Review: Backstab (iOS)

Better than a poke in the eye.

One part Assassin’s Creed, one part Prince of Persia, Gameloft’s latest high-profile iOS title is a cocktail of the two Ubisoft flagships. However, departing from the sand-swept ancient cities and lavish Renaissance vistas, Backstab is situated in the 18th century Caribbean.

Players assume the role of fallen English naval officer Henry Blake, who is wrongly accused of aiding a Spanish invasion on the town of New Brighton. After four years of imprisonment in Fort Victoria, Blake narrowly manages to escape the gallows, vowing to hunt down the man who framed him, Captain Edmund Blake and also to find his missing fiance, Emma.

The plot surrounding Backstab is incredibly thin on the ground and only acts as filler between the numerous in-game missions with there being little explanation as to why and how a number of events happen. Given the broad nature of the game, the lack of any substantial narrative hooks immediately presents a disincentive to progress, made worse by an under-developed and fairly generic protagonist. With that said, Backstab’s setting is impressive, and it’s refreshing to take the helm as someone other than a pirate in the 18th century Caribbean.

[drop]Treading the line between modern action platformer and open world adventure, Backstab can’t seem to make its mind up where genre is concerned. Throughout the game, you will seamlessly switch between linear and open-world sections which may sound like welcome change of pace, though when comparing the two different segments of gameplay side-by-side, one is certainly head and shoulders above the other.

From the get go, players will have a number of settlements and other expanses of land that they can explore during downtime. Here you will find plenty of side missions as well as treasure chests and the temptation to wreak havoc on innocent bystanders. However, with each mission being almost identical (bar the arena and racing challenges) and there being no beneficial reason to stray from the story-driven thread, this section of the game feels completely underwhelming, and in some cases, a hindrance.

For instance, Backstab employs a “wanted level” system, somewhat similar to Grand Theft Auto, which will prevent players from picking up assignments as long as the guards are on your tail. The only time-friendly way of getting shot of your pursuers is to duck into one of the few safehouses scattered around each town, presenting more hassle just picking up a mission than actually completing it. Aside from optional errands and patrol-baiting, the other two attractions are hookers and vendors, the former serving absolutely no purpose to the game whatsoever.

Where Backstab begins to impress is its linear action sequences. These are the sections in which most of the narrative is played out, usually dropping Blake in temples, occupied settlements or other locales with a clear set of objectives. In a similar fashion to Assassin’s Creed, Backstab employs simplistic free-running as the primary method of traversal with horses also making an occasional appearance.

However, when locked into one of the game’s linear areas, Backstab uses Blake’s acrobatic prowess to solve puzzles and tackle small clusters of guards, reminiscent of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia re-shuffle. Gameloft has also tried to implement a stealth element, though this simmers down to a few pre-set silent takedown animations. Keeping the action focused and engaging, without the diversion of a bland open world is where Backstab starts to become an enjoyable action adventure title; if Gameloft had stuck to this formula instead of awkwardly easing in free-roam frivolities, this could easily have been a must-have title for mobile devices.

Where both aforementioned Ubisoft franchises have impressed fans in the past is the focus on melee combat. However, fluid swordplay is a hallmark that fails to be upheld in Backstab; in fact, the combat can be so monotonous and numbing that some players will duck out of battle at every given opportunity.

Aside from being able to chain combos with your blade using a single button, you also have the abilities to shunt a foe backward and counter incoming strikes. It sounds good on paper but the sheer lack of diversity and finicky controls can prove frustrating. Shooting can be just as bad; with two shots required to down a foe when wielding Blake’s pistol, there is no reason to use it, even if the gun controls handle pretty well.

Throwing a glance at screens taken from the game, Backstab definitely appears to be one of the better looking iOS titles. Environments harbour a fitting sense of atmosphere, and little tweaks such as the time and weather cycles make it all the more impressive. However, such aesthetic pleasure usually comes with a sacrifice: the frame rate. Though it isn’t a constant issue, you will find that whenever a mass of enemies sprawl onto the screen or if you are free-running too progressively, Backstab will begin to stutter.

Sound effects and background music are of an average standard, never garnering much attention though not detracting from the game either. What may surprise some mobile gamers is the inclusion of voice actors in Backstab; all major characters, as well as bystanders, have their own dialogue which helps bring the setting and story to life, even if the scripting and execution is a little off the mark.

Pros

  • A refreshing choice of character and setting.
  • Side missions and collectibles increase the game’s lifespan considerably.
  • Linear sections are satisfying and fun to play.
  • Free-running makes for some easy transportation.
  • Huge open world environments.
  • Inclusion of spoken dialogue adds to the game’s presentation nicely.

Cons

  • Free roam gameplay is barren and lacklustre.
  • Side missions are incredibly repetitive.
  • Melee combat is bland, gunplay isn’t needed.
  • Free-running can be inaccurate from time to time.
  • Frame-rate issues spoil the brilliant visuals.

Backstab is by no means a poor game, though it does have a number of evident flaws. Gameloft’s decision to create a living open world is admirable, though in the end it fails to pay off, hardly complimenting the linear action-platform sections. However, if you aren’t phased by the repetitive nature of Backstab’s free-roaming, you will easily be able to extend your playthrough by another few hours at least.

Henry Blake is far from being the next Prince or Desmond Miles, but if Gameloft was to iron out the mediocrities of Backstab, it could easily become the iOS’s counterpart franchise for “Triple A” modern action adventure titles.

Score: 5/10

10 Comments

  1. Cheers, Jim. The article started out so full of promise then the negative parts started to really build and that combat sounds awful.

    • No worries fella. Precisely, checking out the blurb and screenshots on the App Storefront will likely mislead quite a few people into buying this game. If it ever goes on sale for £0.59 though I would strongly recommend picking it up.

  2. What a shame about the gameplay, hopefully they give this a second chance on Playstation or another console.

  3. This was the first game I bought for my Xperia Play, while the controls on the right touch pad ( free look ) are annoying as all of the games ive played have suffered from i was quite please at the graphics as well as the voice acting. Having played AC I was dissapointed that it didn’t play as well as Backstab. I do agree with the faults you pointed out however, definatly a nice ground work for a more focused sequal.

  4. Hopefully they release a better version on psn as a psn game.

    • that’s what i’m thinking, as a psn game it could be pretty damn good.

    • That’s what I’m hoping for. Better combat and a stronger open-world focus, could make Backstab an ideal PSN title.

  5. i’d still bite at 59p.

  6. Got this on the play ages ago but havn’t played it much, it was enjoyable from what i did though.

  7. Despite the games floors it’s an enjoyable ride.
    I would still give it a try

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