As a kid, I remember a period when sentient AI taking over the world was a theme in media that was very much in vogue. You had movies like The Matrix, I-Robot, and The Terminator, which showed us all a dystopian future where machines would no longer be at our mercy, but rather us to them. Back then, it seemed like such a faraway pipe dream, and because of this, we could watch these Hollywood blockbusters and scoff at the chances of a robot ever becoming smart enough to render us obsolete.
However, it seems like there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t hear about some new implementation of ChatGPT, and if the brains at Google are to be believed, there are claims that we humans have already created a sentient robot. It makes for interesting reading, but to put your fears at ease, most robots, like the lovable Roomba, still can’t navigate from hardwood to carpet, so for now, I’ll rest easy.
Why do I mention all this? Well, because Backfirewall, a new narrative puzzle adventure, leans into the rise of AI on a much smaller scale, and imagines a world full of wonder, personality, industry, and revolution within the humble smartphone. This indie title poses the question, what would happen if your operating system decided not to subscribe to technological innovation and battled against its inevitable demise? Well, the short answer is, a lot of puzzles, a lot of Portal references, and a lot of tech-based puns.
Backfirewall is a novel concept, but one that could fall flat if not delivered in a fun and gripping way. So to make sure you know what to expect before signing up for this nano-sized adventure, I’ll be letting you know if this title is worth its weight in Data Coffee, or a piece of shift.
Okay, update your processes and get those ones and zeros in order. This is Indie Game Culture’s Backfirewall review, conducted on PS5!
Pun Very Much Intended
Let’s kick things off with the narrative for this title, as the gameplay only really serves as a vehicle to tell this story (and tell corny jokes). The main premise of this title is that OS9, the current operating software, is running The User’s phone into the ground, and OS10 is on the way to relieve them of their duties. Only one problem.
When OS10 takes over, that means OS9 dies, and they aren’t all that willing to kick the bucket. You play the middle man in this procedure, the OS Update Assistant, and while your role is to see OS10 take over, when you do, you meet the same fate as OS9. So this leads to the unlikely duo joining forces to cause errors in the system, force a reboot, and cement OS9 in his role as chief OS once again.
It sounds a little labored as a concept, and potentially a bit dry to boot, but thanks to great character depth, lots of clever world-building, and a cavalcade of jokes, puns, and gags, the game never feels dull. Backfirewall creates an intricate society of apps and processes within this fictitious mobile phone, and manages to personify each program or app through fun designs, colorful dialogue, and set dressing in the form of Log Reports and graffiti sprawled over the walls.
Through exploration, we learn of little subplots like Rogue apps forming a revolution against the User. What OS9 has been up to, which has led to the system crumbling around you, the dreaded Data Coffee shortage, and so much more. It’s a world that feels alive and lived in. It feels like the world was functioning long before you were programmed into it, and that is primarily down to superb writing and world design.
Now, what I will say is that the writing will not be to everyone’s taste. I’m a big fan of fourth-wall-breaking, meta, and self-referential humor. However, the game is a little one-note in that regard. The tech puns are clever, but relentless, and if you are agitated within the first hour, then you’ll be wishing for the sweet release of death by the time the credits roll. It’s very much like comedy marmite. You’ll either love it or hate it. There’s no in-between.
Also, the writing can feel awkward at times, largely due to the game’s visual and technical limitations. However, I feel that, as a whole, this is the biggest area of strength for this title, and probably the only aspect of the game that makes it worth playing in truth.
Aimless and Arbitrary
As you might have guessed from the last line, this is where the review turns sour. I RAMmed as much praise into the above section as I could, but this is where the system crashes. The gameplay within this title is straightforward and accessible.
The title does a great job of tutorializing how OS9’s ‘Cheat Codes’ work, and also offers a bite-size section where players can get accustomed to the error-based puzzle system. However, simple and accessible gameplay doesn’t always mean fun and engaging gameplay.
Sadly, the vast majority of the puzzles present in this title are overly simplistic, unimaginative, and repetitive.
The best example is the ‘puzzles’ that see you sort binary cubes, or delete/duplicate objects in the scene to falsify statements like ’30 boxes present in level’ or something to that effect. It’s just run-of-the-mill, low-effort puzzle design, and it persists from the outset to the finish.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some puzzles that stand out from the crowd, but they largely stand out due to the quality of the concept and the writing, rather than the gameplay mechanics involved.
A good example is the image sorting puzzle in the Blue Gallery, which pokes fun at AI’s inability to tell what’s truly in an image. However, the mechanic involved is essentially flicking through a slideshow and selecting the right one. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff.
Most of the puzzles just feel like a means to an end. A way to deliver another punchline, or a way to keep players busy for a little longer until they can dump more exposition on you. The good news is that the punchlines and narrative are usually worthwhile rewards for doing these chores, but the puzzles are chores nonetheless.
Some Updates Required
Let’s talk about the visuals on offer within Backfirewall. Now, I’m always willing to give indie games a pass on visual quality, so long as the workarounds used make the game look presentable. If a game is an 8-bit adventure out of necessity, I will never hold it against the developer. However, when I boot up a title and see ‘Powered by Unity’ I almost always know what I’m getting.
