Flashback HD Review: Forgetting the Magic of the Past

When I was a kid, Flashback was one of my favorite games, and I think that was because it was a cinematic, gorgeously animated experience that did that thing of elevating “what games could be” at an important time in the development of my appreciation of the medium.

Looking back at Flashback over the years for me has almost always been done with rose-colored glasses, and so when Ubisoft announced an HD remake of the title coming to Xbox Live, I was ecstatic. But like other recent remakes making the rounds, it seems the memory of Flashback is better than its reality. Nostalgia isn’t quite enough to make a game or its remake good, and Flashback HD trades on nostalgia while missing out on those features that worked to make its predecessor a classic experience. Where the original Flashback might have elevated my conception of what games can be, its remake seems firmly rooted in the cliches and middling design that many games have seen in the intervening 20 years.

Flashback HD adds a lot of elements that make the notably difficult Flashback easier to play and, in general, more accessible — but many, if not all, of its new features add little to the actual gameplay experience, and a weak story and holdovers from the original create a melting pot of elements that struggle to engage. Flashback HD falters as it tries to make itself worth playing with a combination of old features that aren’t much fun, new ones that don’t help matters, and irritating bugs popping up for good measure.

Flashback HD
Platforms: Xbox Live (Reviewed), PC (unreleased), Playstation Network (unreleased)
Developer: VectorCell
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: Aug. 21, 2013
MSRP: $9.99

Just as in the original, Flashback HD covers the story of Conrad Hart, a man who wakes up in the jungle after a chase, having lost his memory. Mixing or straight-up cribbing elements of Total Recall, They Live, The Running Man and Blade Runner, the game’s story isn’t (and wasn’t) exactly award-winning sci-fi fare. VectorCell has tried to amp things up by turning Conrad into a wise-cracking, scruffy faced hero, and adding a little more characterization throughout the game. None of it really works, though, and every character feels like a cliche piled on a cliche.

The original Flashback was a landmark title largely because of its graphical style. Using the rotoscopic graphical approach seen in Another World and a lot of the same gameplay conventions, Flashback was one of the earliest “cinematic” video game experiences, and its fluid, lifelike character animations made it beautiful and intriguing. It was also pretty grueling in its difficulty, with gunfights generally amounting to quick reactions and careful planning on the part of the player, and many, many deaths.

Flashback HD mitigates a lot of what would make the original hard to stomach by today’s standards. Its graphical update is often pretty beautiful and uses a 2.5-D look to add depth and (some) life to its side-scrolling levels. Gone are the tough-to-parse movement controls that have a button for running, one for jumping, one for picking things up, one for drawing your weapon and one for firing it (to say nothing of dealing with your inventory and the items found there). Part of this is the ability to map more buttons to a controller, but in general, VectorCell streamlined how Flashback is played, and that goes a long way to making the game smoother and easier to manage.

Flashback HD is, on the whole, easier. Flashback was unforgiving with deaths — it didn’t take much to find yourself getting gunned down, or being forced to reload an area because of a bad fall often caused by trouble gauging the game’s fluid but pre-set animations. Though it’s still a side-scroller that includes a lot of jumping over gaps and electrified floors, and a great deal of vertical movement, Flashback HD makes all of these work more fluidly with modern graphics and gameplay conventions. While its controls are still a bit wonky by today’s standards, in comparison to its forebear, the remake controls better, quite simply.

The weird thing is that VectorCell has held onto a lot of the awkwardness that marked the original Flashback, however, even if it has improved on that awkwardness somewhat. Running and jumping are more fluid, but they remain tough to execute with the right timing. You’ll still need to stop what you’re doing, find an edge above you, and make a vertical hop to reach the ledge above. These things make Flashback HD feel like its predecessor, but they don’t do much to actually make the game better. It feels like mistaking technical limitations for stylistic gameplay choices.

Rather than relying on quick reflexes to take out enemies with one-hit kills, Flashback HD adds a lot more fighting to its enemy encounters, and really, more enemies in general. You’ll get into gun battles with cyborg police, rifle-wielding mutants and flying drones a lot of the time, but most of your engagements will amount to standing your ground and trading gunfire until an enemy is killed.

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