Flashback was released in 1992, when I was 11 years old. It’s one of the first games I ever completed, and parts of it have stuck with me ever since. I wasn’t a huge fan of the sequel, Fade to Black, but then, who was? Certainly not the devs of Flashback 2, which seems to take place before the events of Fade to Black but doesn’t feed into them. Instead, it contrives a way to send series protagonist Conrad B Hart on a new adventure that basically just apes the original one.
What’s even weirder is that the once rough and tumble secret agent and molecular physicist Conrad Hart is here reimagined as a snarky teen (the game makes constant jokes about him not being allowed alcohol) with floppy hair and a mouth that seems unable to stop spewing a constant stream of vapid quips. Yet, the fact that the protagonist is now an irritating fool is somehow the least of Flashback 2’s problems.
That the original game is (rightly) revered as a gaming touchstone makes the sins of this sequel even more egregious. As does the fact that after 30 years this is the best they could produce. Flashback 2 is a bad game, plain and simple, but it also manages to beat the vaunted legacy of its franchise to a mushy pulp at the same time, thanks to some of the worst mechanics I’ve seen in recent years.
Squeezed uncomfortably between Flashback and Fade to Black, this sequel sees Conrad once more attempting to thwart an invasion by the shapeshifting alien Morphs, but does nothing new or interesting with the concept. The plot follows roughly the same beats as Flashback ‘92, even revisiting a lot of the same areas, here reimagined as neon-lit cyberpunk cityscapes, dark facilities, and verdant jungles. To its credit, Flashback 2 is a pretty game, and some of the environments are fairly impressive. As Conrad your first job is to find your friend Ian, who restored your memory in the original. To do so you’ll need to sign up at the Job Agency and take a total of three jobs from the computer, in order to buy a mech from a Mafia boss who is genuinely called Michael Corleoni, then you get the most ridiculous excuse for a mech fight I’ve seen since Rise of the Robots.
The first mission is to locate a man who is literally two doors away. The second is to infiltrate a lab and rescue a little girl from an infestation of alien beasts that have eaten everyone else. The third is to deliver a box to someone. Uneven is not a strong enough word. The second mission in particular is awful. You enter this infested lab, which is just in the middle of town, and shoot some aliens. Then you find the little girl, who won’t leave without her teddy bear, which is one room away. Then she gives you a key card, and a pair of goggles you use to ostensibly hack the next door, although you just find a point on the wall and press X. And this is indicative of every problem in Flashback 2. The solution is always in the same room or one room away, and none of it engages the player in any meaningful way.
That said, it’s better than having to travel to another district, whereupon the game makes you rent a bike and ride it there. But you literally just ride, dodging traffic which simply stops you dead and doesn’t cause damage, and turning off at the right exit. That’s it. With awful music and constant texture pop and disappearing roads. It’s maddening, mind-numbing, and is bookended by loading screens when it could have been the loading screen itself.
Once you are on a mission, you’ll need to deal with three main annoyances. Firstly, Conrad never stops talking, vocalising every thought that passes through his head. Even after learning a secret that should be utterly life changing, he’s back to making awful, smarmy jokes in a heartbeat. Secondly, the game is (sometimes) 2.5D, so enemies spawn in from all angles, and are incredibly finicky to target – especially airborne ones. And thirdly, there is no AI. Enemies move towards you at all times, or pop up and down behind cover like cautious rabbits. If you want a laugh, draw your gun in a pedestrian area and watch all the NPCs do nonstop Mexican waves whenever you press the right stick. When there’s an actual shootout near them, only some of them react at all.
Conrad and his enemies have an equal chance of getting stuck on the scenery, too, which is never not irritating. Combat is genuinely tiresome, as enemies just keep spawning in, often facing the wrong way, or completely fail to register a gunfight next to them unless they’re directly shot. Oh, and don’t expect to play for short periods. Save points are widespread and single use, for absolutely no reason other than to make you play longer at a time. The most enjoyment I got from Flashback 2 was found in the hacking mini game, which is really easy but reminds me of a game I have on my phone that I quite like.
Perhaps what irks me the most is that the original game is one of my all-time favourites; a game from the Before Times. Arguably, it’s gaming royalty. So to come at a sequel from this angle after so long feels like a genuine insult to the franchise legacy. Awful combat, clunky movement, some of the worst writing I’ve seen in recent years, and a general air of wrong-headedness where most of the design decisions are concerned stack up to produce a game almost entirely devoid of charm.
Flashback 2 took me completely by surprise, sneaking in under the radar, and I was bewildered at the lack of marketing or fanfare for it. All of which I now understand a lot better. It’s a mind-boggling mess of a game with few redeeming features, and a sequel we just didn’t need.
Cyberpunk aesthetic is cool
Bike and mech sections are awful
Frustrating save system