A new perspective on survival horror, Back in 1995 uses old style to deliver a new narrative.
I’ve been looking for a new game to play for quite some time, I wasn’t expecting to find a new experience in a game which tried so hard to capture the feel of the old. Back in 1995 was a surprise.
Do you ever look at video games today and wish things could go back to how they used to be? The mundane task of running through scripted levels, hacking, slashing, shooting, blasting, grenade…ing, punching EVERYTHING in your path has left you feeling a little bored? Obviously not. Those things are each fun and awesome in their own right, but sometimes I do enjoy playing through a game with a story. Something that piques my interest more than slinging rockets at demons, more than stabbing bandits who’ve foolishly decided to rob me after I’ve slew a dragon and ate it’s soul.
So, on a whim, I decided to give Back In 1995 a play through on the Xbox One. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here — as much as I can — as I did enjoy the game and recommend it to fans of the genre, especially if you’re into retro style indie games. It’s worth at least one playthrough.
Back In 1995 is a survival horror game produced by Retalaika Games, developed by Throw the warped code out (Takaaki Ichigo), and is a pretty good experiment in recreating a game within the limitations of a game from, well, back in 1995. Apologies for the terrible pun. However, I will say that while I did enjoy the game, I did find a few things that still frustrated me, even though the goal was to give the feeling of playing a game from twenty years ago. I’ll go over those in time, but let’s go on this adventure together.
When I first booted up Back In 1995, the thing that instantly caught my eye was the screen. It has an overlay that gives the camera a CRT effect. Being colorblind, this really makes things hard to see for me and it’s hard to enjoy a game when I can’t see it. So, I immediately went into the settings. To my great surprise, there was an option to turn it off! There was even an option to make the effect even stronger. To this, I made a joke to my wife that, “Yes! Let me just make it worse!” Other than that, the graphics are quite pleasing and do a good job delivering that 90s horror game aesthetic. The ambience and music also do their job well enough to set the games atmosphere and tone.
After solving my visual problem, I dove into the game. It starts with a brief story told through some text and a bit of voicing from the main character, Kent. Now, if their goal was recreate the voice acting from the first Resident Evil, then they nailed it. Kent’s voice acting is laughably bad — in the most enjoyable way possible. It makes certain parts of the game almost hysterically funny. All that was missing was a one liner about an Alisa sandwich. If you don’t get that reference, go play Resident Evil, then come back.
Anyway, the game begins on an empty rooftop next to a door. I began exploring, found a key and some painkillers — the game’s healing items — and entered the door. Down a short set of stairs, I encountered my first monster. I searched a few rooms, found a weapon then killed it, unlocked a door, and eventually found myself with an NPC. The very first thing he tells you is that you shouldn’t have been on the roof. That it’s dangerous to be up there. Then immediately tells you that the only escape is on the roof. Well, doc, I think that puts us in quite the pickle, don’t it?
I explored this building a bit more, found a gun, and killed a few more monsters. Combat with the pistol is a bit different than with the wrench I had been using earlier. The first and most obvious difference is that I now have ammo to maintain. It’s a six-shooter, a revolver, so I only get six bullets before I have to reload. This is my first complaint. There is no way to reload your weapon outside of emptying the weapon. At least not one that I could easily figure out. I tried every button combination I could think of. I even tried going into the menus and manually reloading by “using” the ammo. No luck. This is a major flaw, honestly, but again, I tried to keep in mind that the developer was pushing the limitations of older games.
So, I kept moving and adapted to the reloading issues. My method for this became that if I had one bullet remaining I would use it to shoot the enemy, run away to reload, then slowly turn back around and finish the enemy off. It wasn’t long after that I ran into my next design obstacle — multiple enemies coming towards me at once. In most survival horror games that I’ve played from the 90s it would lock you in place when you aimed your weapon, but you could at least turn around while aiming. In Back In 1995 this isn’t possible and this annoyed me quite a bit. The developer tried to make up for it with an auto aim feature that would switch to the nearest enemy while aiming. This is actually a cool feature, until an enemy sneaks up behind you. In that scenario, I had to drop my aim, run away and slowly turn around, then try to aim again. That, regardless of gaming era, is a frustrating flaw to have to deal with.
I escaped the first building fairly quickly and zip-lined to the second part of the game. This is when the games pace picked up a bit. The developer clearly liked the second part of the game more than the first, because there are more enemies of various shapes and sizes, puzzles and even more lore to find in the notes dotted around. I had to use the notes found in the game to solve a few of the puzzles as well, which I found to be actually well thought out and planned. However, I will state that some of the puzzles are very simple and quite obvious, so long as you’re paying attention to the environment and notes. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, as I said the puzzles were fairly decent and thought out. They made sense to the plot of the story and setting. I can’t complain too much about that, now can I?
It was in this building that I noticed another major flaw in the design. There was no indication of my characters health aside from going into the menus and checking, which I didn’t do very often at all. In fact, it wasn’t until I had discovered the shotgun and went to equip it that I found I had barely 18% health left. I had no idea my health was so low, as the character showed no visible signs of being injured. It was good I did, too, because I immediately encountered my first “boss” type enemy. This is a major flaw to adapt to, as it forces the player to pause their game play to enter into a menu to check their health. That can actually hinder the player experience, honestly.
By the time the story began to wind to a close and I was reaching the end, I found myself a little dissatisfied with the story itself. While it is an enjoyable plot and holds your attention enough through the setting, the main idea is a little cliched — that caused it to be underwhelming and a bit lack-lustre. As soon as I discovered what I think was supposed to be a minor clue, I instantly knew the direction the story was taking. Though, I am a fan of the horror genre in general, so I think I may be a bit over-saturated in plot elements at this point. I do this to myself while reading books and watching movies, so it’s no surprise that I ruin endings to games for myself as well. Then the game restarted… or so I thought. It kept going, with a couple more puzzles to solve and a bit more story development as well. This ending is one that I was pleased with. It recaptured my thoughts and it closed out Kent’s story well enough that I was happy with the conclusion. I still knew what was going on, but it wasn’t the super cliched ending that the first part gave me.
Another thing that got to me, and I know I’ve said “run away” previously when describing movement, but I think “walk away slowly” sums it up better. There is no run button. No sprint action. In fact, there is an empty face button on the controller. Why? Why is the ‘B’ button blank? Why does it not do anything? There were multiple actions you could have given it. Running, perhaps? This was my limit, as far as criticisms. There were so many things that could have been fixed by simply assigning the ‘B’ button a function. Reloading. Running. Turning 180 degrees to face behind you. Anything, but instead, the key was left blank. This may sound nit picky, but for me this was a major flaw that should have been fixed long before release. Even Alone In The Dark had a ‘run’ action. Unfortunately, the excuse of “recreating the feeling of the past” doesn’t answer for this one.
Back In 1995 is a decent experiment in developers setting limitations on themselves to deliver a particular experience, rather than forcing as many into a game as possible. Personally, I believe that is a big issue in the mainstream gaming industry that should be addressed — possibly by doing exactly what Takaaki Ichijo has done here.
I highly recommend any fans of retro horror games to give this game a shot and experience it for yourself. Especially the ending, which tricked me, even after I had figured out the main point. Overall, while Back In 1995 is flawed, it’s a good game and experience, though personally I found it closer to the likes of games from the late 80s and early 90s, like Alone In The Dark on DOS, than the mid 90s games like Resident Evil. Maybe that was the intention — to be… *puts on sunglasses*… back in 1992.