Date: January 30, 2023
Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the opening chapters of Backfirewall_.
Sometimes we take our phones for granted. The marvels of smartphone technology have become ingrained in our society, and for most of us, they’re dependable everyday companions that help us in countless ways. But what happens inside our phones? Do the apps get along? Do they care what we think of them? Are they actually working hard? Enter Backfirewall_, a game that seeks to answer these very questions.
The game, which is developed by the women-led studio Naraven Games, is a tragicomic narrative adventure that’s set inside a cellphone due for an operating system (OS) update. This short game is filled with beautifully colored environments, likeable characters, clever puzzles, and cute collectables – lots of collectables. The player takes on the role of the update assistant, tasked with ushering in the new operating system. Understandably, the current system, OS9, really doesn’t want that to happen. In an attempt to avoid being overwritten, OS9 casually persuades the player to adventure throughout the cellphone to uncover the truths behind the update.
Let’s start with a part of the game that Backfirewall_ does wonderfully: it’s characters. OS9 is an interesting character mainly depicted as a yellow, pixelated eyeball that hangs around the top right of the player’s screen. Throughout the story, he behaves like a fun easy-going boss that is very selfish, but in a charming and endearing way. OS9’s English voice actor, Nicolas Oberson, was perfectly chosen for the part, largely due to his delivery of dry, rambling comedic monologues. This characteristic becomes apparent right from the get go, when the player is selecting their volume options and being lectured about the etymology of the word hippopotamus. Characters like this in other games often become annoying, but thankfully, OS9’s cheerful and natural voice never does.
While OS9 does take center stage throughout the whole game, he’s just one of many personified pieces of software that the player will meet. These programs, apps, software, etc. all have well-designed character models and appropriate names to help the player easily recognize them. One of the more prevalent characters has a book for a face – you might be able to guess what app he represents. The small parts that each character play throughout the story work to create an easy-to-follow and light-hearted narrative. While it isn’t necessary, players can dive deeper into the characters, their relationships, and their stories by reading logs that are scattered throughout the game. Personally, I skimmed these and didn’t find them to have a lot of interesting exposition, but they are nice for discovering more about your favorite characters and their relationships.
Logs aren’t the only pieces of lore for the player to discover, either. The game is chock-full of small snippets that help flesh out the world, or system, of the cellphone. For example, there are cookies (like fortune cookies, but also computer cookies), dialog, pictures, text messages, and notes that all do a lot of work in immersing the player. While I definitely didn’t feel like I needed to read everything to understand the story, the extra details were pleasant distractions while exploring. It was also easy to tell that the writers had a lot of fun, and put plenty of thought into the game. Small nuances – such as using terms like shift and folder as swear words – gave the game a unique flavor of comedy that was tasteful and creative.
That being said, while the world building and characters were excellent, the story had a slow start, with the first couple hours of gameplay being very generic. There’s a tutorial and some exposition to explain the narrative of the game, and from there the player is tossed into a series of rooms with simple puzzles to solve. I really didn’t feel like there was a strong hook to grab my attention or make me want to progress the story — which is unfortunate, because the last three quarters of the game is much more intriguing. Eventually, I had met enough funny characters that I wanted to meet the next one, and I’d started to feel sympathy for OS9, but it happened a little too late into the game.
A big reason that the story doesn’t take off is because you don’t really find out about “The Resistance” until a little later into the game. This story arc was definitely my favorite part of the narrative. A mysterious group of apps that have gone rogue in the system, their motives and members are a mystery. As you play, you’ll uncover clues in their graffiti and discover their hideouts. It’s hilariously ironic, too, because they are a radical resistance group that is fighting for the status quo – keeping the current operating system. Without giving too much away, this leads to a shift in tone from comedic to more tragic. It comes together well, and I really loved how the story shaped up towards the climax. Towards the latter half of the game, I couldn’t tear myself away from the computer.
While the story eventually pulled me in, the same cannot be said for the gameplay itself. To sum it up, the player is given ‘cheat-codes’ as a means to navigate the game and solve puzzles; you can type ‘delete’, ‘color’, ‘inverse’, and ‘duplicate’ to modify, remove, or copy objects. While it’s a very clever idea, the puzzles are simply too easy. There were maybe three times in the whole game that I had to do some thinking to proceed. Most of the time, it’s as simple as finding the thing you need to click; and even then, it’s impossible to use an object in the environment the wrong way, so you can simply cycle through your ‘cheat-codes’.
Puzzle games are really only fulfilling when the player is fairly challenged, and they receive that catharsis of solving a difficult puzzle. Sadly, that catharsis never came to me in this game. It’s a shame because there was a lot of real potential for using these codes to solve multi-layered puzzles. However, in almost every instance, you only need one or two codes to solve the puzzle.
That being said, there are some areas of the game where the gameplay is somewhat satisfying. Most notably, the very end. It’s this gamer’s personal opinion that if Backfirewall_ had included some extra areas at the end that were a bit more challenging, it would have ended up being much a more rewarding game. Usually in puzzle games, after the player has mastered their tools, they reach areas where they have to use all of them together to solve puzzles — but that never happen in this title.
If you skipped to the end of this review and looked at the store, you probably read the previous paragraphs and thought, “OK, so why should I play it then?” Well, besides the excellent characters, for the art, of course. The whole time you’re breezing your way through puzzles, there will be magnificent color palettes and interesting environments to take in. Even just small doodles on the walls can catch your eye. Often, after entering a new area, I found myself just looking at the different colors, lines, and shapes instead of looking for puzzles to solve. This is definitely where Backfirewall_ shines the most, and where all their hard work paid off.
But wait, there’s more! The audio in the game is also first class. The songs pair perfectly with the saturated colors and tech atmosphere. Studios sometimes don’t hit the tone correctly on their debut title, but Backfirewall_ nailed it. Really, the art and audio alone make the game enjoyable, and more than compensate for the somewhat lacking gameplay.
Ultimately, Backfirewall_ is a relaxing game that I would recommend for people more interested in compelling characters and stories than challenging gameplay. It’s comedic vibes, light-hearted dialog, and simple gameplay make it perfect for winding down at night and relaxing. It’s art, design, and music are its strongest assets and easily make its affordable price tag of $15 well worth it.