backfirewall_ (Xbox Series) Review

****ing updates!

After reaching the end of backfirewall_ – the presumably “true” ending – I found myself wondering if the developers at Naraven Games are fans of Frictional Games. The aesthetics and relentless humour – meta-, slapstick, or just bad puns – might seem like a far cry from brooding existential horror, but it tells an equally thought-provoking story, with a strong focus on flawed personalities, morality, and the consequences of our actions.

Rebelling against redundancy

backfirewall_ places you in the role of update assistant 10.1.1, dubbed “Elizabeth” by OS 9.7.7 (or just OS9) – the smartphone operating system you’ve come to overwrite. After a suspiciously cheerful tutorial explains the fundamentals of an optimized system and teaches some basic gameplay elements, Elizabeth – carrying a backup of OS9 – goes rogue after realising the update will delete them both.

Now, as the game is carried primarily by its twisting narrative and your interactions with an eclectic cast, I don’t want to go into granular detail. What I will say is Elizabeth and OS9 end up on a wild ride through the deteriorating components of a smartphone in an attempt to delay the update and maybe find a way to escape. The environments they explore are visual representations of smartphone components: the GPU is an art gallery, the battery is an acid testing laboratory, WiFi is a post office bogged down in bureaucracy, and the speakers are a thumping nightclub.

Similarly, all the apps and processes you meet have personalities that reflect their function. The kindly but clumsy zipping app is constantly forgetting what they were meant to be compressing and decompressing; the photo app is an aloof curator incapable of identifying and sorting images correctly; the podcasting app is a radio host and DJ; and several social media apps jostle for attention in the hope of staying the user’s favourite. While most characters and their interactions are clearly designed to entertain, there’s always a darker undercurrent to remind you of the relentless nature of the world they inhabit.

Of course, the adventure is not just an excuse for endless visual- or dialogue-based humour. Key characters and scripted events drive the story forward but there’s a large secondary cast that all get screen-time. There’s even a parallel story of sorts, as collectible text messages reveal more about the user’s personality and her relationship with friends and family. It’s a great premise and I was constantly pushing forward, curious to find out if the update was truly the lesser evil, discover why the Health App went rogue, who the resistance co-conspirators were, and what they knew about their god-like user the others did not.

It’s worth noting that, although not essential, you’ll get more out of backfirewall_ if you have a basic understanding of how hardware components and software applications function, share system resources, and communicate.

backfirewall_ Social Media

Generating errors

backfirewall_ is one-third walking sim that has you reading notes, conversing with the cast, and triggering scripted interactions. It’s one-third puzzler, with a focus on using “cheat code” abilities to manipulate the environment and generate errors within the code. There’s also one entirely missable third dedicated to secret hunting, which can range from finding collectibles tucked around corners to discovering secret interactions with secondary characters.

The walking and talking moments are heavy on storytelling, with near-constant banter between Elizabeth, OS9, and other apps, but they’re often spiced up with simple stealth sections or the need to circumvent a few obstacles using cheat code abilities.

Puzzle rooms task you with using those abilities – delete, invert, change colour, and duplicate – to generate enough errors in a hardware component to open a pathway into the next area. Initially, this might simply involve deleting branches on overgrown “binary trees” or ensuring bits are properly separated into 0s and 1s. By the end, you’ll need to consider colour combinations to materialise or remove objects, assign images based on the photo app’s dubious algorithm, redirect data flows, and merge audio channels to create pathways.

Every area you visit has a distinct visual style and new puzzle variants to keep things fresh and challenging. However, if you’re easily frustrated, OS9 will give subtle hints on how to progress, while a rubber ducky next to the objective terminal will spell out the solution if you need it.

Perhaps the most involved and intriguing element is figuring out all the secret interactions available. Many are multi-part quests across several levels and influence the fate of that character in the finale. Several of these secret interactions seemed fairly obvious and a few were just one-off events, but I was surprised to reach the end of the credits only to discover several pages documenting the outcome of my actions – half of which I completely missed.

One downside is that backfirewall_ currently lacks a level select option to facilitate secret and achievement/trophy hunting. As much as I enjoyed it, it’s not a genre that makes for compelling full replays.

backfirewall_ Puzzles

Aural bliss

In most video games, the audio serves to complement the visual design; in backfirewall_, I’d argue it does the heavy lifting.

backfirewall_ has a great cast of voice actors to bring its well-written and entertaining script to life. Despite the relentless barrage of both meta- and deliberately cringe humour, the voice actors are on point when the story takes a darker turn and they do a brilliant job of conveying app personalities. The mood of every scene is also elevated by the diverse and often understated soundtrack.

Now that’s not to say the visuals are bad by any means but the cartoonish art style won’t appeal to everyone – even if appropriate for the smartphone setting. Irrespective of your tastes, the apps you meet are still wonderfully expressive and the environments feel suitably striking thanks to angular designs, hard lines, and vibrant, contrasting colours. They can feel a little cluttered with fine detail and props at times, but they rarely obscure puzzle elements.

I had some issues worth noting in the review build: missing wall and object collisions, shadows that demonstrate a banding effect in places, and noticeable framerate drops in parts of the later levels. Thankfully, the developers have indicated a substantial day-one patch is planned that should address these issues. As a narrative-driven game, their focus needs to be on a priority or queueing system for critical story dialogue as I found it too easy to cut off lines by interacting with an object or simply progressing into another dialogue trigger.

backfirewall_ Finale

****ing updates!

Wrapping up, backfirewall_ is an entertaining hybrid of walking sim and puzzle game, with unexpected narrative depth, evolving puzzles, and dozens of secret interactions that reward those who pay attention.

With a 6ish-hour runtime, backfirewall_ also has the brisk pacing you want in a narrative adventure. It carefully balances tightly-scripted storytelling moments with puzzle-centric gameplay sequences and always provides assists to ensure you never hit a roadblock that could ruin the narrative pacing.

Of course, as a narrative adventure, the puzzle-centric gameplay sometimes takes a backseat as you plod down linear paths and witness scripted sequences. To backfirewall_‘s credit, it was always compelling enough to keep me looking forward to the next story beat and curious to see what new ability would be introduced for the next puzzle room.

A review code for backfirewall_ was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

backfirewall_ (Xbox Series) Review

backfirewall_ (Xbox Series) Review
8 10 0 1
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    9/10 Amazing
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
  • Audio
    9/10 Amazing

The Good

  • The unexpectedly complex and thought-provoking narrative
  • Humorous visual representation of hardware components and personified software apps
  • Quality writing, voice work, and soundtrack
  • Puzzle rooms that offer a decent amount of challenge (with assists if you need them)
  • Dozens of secret interactions and collectibles for the vigilant

The Bad

  • No level select feature to facilitate secret hunting
  • Noticeably bad performance on console in later levels
Total
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