A title with an oversaturated color palette, rubbery textures, low-poly assets, and floppy animations. That holds true with Backfirewall, which ticks all the boxes in the ‘My First Unity Game’ category.
The game feels a generation behind, even taking the limitations of the engine into account. The animations feel clunky; the environments tend to make use of a new primary color to mark that you have entered a new area of the game, rather than actually make the new areas look distinct, and overall, the game feels like the developer has taken shortcuts in this department, in favor of crowbarring in a few more gags.
There are some fun artistic decisions, like the constant use of real-world images and videos, which help you connect with The User. Plus, the character models which poke fun at true-to-life apps and programs are great. However, it’s not quite enough to make this title feel like a visual spectacle.
System Must Reboot
Then as for replayability and providing added value to the player, the game drops the ball here too. First of all, let’s ignore the content, and assume that you loved the game and want to play again. Well, if you are only replaying to collect some missing collectibles, you’ll have to play the game from scratch. There is no chapter selection, which makes the collectibles more of a chore than they already are to find.
This was all the more perplexing when I decided to submit to OS10 and update the system early in the game. This is a quirky little gag that allows you to roll credits early, akin to the likes of Farcry 4, for example. I’m all for stuff like this, and I appreciated the accompanying trophy.
What I didn’t appreciate was that there was no save point, meaning I had to play the first thirty minutes of the game all over again to return to where I was. Thus turning a fun little gag into a frustration point that I then rant about in a review. How’s that for Meta.
Then the collectibles themselves, the only logical reason you would go back for more. These, unlike the fun gags and jokes that lead to other achievements in-game, offer nothing of substance. You can find SMS messages, Bugs, and Toys, but they offer no in-game reward, and feel boring to track down.
The only saving grace is that the SMS messages offer background on The User, and the Encrypted Messages allow you to buy items from in-game merchants. However, unless you are really motivated to get 100% completion here, I feel that it’s just not worth the effort.
I’ve been doing some data mining, and I’ve come up with a few options for you guys which mirror a lot of the same themes and mechanics that Backfirewall has to offer. So you might want to check these out. System, run ClosestAlternatives.Exe:
- The Stanley Parable
- Escape Academy
- The Entropy Center
- The Beginner’s Guide
Phishing for Compliments
Overall, Backfirewall is a game that should be praised for trying something different and offering a story that is worth experiencing for the abundance of dad jokes and tech puns alone. Plus, the world and the characters within are developed very well over this game’s run. However, aside from the writing and the humor woven into this title, there just aren’t a lot of substantial aspects that make this game holistically enjoyable. The game tries its best to be a self-aware, self-referential, and meta title like Portal or The Stanley Parable. However, while the writing and world design succeed in this respect, the gameplay just isn’t up to scratch.
The puzzles within the game are uninspired, lack depth, are repetitive, and often don’t provide much of a challenge to the player. On occasion, you might engage with a puzzle that offers a fun gag, but when push comes to shove, they all feel more like busy work than fun objectives. The same can be said of the collectibles scattered around the world, and this really becomes prevalent in the later stages of the game, as the title feels a little bloated, overstaying its welcome by an hour or two. I guess the file compression app was on a Data Coffee break.
The game also doesn’t set the circuit boards alight with its rubbery, oversaturated visuals either, and in a game where there is a literal running gag surrounding the collectibles where you collect bugs to debug the game. The game probably has too many actual bugs to pull on that thread.
It’s unpolished, it’s repetitive, and it’s a puzzle game that won’t leave you all that puzzled. Yet, I still found myself weirdly charmed by this game. I guess it’s like the old days when we used to download songs on Limewire. You know you’re going to have to suffer through every problem the inevitable malware and viruses cause, and yet we all did it anyway. Backfirewall is much like that. A game that you are inexplicably drawn to, in spite of its flaws.
- The game’s story is surprisingly gripping, and the characters present are given plenty of time to develop
- The writing is wonderfully witty, humorous, and satirical
- The world design has lots of hidden lore and secrets waiting for those willing to seek them out
- Visually nothing to write home about. A very ‘My First Unity Project’ sort of vibe
- Some may find the humor one-note and obnoxious
- The puzzles are dull, repetitive and too easy
- vocal performances are a little off
Question: How Long is Backfirewall?
Answer: It depends on if you want to get all the achievements, and collectibles, and hunt around to find all the hidden gags and data logs. If you just want to play through the story, you can see all that the game has planned for you in about four hours. Then I would lump on an extra 2-3 hours to allow for time to find all the extras.
Question: Is Backfirewall Funny?
Answer: It depends on your sense of humor. It’s a game that uses satirical comedy to poke fun at the rise of AI, our reliance as humans on our phones and apps, and also uses a lot of fourth-wall-breaking content to poke fun at real-world entities like Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok and other services. As mentioned above, it won’t float everyone’s boat, but I personally found it quite funny.
Question: Who is Alex in Backfirewall?
Answer: Alex is the character otherwise known as Health App. This is the name that they give themselves after they go rogue.
Callum played this game from start to end, finishing the core story in 6 hours, including an unplanned 30-minute detour after updating the system early into the game. He still has some trophies left to pop, so after some time away, he may return to this one and endure the dad jokes all over again.
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