In a post-nuclear alternative of 1988, you must climb to the top of the tower, Skymelt, in under 18 minutes. You see, if you don't, your heart explodes. As a roguelike, there is a good chance you'll not even last that long, as Black Future '88 is an unforgiving procedurally generated rump. Duncan, the tower architect, has blocked out the sun with his nuclear bombs, ensuring that time has stopped, resulting in a retro-inspired cyberpunk dystopia forever stuck in the eighties. As you climb, the minutes tick down, and you'll need to weigh your options. Do you risk precious seconds/minutes exploring each floor and possibly come across your ideal weapon, or do you rush to the top to negate time constraints?
You begin with two primary weapons, a weaker one that doesn't require ammunition (ranged or melee), and a slightly more powerful one that can only be used a limited amount of times. Along the way, you'll replace current weapons with new ones, and eventually, you'll succumb to your wounds, or your heart explodes after 18 minutes. There's no saved progression; instead, you are working to unlock new weapons, buffs, or perks that have a chance of appearing in subsequent run. Not only that, but you'll need to move fast to snag every bit of money, ammo, and health that drops from fallen foes. If you take too long, Skymelt absorbs the drops, making itself stronger in the process. Leave too much on the ground, and environmental hazards, more capable foes, and hunters (basically mini-bosses) spawn to track you down.
Each floor in Skymelt is comprised of randomly generated interconnecting rooms. All enemies in the current room need to be killed before you can move on. A skull icon lets you know precisely which direction leads you directly to the floor boss, but with multiple pathways, there are many paths for you to take, at the cost of time. When every aspect of the game is working against you, it keeps the overall pace of the game fast. You'll most likely make poor decisions in an attempt to move through each room as quickly as possible ( I know I have). Some of the most potent weapons in the game even uses time as ammunition. Although they can certainly come in handy, I never ended up using them more than a couple of runs due to the risk of using up all your time.
You'll gain buffs after defeating bosses, such as gaining access to an extra dash as soon as you kill an enemy or longer dashes that can heal you if used to go through bullets, which comes in handy with the increased difficulty as you climb higher and higher. Repair stations offer upgrades, such as increased firing speed or taking less damage from explosives. Obelisks can be located to install curses, such as being able to turn blood into ammo, dashing through walls, and even become fireproof if our combo is high enough, at the cost of time. Picked up cash is spent in shops, where you can buy ammo crates or new weapons. Luckily, time is paused in these locations, so you aren't rushed with making a poor decision.
Initially, there are two playable characters, one that begins with a pistol and another that has a badass sword. Aiming in Black Future '88 is accomplished automatically, focusing on the nearest foe within your line of sight. Things can be a bit tricky when you are dealing with multiple enemies surrounding you, especially with the game's focus on verticality. Still, generally, it does an excellent job of understanding who you want to attack. As you continue to level up after each death, you'll unlock the remaining three characters, along with a slew of new upgrades and weaponry.
Black Future '88 is a thrilling roguelike that eventually feels like you are in a side-scrolling bullet hell shooter the higher you climb. Once you reach the top, you'll begin once again, just with a harder difficulty. The included assist mode and two-player local co-op make things more interesting, but there isn't enough variation in runs. There are plenty of unique weapons to unlock, and eventually, you'll find which ones work best for your style of play. For me, the teleporting pistol combined with self-healing when dashing through bullets was enough to carry me through Skymelt.Note: Black Future '88 was reviewed on Switch. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.