The term cyberpunk usually refers to a concept whereby a dystopian society is dominated by technology. When we think about the genre, normally it is associated with the near future where our world has been overrun by neon lights and bizarre sci-fi technology. Over the past years, there have been countless adaptations of cyberpunk societies and yet, very few have explored the concept of an alternative past. Whilst its name would suggest otherwise, Black Future '88 has decided to take a different approach and brings us back to a new, terrifying future.
Developed by SuperScarySnakes, Black Future '88 is synth-punk roguelike, set in an alternative 1988 where nuclear destruction has ravaged the planet, leaving only a scrap of the world we know behind. Due to the nefarious schemes of the evil tower architect, Duncan, the shattered world and people living in it have lost the will to track time, leaving them stranded in an everlasting 1988 nightmare.
You play the role of a survivor who has accepted their mortality, understanding nothing remains for them anymore. As part of your last act, you take on the challenge of scaling Duncan's towering lair in the hopes of slaying the maniac, returning a shred of the life they lost back to the people of Earth. Throughout the climb, you'll face overwhelming odds and powerful Wardens, each with the role of protecting the architect at the top of the tower and most likely destroying you along the way.
Black Future '88 plays as a 2D shooter, meaning the controls are simple. All you have to do is move and aim/fire by using both sticks (for the Switch version). This can be taken a step further by introducing jumping, dodging and weapon swapping on L, R and ZR respectively, but the most basic form of gameplay will see you try to wade through bullet hell without faltering. It might sound easy enough right now, but it really isn't, especially when you can't die unless you want to start from the beginning.
You start every run at the bottom floor of the tower and are challenged to progress upwards, through each individual level until you reach Duncan as fast as you can. The difficulty arises when literally everything in the tower is designed to kill you or make your life more challenging (there's even a 20-minute time limit to complete the tower before you explode), as is the way of a roguelike.
The tower itself is not directly split up into levels either, it's randomly generated meaning you must unlock them by slaying enough enemies in order to open the way to each boss encounter before progressing. It does mean there is a bit of exploring available but it's quite limited and largely doesn't reward much, except as an opportunity for a health drop (Blood Bag as it's known in-game) for example. Beware with exploring though because you don't want to put yourself in a situation where you lose too much health and can't find any health.
The combat is perhaps the most diverse aspect of Black Future '88. The title has over 50 usable weapons, from laser beams and firearms through to swords and other melee weapons, each of which brings its own style of play to the tower. These weapons, which can be picked up as loot from defeated foes, take up one of two equippable slots and may require ammo to use. You can pick up any dropped weapon you like but make your decision wisely because loot will not stay for very long before it's consumed by the tower. Our favourite weapon was a cybernetic hammer that dealt massive damage and had unlimited ammo, although admittedly it did lead to our demise several times due to its lack of range - still, it sure was fun to bash some skulls with.
On the receiving end of your crazy arsenal are an equally varied range of enemies, with multiple kinds of drones, cybernetically enhanced humans, and the tough cursed enemies that take a little more effort to bring down. Every enemy type you come across uses a unique weapon and has a varied amount of health. Sometimes you can take down foes with a couple of shots, others will require many more; the overlying factor isn't about how much damage you deal, but how much you take because health is your only real limitation.
We've already briefly mentioned the bosses a few times. These are called Wardens and their job is to oversee each level, acting as a rite of passage as you attempt to make it further up the tower. Like regular enemies, you have to deal with these guys if you plan on making it to Duncan, however, these encounters are much more difficult. Wardens, each of whom has a unique name and design, have large, visible health bars and specialised weapons/attacks to hurl at you. Take Dr Avalanche, for example, he wields a large sword and will teleport around the level trying to catch you off-guard while his drones fire shots at you from every angle. These fights, which are not in any order, will test your mettle as you work up the tower and as you'd expect, they get more challenging as you progress.
One of the most interesting things about Black Future '88 is the five playable characters that can be used. Each of them brings different perks, weaknesses and weapons. Our pick of the bunch is Seagrist because she starts with a gleaming sword great for hacking through enemies in the early levels of the tower.
To help with the overwhelming challenge of the tower, there are unlockable buffs/curses to acquire as upgrades. These are obtained by either defeating bosses or by coming across the cursed chambers that are occasionally dropped by regular enemies. The perks themselves come in two different styles: buffs and curses. Normal buffs reward straight-up positive upgrades such as an extra dodge charge, or the ability to reclaim a dodge upon defeating an enemy.
Cursed perks, however, are a little different. Unlike normal buffs, the cursed variant requires something in return, i.e. the ability to turn health into bullets when ammo drops are less frequent. They also give the ability to crush cursed enemies, at a price obviously. Throughout the title, there are 30 perks to play around with, giving you the ability to make each playthrough as unique as you'd like.
Black Future '88 also is not limited to a single-player experience. If you fancy the test, you can take a crack at the daily challenge, pitting yourself against the tower as a specific character where your run is scored on time, enemies defeated and progression, with your best score going on a global leaderboard. As well as this, you can even try out a bit of local co-op, testing the bond between you and your friends, if you think they can take it.
To round everything out, we have to talk about the original soundtrack and pixelated design that gives Black Future '88 a lot of its identity. The soundtrack captures the essence of the '80s with just the right level of synthesisers and drums and without all of the terrible hairstyles. At times, you'll begin to forget about the gameplay and just appreciate the soundtrack, and that's not saying the gameplay is boring at all. Furthermore, the title features a pixelated art style to accompany the synth soundtrack, which really makes Black Future '88 feel like there's an arcade experience hidden behind its layers of roguelike difficulty.
As a summary, Black Future '88 is a challenging roguelike experience that offers lots of variety for fans of the genre to enjoy. The many unique weapons, enemies, playable characters and bosses make for exciting gameplay if you are comfortable with the punishing roguelike mechanics. Likewise, the ability to participate in the online leaderboards and play the title in local co-op brings a new way to experience things, and the roguelike aspects could prove to be a gateway into the genre. What's more, the pixel art style, the synth soundtrack and the looming threat of nuclear disaster really capture all the iconic aspects of '80s pop culture, making the experience feel somewhat authentic.
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