Game review : Flashback - The quest for identity

Thanks to PyCon India and my work, I hardly get time to play any oldies. However, one always needs some release and this time, it arrived as a Delphine classic.

Flashback - The quest for identity is one of the best games I’ve played and considering what a hopelessly addicted gamer I am, that’s saying a lot. It has a number of things notable about it which I’ll mention one by one.

Firstly, the story. Flashback is a cyberpunk platformer characterised by one reviewer as a “thinking man’s action game” which I think is quite accurate. It’s got a very Philip K. Dick feel about the whole thing and is very nicely narrated. You can skip the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers.
The story is basically an alien takeover of earth detected by the protagonist Conrad Hart during his thesis. His investigations were noted by the aliens and was hunted. He takes the precaution of recording his memories and sending them to his friend Ian. He gets captured and mind wiped but escapes and restores his memory. After that, he figures out a way to destroy the aliens but at great cost. He gets stranded in an uncharted region of space and is goes into cryo sleep at the ending of the game. It’s narrated using animated cutscenes. In the disk version, the cutscenes are hand drawn and have a rather cartoony feeling about them. In the CD version, they are pre rendered and look more realistic. The first picture below is from the intro cinematic of the disk version and the second is the corresponding picture in the CD version.
Disk version intro cinematic capture
CD version intro cinematic capture
I personally prefer the disk version since it matches with the mood of the game better. The game graphics itself were like the disk version cinematics - hand drawn and very intricate.

Secondly, the animation. Flashback boasts of using rotoscopy to animate the sprites. Most of the limelight for this technique was stolen by the legendary Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner but quite frankly, Flashback’s animation is far superior. In my opinion, Prince’s real contribution to the gaming world was the non projectile combat system i.e. the use of swords during fights which was a first at the time as far as I know. The rotoscopy is much more detailed and beautiful in Flashback. Here is an image of the various sprites used to animate Conrad when he turns during running.
Conrad turning while running
It looks good in itself but seeing it on the rich backgrounds while playing is even better. Here’s a video on youtube showing our hero negotiating level 1.

Also notable in this area is the sheer range of moves. In contrast to the very limited number of moves in Prince of Persia, Conrad can run and leap onto distant ledges, roll while running, roll with his gun drawn, drop down, climb up and do a lot of other things which makes some parts of the game quite interesting and fun to watch.

Next is the inventory. Conrad’s ability to use a force shield to deflect enemy fire, throw stones to distract enemies while he moves in for the kill, use a portable teleportation device to solve some puzzles all add to the flavour of the game. In some situations, the “thinking man” approach really helps and is quite satisfying. Although the only weapon Conrad has is a gun, the other items he can use to get the job done give the game more depth and feel.

Finally, there’s the gameplay. The game is not annoyingly tough. I get turned off when the game is too easy and not challenging enough and also when it’s so tough that I have to save and reload just to cross a tiny ledge because of a timing problem. Flashback keeps the game realistically tough and also playably easy - a balance hard to get. The story elements and the action are woven together really well. The game is riveting and there’s a strong sense of reward with every level you finish. The puzzles are not so complex that the game becomes a Sierra adventure game. At the same time, they’re tough enough to keep you on your toes.

On the downsides, there’s the broken password based save system with “save points” that disappear when you quit the game. This can get annoying but the levels are short enough to finish in a single sitting so it’s not that.

Highly recommended for platformer lovers. Highly recommended for people who have good hand eye coordination. Flashback - The Quest for identity is available as a DOS (disk) version but with copyright protection that annoys the heck of me and as a CD version without the copy protection that works just fine.

This is not a game you want to miss.

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