Retro Review: Flashback: The Quest for Identity

Flashback is a totally unique experience, blending elements of puzzle games, RPGs and even Prince of Persia. The game tells a great story in a rich world, in which you and the protagonist figure things out together.

The Basics

Flashback came out in 1992 for the Amiga, before being ported to just about every other console imaginable at the time. The differences between versions are fairly slight, but I played it on the Sega Genesis — apparently the only system on which the character’s shirt is white and not red, which now totally bothers me.

It’s a spiritual successor to Delphine’s earlier game, Another World, but not a direct sequel. The two games share a highly cinematic approach, unique for games of the era, as well as similar rotoscoped animations.

I’m having a hard time remembering the details.

In Flashback you take on the role of Conrad Hart, some sort of a secret agent in a dystopian future. You have managed to lose your memory while on an important mission, and you have to rediscover not only who you are, but what vital duty it is that you are meant to be carrying out.

The premise of amnesia allows you to really get into story and identify with Conrad right from the start. He is just as clueless as you are, and as you make discoveries and advance the storyline you are engaged in the same kinds of feelings. Which is kind of nice.

The story is told through cutscenes activated by finding certain items or talking to people, and it’s all very well done. The cutscenes are cool enough, but what really stands out is the inclusion of storyline moments out in the world, which help to keep the player immersed.

There are cavemen in the future, and they carry shotguns

I’ll be honest with you, when I first played Flashback I was a big fan of the marijuana, and other cool things like not going to school. Perhaps as a result of a combination of these traits, I managed to play the game for hours on end without ever getting past the first stage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pull it off, but just that I really, really loved the jungle. I guess I saw no reason to leave.

I figure it’s about time I moved on. I’m now a responsible, grown adult, and I understand that playing videogames all day is about incrementally advancing and showing people on the internet how responsible and grown-up I am.

It wasn’t until only a few years ago that I managed to beat the game, and I actually now find the city to be even more interesting than the jungle. As much as I am still a fan of futuristic shotgun-toting cavemen, the city manages to feel very real and alive for a 16-bit game on a 2D plane, which I think is a remarkable achievement.

As a story-driven game, the combat is not necessarily difficult, but requires a bit of strategic thinking. You should approach each screen like you would a puzzle game, and work out the sequence of moves you will have to perform to get through it unscathed.

The action and story elements definitely save the game from getting monotanous, and there is a lot of variation to keep you interested, but at it’s core Flashback is a puzzle game in terms of mechanics — and a damn good one.

I only have one real complaint about the gameplay. In the city you are presented with a package delivery sequence which essentially requires you to go up and down elevators and ride the subway back and forth, even filling out a bit of paperwork. It might even be good for immersion, but no less is it a way to artificially increase the length of a game, and it’s a little boring.

Things pick up after a few missions, and I’m willing to overlook it if you are.

Now if only I could figure out how to jump

The game feels and controls a lot like the original Prince of Persia, which is partly a byproduct of the style of animation, and partly due to the wealth of abilities Conrad has at his disposal. Flashback’s arsenal of moves is a huge strong suit, and for the most part they feel great and work very well.

The game isn’t perfect though, because some of Conrad’s moves are so completely unintuitive that I, a self-professed video game supergenius, had to look up a guide because I couldn’t figure out how the hell to jump up to a particular ledge.

As it turns out you can perform a special running jump up to a platform above you by standing back a bit, holding down the button to activate running, pressing forward, then releasing forward while continuing to hold down the run button, and as you pass under the ledge Conrad should leap up and grab it. Which means that the difference between jumping and not jumping, in this case, is that to jump you must not be holding forward, though you do have to press forward to begin the jumping sequence. That just feels stupid and wrong.

You will do a lot of experimenting with the controls early on, but when you have programmed it all into your muscle memory you will be glad to have such an array of abilities to use.

You’re a beautiful man, Conrad Hart

The game as a whole is absolutely gorgeous for the era, and Conrad’s movements are presented with very complex and smooth animations. The game strives for a realistic look and holds up remarkably well today. It’s just a very good looking game.

The cutscenes are also very well done, with kind of stylish vector graphics. While vector images may look a little dated now, they are still kind of cool, and they fit the motif here very well.

Flashback also features a moody score, which changes on certain screens depending on the action taking place, in more subtle ways than you might imagine. I’m not talking about a frenetic techno soundtrack for a boss battle, but essentially, dun dun duunnn. It’s very effective.

The Verdict

Flashback is a great game, but it’s definitely not for everybody. If you’ve got the patience for a good story, and a keen, strategic eye, this game will keep you occupied and thoroughly satisfied. If you’re a button masher, you may want to look elsewhere. 8/10

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