Jordan Mechner brought us the marvellous Prince of Persia in 1989, very much the template for Delphine’s Another World and, subsequently, Flashback; their gem of a platform-action release. Each of these exceptional games came with their own variation on rotoscoped graphics (think an ancient variation on today’s Motion Capture), whose canned animations forced you to learn a very different method of control.
I won’t rehash the plot of Flashback – you either know it already, or deserve to come to it fresh – but suffice to say it has a heavy Cyberpunk orientation, taking cues from excellent French influences like Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) and Mézières (Valerian). Gameplay consists of you traversing platforms, collecting and using items, avoiding traps and getting into tense gunfights.
What sets Flashback apart, even today, is how you control your limber avatar. As with Prince of Persia or the original Tomb Raider, each action has a set number of animation frames, even mundane ones such as turning around, crouching or drawing a weapon. Taking each action consumes several moments; interrupting the action costs precious time.
There is a weight to the movement that imitates gravity and physics; a consequence to motion you expect from 3D games, but not in the flat, 2D world of the platformer. Want to run and jump off a ledge, land behind a gun-wielding mutant and blast them in their unsuspecting ass? Entirely doable, incredibly cool, but also demanding expert knowledge of your capabilities.
So far, so 1992 release… what’s new for Flashback in space-year 2018 (yeah, yeah, we’re a bit belated in this review)? Well, there are a few quality of life improvements. Selecting the updated version on start allows you to choose some filter effects which tweak the aesthetic (I recommend using two in conjunction with each other: CRT and Bloom) and work pretty well.
More usefully, there’s an additional ‘rewind’ feature: you get a certain amount of seconds to ‘spend’ and can rewind as many times as you need until that amount is exhausted. How much time you’re allowed depends on the difficulty level you choose, but whatever you go for it’s a godsend.
Even though the game is pretty short, dying can land you a fair way from your current objective, usually facing a situation you’ve no clue how to resolve, that requires trial and error. Using this lifeline might make your time with the game shorter, but as it was artificially padded anyway – through difficulty spikes and poorly-spaced save points – brevity is preferable to frustration and irritation.
The rewind feature isn’t flawless, mind. Dropping back to a different point will see you holster your weapon if it was drawn, which can mean the difference between life and death. There are other funny behaviours randomly triggered too, so it can be a bit trial-and-error.
Also, for good or ill, the flaws of the original game are still knocking around. There are foreground objects that obscure enemies and objects, sometimes leading to unfair deaths. Due to how they’re drawn, some mission-critical collectables are hard to spot against the backgrounds, which is again an artificial way to extend gameplay and have you trudging back and forth until you spot them. Some situations are just too hard by design, as well; killzones where enemy aliens can catch you in an inescapable death-loop due to the wind-up/cooldown time of critical actions.
Quirky and intricate control schemes may come at the price of occasional frustration, but why not take the time to become a master of them? The reward is smooth, cinematic motion in a unique – even after the better part of thirty years – universe of colourful futuristic cityscapes, Dredd-like killer cops and slimy, morphing aliens. Flash back to an era of experimentation and platform-pushing graphics? Don’t mind if I do.
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