STAFF REVIEW of Backfirewall_ (Xbox One)

Friday, March 10, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Backfirewall_ Box art Have you ever given second thought to when you need to update your phone to the newest Operating System (OS)? Probably not, as you simply hit the update button and let it do its thing for a few minutes before you’re greeted with the latest and greatest software right? Well, what if I told you there’s a whole world and ecosystem inside your phone, where your apps are actually people? What if updating your phone’s OS caused more strife and trauma than you even thought of? What if the old OS was a person, and updating to the latest essentially kills them off only to be replaced?

This is the premise of Backfirewall_, an adorable indie game from Naraven Games that wasn’t even on my radar and probably something I’d honestly skip past in the trailers, but more than elated that I got to play through its adventure. As you go through this hilarious adventure you’ll meet a handful of unique, quirky and memorable apps (characters) along the way, visiting numerous areas and sections inside the phone, all while solving puzzles. I can honestly say, I’ll think of my phone a little differently when it comes time for its next major update. If you enjoy games with endless humor like The Stanley Parable and know your technology terms even slightly, you’re going to have a good time filled with plenty of laughs.

You are the Update Assistant, the app that actually, well, updates your system when you’re ready to upgrade to the newest OS. Backfirewall_ starts out in a really interesting way with someone talking to you and a simple icon on the screen. This is when you first get introduced to OS9, a chatty, witty and hilarious personality that will act as your narrator throughout the adventure.

The time has come though, the latest OS is out, OS10, so naturally you would want to upgrade to the best there is to offer right? Well, OS9 doesn’t want that, as it will kill him once replaced with the new OS10, and you don’t want him to die do you? You hold the fate of the phone’s universe in your hands and decisions. Do you save OS9 from deletion? Does finding out that when the OS gets updated that also has you become deleted as well make a difference? Do you want to die? I’d assume not, so you two begin your journey to do anything you can to stop the update from happening.

As you travel throughout the different core components of the phone, you’ll meet a unique cast along the way all played in first person. As you meet new apps and get to know them, they all have their own ideas and thoughts on the update, but there’s more going on here that you start to notice. There’s seemingly a resistance happening, as maybe some apps have realized that they won’t possibly work with the new OS if it gets updated or you see some graffiti on the walls that are sometimes hilarious, and others ominous.

I don’t want to delve too much more into the narrative as it’s not a terribly long adventure, but the story is absolutely its highlight filled with non-stop humor and a wide range of emotions. Even the most minor characters are quirky enough to be interesting and there’s plenty of details hidden throughout if you take the time to look and read all the logs (literally, they are logs that represent, well, logs). If you know your tech terms and some pop culture references, you’re going to be smiling throughout. It’s a very unique setting and I thought it was going to be a little dull from its screenshots before playing, but it’s quite the opposite actually.

As you make your way to new areas of the phone, like the seemingly infinite RAM halls, the WiFi tower, the acid filled Battery, the GPU where you’ll see the User’s photos and more, they all have a unique setting that if I had to guess what an actual ecosystem in a phone was like, this probably wouldn’t be too far off. The world is colorful and simply gives off a ‘fun’ vibe, even when the security bots are trying to find you and OS9, whom has conveniently tucked himself away inside your code.

While there’s some platforming to be done, it’s quite light, with more of a focus on its puzzle elements. There’s plenty more to do though with bugs to find, toys to collect, reading logs, finding text messages and more. If you do happen to ‘die’ from falling off a ledge into the battery acid below or getting caught from the security bots, you’ll simply respawn instantly a moment away and able to try again without any recourse.

You’re in a smartphone remember, so while you don’t have root access to see all the User’s private information like texts, you are able to find them scattered throughout the phone as you adventure on, with yellow texts able to be read and blue which are encrypted, acting like a currency when you’re able to purchase things. All the texts in the phone are initially unreadable, but as you find more they’ll slot in to the appropriate place in each person’s text conversation with the User. It’s a clever way that really made me want to go out of my way to find as many as I possibly could. It genuinely made me more curious about the User, especially when I started seeing photos and videos of her.

As you progress through each section of the phone, you’ll eventually hit a roadblock where you’ll need to solve a handful of puzzles before OS9 can unlock a door for you to walk through. This is done by causing system errors in the area. You’re given a checklist of True statements, such as there being 10 boxes in the room. Well, if you delete one of those boxes, that is clearly no longer a True statement, so the error occurs and you will get an objective update. Finish the five or so puzzles and you’ll be able to move onto the next area.

How do you solve said puzzles you ask? Great question. You cheat. Yup, OS9 will periodically give you new cheat codes which is used in a really clever way in its world, not just these puzzle areas. These cheat codes allow you to manipulate the environment in different ways, acting as new powers or abilities. You first learn to delete items, eventually able to duplicate, change colors of objects and more. It’s all done in a way that makes complete sense given your backdrop and the narrative, so I applaud the originality.

But you aren’t good at puzzle games and this might deter you I hear? Don’t fret, the puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, and while I never had to look up a walkthrough, there is some in-game assistance offered if you should need it. Can’t figure out how to solve a certain puzzle? Ask the rubber ducks. Yes, you’ll talk to rubber ducks that will offer hints that you crave so badly. They do a wonderful job and never directly spell it out for you what to do, but just enough of a hint where they basically tell you what to do or where to go. I’ve had to rely on them once or twice and still felt the sensation of puzzle solving on my own, even if I did get a little bit of a clue from a rubber duck.

While I really did enjoy the level design, the audio and sound design needs special mention. OS9 is an absolute treat with his accent and witty lines. Think Wheatley from Portal 2 and you’ll have a perfect example, of which I’m sure plenty of inspiration came from. Nicolas Oberson’s performance of OS9 is flawless and absolutely makes Backfirewall_ the unique experience it is. Fantastic voice acting all around, which quite surprised me from a smaller studio, but every NPC and App you meet along the way is voiced absolutely wonderfully. The writing obviously plays a large part in the execution of its humor throughout, but the lines were delivered perfectly, only adding to the humor more so. The actors for OS10, Social Media, Alex, Unzipper and more all did fantastic, elevating the experience.

Full of creativity, the initial screenshots might fool you with how basic is looks, but it’s done so deliberately and makes for a truly extraordinary game. I was smiling from the opening moments when I had to choose what my name was from a few different binary numbers, only for OS9 to call me Elizabeth in the end regardless, all the way to the end where I was legitimately sad. Humor isn’t easy to pull off in games, and if you miss the landing, the whole experience falls flat. That isn’t the case here at all.

Backfirewall_ is one of those games I honestly probably wouldn’t have given a second glance to as I scrolled through the store of something new to play, but absolutely delighted that I got to experience such a unique and creative game that clearly had a lot of heart and passion behind it. Indie games like Backfirewall_ need to be experienced, one that I can fully recommend if you need something light hearted, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and gives plenty of laughs along the way, even if it has now made me questioning my phone’s OS update in real life.

**Backfirewall_ was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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