Everybody’s been bitten by the cyberpunk bug recently, with CD Projekt Red’s long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077 finally being unleashed on the world next year. There’s no word as of yet regarding whether the futuristic adventure will be following The Witcher 3's leather-booted footsteps over to Nintendo’s machine, but those waiting desperately for their cyberpunk fix shouldn’t despair; Black Future '88 may just fill that gap.
Much like the aforementioned epic from Poland’s most famous studio, Black Future '88 has had a somewhat protected development. Indie developer SuperScarySnakes picked up the Game of the Show nomination for this outing at the Bit Awards way back in 2017, and the title has gone through a closed beta period before finally making its way to us on Switch. It has certainly garnered a huge amount of interest and support during this process, however, and it’s not hard to see why – the gorgeous pixel art visuals and thumping synth soundtrack are striking indeed, and bound to get even the most passive observer curious about what exactly the game is all about.
Black Future ‘88 is essentially a 2D platformer which borrows many cues from the roguelikes of old, albeit one set in a world reminiscent of Blade Runner. Being mechanically a platformer, the objective is to ascend up the procedurally-generated living tower known as Skymelt; you have to make it through the tower overcoming the numerous foes and bosses along the way all the way to the top. There’s a catch, however – you only have 18 minutes to live before your heart explodes. You might have a tad more or less time depending on which protagonist you choose, but either way, you've got to get as far as you can before your life comes to an end. Waiting for you at the top is the tower’s architect, Duncan, who is the one who created this world of darkness with his nuclear rain. Your heart's ticking time-bomb means you're unlikely to get to meet him unless you’re quick on your feet, however.
The game features a sizable array of characters which players unlock along the way, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. On a simple level, they may differ in terms of how much ammo and ‘blood’ they have; blood in this game is essentially synonymous with ‘health’, with a few additional caveats such as the possibility of blood becoming ‘dirty’ or infected through taking stims, as well as other side effects.
Other characters may possess special abilities, such as the ability to slow down time, be slightly older or younger (allowing them either less or more than the allotted 18 minutes before they meet their maker), amongst numerous others. The key thing here is balance; character strengths are set against their logical weaknesses, and players are encouraged to find the character which suits their specific style of play. For example, you might want to choose the character Runnels if you want the best weapons and trust yourself to be skilled enough to avoid damage. If this sounds complicated, the default character Hauer is designed to be perfectly balanced in all areas, albeit having little else of note to make him special. The point is that these are not simply visual variations; the character you choose will change the way you play the game.
Progress through Black Future '88 sees players travelling through a procedurally-generated sequence of rooms up the tower. Not everybody is a fan of random levels, but in practice, the same selection of rooms appear frequently enough that it doesn’t feel at all arbitrary. The common complaint regarding procedural generation is that players would prefer to play stages carefully-designed by the creator rather than through an algorithm, and these stages certainly feel man-made.
All rooms feel like they have been tweaked and balanced to perfection, with some simply featuring robotic enemies to overcome while others require the pulling of switches and so on. Despite the direction of travel inside a tower naturally being vertical, players are greeted with a wide array of rooms in all directions which they can decide for themselves whether or not to explore. The rather helpful ‘boss’ marker makes it clear where the player should be going, and the '18 minutes until death' mechanic makes speed of the essence. And yet, exploring the other rooms to purchase vital weapons, ammo and blood is essential if you wish to overcome the bosses that hinder your progress.
Speaking of the bosses, they are excellent creations indeed. Ranging from sword-carrying villains with a huge flying robotic buddy to bullet-spraying spheres which wouldn’t be out of place in a classic shmup, there’s a decent variety in store here, each offering up unique strategies to beating them. Players are given ample warning when they approach a boss and plenty of opportunity to prepare themselves for what lies ahead. The game usefully lets you teleport back to previous rooms using the map interface, ensuring that you can easily go back to a weapon or stim seller to prepare, or even check out some unexplored rooms if you fancy risking the time. The (approximate) total of 18 minutes given for each playthrough probably makes it clear that this game is intended to be replayed, each time getting that little bit further through the tower and mastering the strategies required for each boss.
Ultimately, it’s most likely Black Future '88's visuals which will get people talking, and rightly so. The game obviously goes for the pixel art approach, and frankly, there is hardly a lack of games going for that visual style these days. Among the sea of pixel art games, the cyberpunk visual style used here stands out as being masterfully crafted. Right from when you turn on the game, the chromatic aberration used on the title screen to capture not merely a future but a 1980s future demonstrate the care which went into the visual makeup. This is accompanied by a thumping synth-punk soundtrack which is perhaps the loudest thing to come from your Switch’s speakers, ever.
As mentioned, the game derives its longevity through encouraging constant replay and mastering each room, much like most roguelikes. This would imply that the game is pretty darn hard, and it certainly is. It never feels unfair or cheap, though, and the game mechanics feel so natural that they’re almost invisible. Instead, you’re simply required to learn the best way to overcome each foe, avoid their attacks, and make the best use of the skills and arsenal at your disposal.
At the same time, there is no sense that the game is difficult for difficulties’ sake; Black Future '88 features a rather handy assist mode designed to help players learn the ropes and get used to things before taking off the training wheels. Improvement could also be as simple as finding that character which suits your play style best. Either way, the game is certainly a challenge and this may frustrate those new to the genre, but Black Future '88 also tries to be as welcoming as possible. For the genre veterans, the Daily Challenge mode also allows the best to show off their progress through said challenges on the leaderboards.
Black Future ‘88 is an intriguing, challenging but also supremely fun and rewarding game. It may be an audio-visual feast, but the tight gameplay, high degree of replayability and the sterling effort that has gone into overcoming many of the criticisms levelled at the genre mean it’s not just a pretty face. If you’re looking for a dose of intense cyberpunk action on your Switch, you can’t go wrong with this one.