Once again the dreaded onscreen d-pad rears its ugly head, ready to ruin what might otherwise be a playable game. Together with its nefarious sidekick, motion control, it has ruined the gaming experiences for thousands of frustrated gamers and made many a train or plane journey into a bewildering, annoying and ultimately futile experience. Can Gameloft’s newest pirate adventure sail over the horizon in their boat of mixed metaphors without being hamstrung by the evil of touchscreen control schemes?
Before we answer the question, let’s set the stage for Backstab to swing on to the scene. Gameloft is a company that specialises in doing very slick, technically proficient and often very well polished and playable titles…..which are often very derivative. Whether its the Starcraft inspired Starfront: Collision or the Halo influenced NOVA, they specialise in creating recognisable games built from the tropes of existing successful franchises. Backstab is in much the same mould, but while it may be overtly derivative of an existing title it at least re-frames it in a different setting. In this case, Backstab takes the gameplay of Assassins Creed and moves it to the world of swashbuckling pirates. This is an inspired move. Climbing and jumping in the style of Altair (or Ezio) feels logically consistent as a pirate and the enemy soldiers firing muskets or pointing rapiers are convincing enemies.
As is traditional with Gamelofts titles a great deal of the combat, gameplay and even animation feels familiar. This is mostly a good thing. Countering and comboing with your sword feels satisfying and the execution animations are convincing. The combat itself is simplified but refined, using just one attack button and utilising well timed counters to dispatch large groups of enemies quickly. Tougher opponents require more cunning and evasion to defeat, but the difficulty is lenient and the check pointing is generous.
The visuals on display are good with varied environments full of high levels of detail and fairly well modelled 3D characters. Its not on a par with modern console releases, but it certainly wouldn’t look out of place on a 3DS or PSP. More noticeable than the graphics engine is how slick and well presented everything is. While cut scenes may not be full of high polygon models or backgrounds, they are nonetheless well directed with clever camera angles, decent voice work and great effects and music that all make the experience feel much higher-budget than its actual price would suggest. Real care and effort has been put into these; its clear that Gameloft has some very talented artists and designers on their staff. The story may not have characters with LA Noire style fully modelled faces, but they manage to convey the narrative through body language and clever direction and enthusiastic (if sometimes cheesy) dialogue.
So if the presentation, graphics and audio is so strong in Backstab, can the game itself survive the terror of an touchscreen d-pad? The answer is…kinda. The game uses an Assassins Creed style free-running system. By running straight at a wall you climb it and by running towards a platform edge you jump from it. With an onscreen d-pad, this had the potential to be disastrously unplayable…but somehow its not. The fact that you almost always have your finger on the screen/pad means that its relatively easy to make adjustments to your movement as your character runs through the environment. Add to that the fact that the levels seem incredibly well designed and are often split up into bite sized chunks of platforming, cut scenes, minigames (like cannon firing) and rooftop chases and you have a game that does its best to minimise potential frustrations. The narrative is simple, but it moves along at a brisk pace and its hard not to get wrapped up in the adventurous worlds of pirating and sword fighting.
Backstab is an ambitious little game. It crams the animation, production values and sound design of a full console game into a tiny pocket handheld at a tiny price. It doesn’t quite measure up to its big brothers, but its impressive that it tries. Its a plucky little chap, and as a result its charming enough in its own right to hold your interest for far more long train journeys than you might expect.
7 thoroughly shivered timbers out of 10