Backstab knocked us for six when it was revealed back in March as a timed Xperia Play exclusive. It came out of left field promising to be an imaginative, "unprecedented" and "original" game that provides triple-A thrills on a mobile handset - and more amazingly still, Gameloft actually delivered. BackStab has now made its way to the app store, and with much stiffer competition, we were interested to see how the experience stacks up with the best iOS has to offer.
As Henry Blake, an honourable naval officer betrayed by his closest friend and left for dead, players will scamper, climb and murder their way through a Carribean island in a quest for vengeance, using the rooftops to gain vertical advantage. Parkour plays a pivotal role since Blake is able to climb almost any surface and leap between buildings with ease. These mechanics can occasionally be a little finnicky to pull off thanks to the virtual analogue stick and camera mechanics, but on the whole, it works brilliantly. Some linear platforming sections are arguably the highlight of the package, requiring some interesting moves and a little planning to pull off.
The combat system is streamlined and accessible; using a slick one button interface that allows combos and kills to be changed together. Some enemies can be brutally (and wonderfully) dispatched with context sensitive attacks such as shooting a rifleman with his own musket or leaping from a rooftop to spectacularly assassinate unwary opponents. It's brilliantly satisfying, though it's worth noting that you'll rarely feel the need to use a firearm.
As well as progressing through the story, Blake will also be able to explore the island for optional subquests, loot and hidden treasure. Though many of these quests are fairly repetitive (go to point A, kill person B, race between points C and D etc), the scope for nonlinear exploration is absolutely outstanding. Personally, I had a lot of fun simply scampering around the spacious play area just for the sheer unadulterated hell of it; collecting vast sums of money to spend on new gear, weapons and even safehouses to sleep and remove notoriety. You won't find many open world games on iOS, and BackStab doesn't disappoint.
Backstab sets itself up as a classic swashbuckling tale, but halfway through the game, the storyline completely swerves off of the beaten track and into occult Uncharted-esque territory. It's a bizarre change of pace that leaves many an unanswered question, but without spoiling the twist, it also manages to set up some fun set pieces and seriously hectic swordfights.
Presentation-wise, BackStab is a bit of a mixed bag. The texture work and animations are purely functional, and look fairly dated on the iPad, but are complimented by some impressive reflections and detailed wildlife. An almost complete lack of lip synching is also a little odd - especially when the camera tends to zoom in on the characters' stoic bobbleheads. On the whole, though, the engine gets the job done (with the odd frame rate hit) - and looks much more impressive on the iPhone's smaller screen.
In contrast, the iPad's capacious screen highlights a woefully short draw distance that can cause NPCs to flicker in and out of existence. It's an acceptable limitation of the engine that's mitigated by buildings breaking line of sight, but frankly, I'd have been willing to shell out for a dedicated HD version.
Voice work is similarly hit and miss (with characters slipping into different accents throughout the story), but I'd never mark an app down for including full VA. Excellent ambient sound effects and music pick up much of the slack.
Considering that BackStab provides between 6-12 hours of engaging gameplay depending on how thoroughly you decide to explore the island and embark on scavenger hunts (or just murder hapless guards for fun and profit), I was set to give it a perfect score... but the experience is sadly marred by some poor design decisions and technical issues. Most aggravatingly, BackStab uses a checkpoint save system - meaning that having to turn off your iPhone can result in several minutes of lost progress. This is absolutely unnacceptable for an open world game, especially when resting or using a safehouse doesn't trigger an autosave.
As well as the clipping plane issues highlighted above, BackStab is also a little unstable - and just as an example, I was forced to reset the game three minutes in after Blake locked into a QTE with a nonexistent opponent. Though I absolutely love BackStab, and would recommend it to most gamers without hesitation, I simply can't fully endorse a game that I know to be bugged.
- Seriously satisfying combat and free-running mechanics
- Swashbuckling action par excellence
- Loads of exploration, content and value
- A host of weaknesses can't be ignored
- Inconsistent presentation
- Horrendous save system
Summary: Despite some technical issues, BackStab is a fun, exciting and genuinely worthwhile experience. It's Gameloft's most original and, by our reckoning, best title to date, and though it falls just short of true brilliance, we hope that they'll learn from its few mistakes to create the first truly AAA game on the App Store. If more games like BackStab make their way to iOS, we reckon that the 3DS and PS Vita's days could well be numbered.
Compatibility: [UNIVERSAL APP]: Compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch (3rd generation), iPod touch (4th generation) and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.
Price: £3.99 - App Store