Playing Delphine Software's cinematic platformer Flashback as a young gamer was an enthralling experience. Released in 1992, its impressive rotoscoped animation and cryptic sci-fi narrative captured the imagination of a generation. When I heard it was to be reincarnated – headed up by its original game designer, Paul Cuisset – I was thrilled at the prospect of re-experiencing the 16-bit classic. Unfortunately the shallow re-imagining VectorCell have delivered falls far short of expectations and reminds us that sometimes memories are best left in the past.
The plot – largely inspired by action blockbusters Total Recall and The Running Man – retraces the steps of the original, following secret agent Conrad B. Hart, who awakens in the jungles of Titan with no recollection of who he is. As he attempts to piece the mystery of his identity together, he finds himself embroiled in an alien conspiracy that threatens the very existence of mankind.
Unfortunately a premise that was once intriguing is now largely played out, and is further hampered by its convoluted delivery and awkward dialogue. Ponderous and ineffectual, these issues are made infinitely worse by sub par voice acting, contributing towards a protagonist who is as unlikeable as he is moronic. This flaccid, insincere character strips away any urgency the plot might otherwise have had, his embarrassing one-liners and juvenile attitude becoming increasingly tiresome.
Whereas gameplay in the original was slow-paced and methodical akin to Prince of Persia, VectorCell's modernisation takes a more action-focused approach. Over the course of multiple Metroidvania-style levels, players are tasked with navigating multi-tiered environments, solving simple puzzles and facing off against drones, mutants and cyborgs.
Manoeuvring Conrad is much simpler this time around, with more forgiving platforming and straightforward controls. Similar to Shadow Complex, he now has the ability to aim in a 360 degree arc using the right stick. In theory this might make for more dynamic combat possibilities, but due to limited enemy classes and antiquated AI, these confrontations quickly become monotonous. It doesn't help that your foes can soak up an inordinate amount of bullets before they succumb; and while basic stealth and melee mechanics have been included, their clumsy execution isn't at all satisfying.
Several conveniences have been afforded to modern gamers, such as a minimap that leads you directly to your next objective and an XP system, allowing you to upgrade various attributes. While these implementations may seem like an improvement, they are largely superfluous and detract a whole lot more than they add. On the plus side a suite of virtual reality challenges have been made available, that while not overly interesting definitely pose a challenge and offer a bit more bang for your buck.
It's sad to say the best thing Flashback has going for it is its visual design, its distinctive rotoscoped look being replaced by handsome-yet-ultimately generic graphics. Solid character models populate inert 2.5D settings, their artful backdrops providing a decent sense of depth. The game does a fairly good job of varying its surroundings, allowing you to explore industrial spaceports and neon-bathed nightclubs, but its animations aren't nearly as polished. Leaping and grabbing ledges looks floaty and unnatural and often when you're killed, a death sequence will fail to initiate. The game's flashbacks are presented in the form of comic book-like sketches, which serve their purpose well enough, but compared to its fully fledged cutscenes feel decidedly cheap and unimpressive.
The short campaign is riddled with bugs and frame-rate problems are rampant. Often contextual actions such as operating elevators or activating switches simply won't kick in, and on one occasion a mission objective failed to trigger, requiring the entire level to be replayed.
Occasionally stages are broken up with boss fights and even a brief jetbike section, but they aren't particularly compelling and feel like you're simply going through the motions. Thankfully a port of the 1992 version – minus its 16-bit soundtrack – can be accessed through the main menu, but its inclusion is nowhere near enough to justify the purchase of a re-imagining that has clearly lost sight of what made the original special.
Remakes are always controversial and successfully producing them can be an incredibly difficult, thankless task. While VectorCell's effort isn't the worst attempt I've ever seen, it certainly isn't the nostalgic celebration it could and should have been. If you're looking for a fun retro classic with a modern lick of paint, try WayForward's DuckTales: Remastered, because regrettably Flashback is an experience best forgotten.