Set in a dystopian future endlessly stuck in the sci-fi traits of 1988, this self-proclaimed “synth-punk” roguelike shooter takes ’80s action movie clichés and churns them up into a kaleidoscope of neon pixels. Every single second counts in Black Future ’88, as the player has only 18 minutes to overthrow a sentient tower known as Skymelt before his (or her) heart explodes. Any undeclared currency or valuable items besides weapons left on the ground will be consumed by Skymelt, and therefore be used as a tactical resource against you.
Just like pretty much every other roguelike on the market, various items, weapons, and abilities can be obtained during every given run to potentially provide the player a dead man’s hand across a collection of procedurally generated rooms. However, a good deal can usually come at a dangerous price. More powerful tools and attributes result in formidable and potent side effects that can sabotage the player’s chances of survival. Take the Blak Wave gun, for example. It’s strong enough to tear through a room like a hot knife through butter but the ammo source it depends on rapidly chomps on the precious seconds of your character’s lifeline.
Abilities and perks can be obtained in several different ways, with some being much more lenient than others in regards to what you have to sacrifice to possess them. Blue perks are your safest bet while purple upgrades will be far more effective in exchange for your character becoming cursed. In this case, being cursed can result in Skymelt upgrading itself. That could see bosses and enemies become more aggressive, elite hunters summoned to take you down, or health items becoming much more reactive to explosions due to the drugs containing gasoline as a byproduct. It’s a bit like consuming water-soluble vitamins in comparison to performance-enhancing drugs, with the latter becoming more detrimental to your overall health for a more accelerated result.
Furthermore, depending on which character you choose may affect how you approach buffs. One character may have lower health but also a higher chance of finding better weapons. While a certain, older protagonist may even have a lower time limit strapped to his beating organ. Deciding on your choice of character and perks can also work like a difficulty setting in some way depending on how safe or wreckless you want to play. When all thrown together, Black Future ’88 becomes an adrenaline-fueled fight for survival where the curiosity of opening pandora’s box can lead to your inevitable downfall.
Being a roguelike, you’re expected to die very often with every demise levelling your profile up to unlock new weapons and potential abilities. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to hit a level cap of 54, making this particular reward system tank out quite quickly. Thankfully, there’s plenty else to discover and distract the player from constantly following the skull marker towards each boss room. As it happens, the manic gameplay can be just as addictive as the gasoline-based drugs burning though the character’s veins.
To say Black Future ’88 is addictive is a bit of an understatement. Honestly, I can really see some people spending an unhealthy amount of hours having just one more go in conquering Skymelt. There always seems to be something new to find, whether it be obtaining the right perks and weapon combinations reacting together to form a new upgrade, or a jaw-dropping realisation of what it means when asked if I want a buddy to help.
Speaking of buddies, Black Future ’88 happens to be a fantastic local-only multiplayer game to blast through with a partner. The camera zooms out nicely to capture both players on the screen at once and verbal communication between couch companions is a vital ingredient for success. When a partner dies, you have the choice of ending their run or resuscitating them by sacrificing a percentage of the time. Friends can also become rivals during certain moments where Skymelt tries to persuade the team to turn against one another for a prize, or getting the last hit on a boss will reward the player who put the final nail in the coffin the upgrade that’s been left behind.
However, as fantastic Black Future ’88 is, there are some glaring technical issues and possible design choices that really hold back its obvious potential. For starters, mapping out the controls is limited in a way that really didn’t bode with me quite as well as I hoped. The small array of presets available wouldn’t allow me to have the double-jump and dash configurable to the Joy-Con’s ZL and ZR Buttons. Instead, they are pretty much locked to the thin L and R Buttons which I very much dislike when it comes to leaning the Right Stick for shooting. While the game can be played using the face buttons for jumping, dashing, weapon pickups, and an automatic aiming option, I felt that I had no choice but to rely on automatic shooting solely based on my trigger input preference.
Another very distracting element is how the game stutters after each kill. This is more than likely a design choice to attempt to emphasize the impact but it can be really off-putting when trying to ease precision in movement. The gameplay can often stumble to single frames when the screen is highly congested with enemies, gunfire and explosions. I know that the Nintendo Switch isn’t the most powerful console on the market, but surely it can cope with a frantic 2D pixel game. I’ve certainly played enough of them to know that it can.
The game also crashed on me several times with one case resulting in my character becoming paralysed in mid-air. The map system is completely broken in multiplayer to the point where activating a teleportation map station would result in me having to disconnect and reconnect a controller just to get off of the menu. In single-player it works just fine, yet throw a partner into the mix and the map UI for some reason scrambles together with the pause menu in a buggy mess. The loading can also take longer than it should with it occasionally freezing altogether and forcing me to reset the game.
It’s a massive shame that Black Future ’88 has these technical hiccups because it happens to be a fantastic roguelike that I knew absolutely nothing about beforehand. Hopefully, these issues will be fixed in a possible post-release patch but when, or whether they will or not, is another question altogether. On the bright side, such unfortunate issues don’t completely hinder the player’s enjoyment or make it unplayable by any means – thanks to the control input being very tight and responsive. It’s just more the case that finding a polished bug-free game on day one is starting to become a rarer sight with every other new release.
It may be argued that the indie scene is becoming a bit crowded when it comes to games utilizing 2D pixel art. Personally, I beg to differ. I love pixel graphics and the ingenious ways that game artists expertly craft them together. Black Future ’88 is no different with stunning art design and a great choice of colours wrapped with an awesome ’80s synth soundtrack. Stage effects draw the scene and mood wonderfully well in conjunction with the musical beat as the silhouettes of futuristic carriages and ships drift across the foreground. There does seem to be a few minor smoke and energy effects that I noticed on a preview Steam build that seemed to have been stripped from the Nintendo Switch version. It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things for it holds up gorgeously well the way it is.
Despite its technical issues, Black Future ’88 is everything you would want from a good roguelike shooter. Dedicating myself towards certain layouts and advantages while learning the deceitful risks that accompany them never seems to get old. I’ve managed to beat the game once-over several times but not yet looped a playthrough twice – giving me the realisation that I’ve only just scratched the surface. After looping the game, there then becomes the conundrum of looking how to keep that precious time topped up for it doesn’t reset even after beating the final boss. It looks like I’ll just have to have another go then, and maybe one more after that…
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Gambitious