it's the future, remember?) to cross the gaps between buildings and a corridor jetbike travel segment where Conrad has to dodge a multitude of travel signs and moving platforms. No wonder I saw no other drivers during this bit, because apparently driving in the future is the most dangerous thing ever.
It all just makes no sense. The original Flashback was beautiful in its simple cutscenes and nuanced storytelling, relying on imagination, solid platforming and environmental exploration. In this modern remake, the original vision is lost in favor of trying to reach a new generation of potential fans with some half-baked ideas on what would make A Cool Sci-Fi Game™. And in the process of doing that, Flashback has lost its identity entirely.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Flashback, provided by Ubisoft.
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