A clean brushstroke nine years in the making
Sometimes a game can take years to materialize, much to the ire of fans. Hype and excitement can set expectations far too high, leading to inevitable disappointment. However, Backworlds, a game by the small team over at Logic Ember, seemingly released out of nowhere last year after a nine-year development cycle. After another year of waiting, Backworlds has also made the jump to Switch. While the Switch port suffers from some control issues, Backworlds is ultimately well worth the wait, being a solid and charming puzzle-platformer that fans of the genre will love.
One of Backworld’s standout features comes in the form of the art style. The game looks great, and the hand-drawn/papercraft aesthetic allows Backworlds to stand out from the pack. Environments and backgrounds are incredibly detailed, too, with subtle gusts of wind blowing the background’s foliage, for example. Every music track fits the environment perfectly as well; well-crafted, ambient tracks create an enthralling atmosphere. The character animations were also a highlight, with the playable creature’s tails flowing in the wind or their head popping off to push blocks around. Aesthetically the game hits all its marks, while still mostly running smoothly on Switch. The exception comes when transitioning between screens. During these instances, the game will freeze for up to a few seconds to load the next area. While not a big problem, it is still a disappointing blemish on an otherwise great presentation.
Backworlds’ gameplay is, of course, the core draw. The game tries to combine classic single-screen puzzle games and the metroidvania genre to create an interconnected world of puzzle screens. For the most part, this works great. Each screen works as its own isolated puzzle, with a rainbow ink drop acting as the reward for solving each puzzle. Collecting enough ink drops will open a door somewhere on the world map, leading to a boss encounter. Additionally, a handy map and the ability to fast travel to certain locations at any time makes backtracking far less tedious than it otherwise would be.
Backworlds’ main gimmick comes in the form of painting the environment to flip between the regular and reverse world. Puzzles will require you to switch the environment by painting over parts of the environment to change the properties of the world. While the regular world acts as you’d expect, the reverse world has different properties depending on the world you’re currently in. For instance, in one world the dark version can flip gravity, while in another world it lets you swim through the air. Imbuing each world with its own gimmick for the reverse world allows for a solid, consistent gameplay loop that ultimately stays fresh with the variety in puzzles and reverse world mechanics. None of the puzzles were too mentally taxing, mostly involving pushing blocks or using magnets to open doors, but they were all still great brain teasers. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the bosses, as they felt incredibly out of place and monotonous. The first boss, for instance, required you to navigate around the screen to throw small rocks at a bird. However, in the middle of the screen is a “danger area” that causes the bird to knock you across the screen. Instead of feeling like another well-designed puzzle, it was more frustrating to be knocked away and have to start the puzzle over, just because there needed to be a boss fight.
Where Backworlds ultimately struggles the most, though, is in the controls. While platforming works as expected (with the frustrating exclusion of a run button), the main mechanic of drawing is incredibly cumbersome. There are three methods of drawing: the right stick with a cursor, the touch screen, or with gyro controls. The right stick option moves a cursor around the screen, where you use the R or ZR button to draw or erase. While there are plenty of options to adjust sensitivity, using the right stick feels clunky and unnatural regardless of the setting. Touch controls don’t fare much better either. Drawing with one finger paints the world while using two fingers erases the world. This control scheme struggles when it comes to objects at the edge of the screen, however, as moving one finger slightly off the edge will cause you to draw instead of erase, which is incredibly frustrating. Arguably the best control scheme, although not perfect, is the gyro controls. Using motion to control the game is overall smooth and precise, but it lacks an option to recenter the cursor, which is a baffling exclusion. Overall, no control solution is ideal and it does dampen the overall experience, even if the game is otherwise great.
The amount of love and care that went into Backworlds is undeniable. With great visuals, a novel gimmick, and well-designed puzzles, Backworlds is sure to be an enjoyable experience for fans of the genre. Unfortunately, the issues plaguing the drawing controls ultimately get in the way of a fairly solid package. If you don’t mind adapting to a slightly awkward control scheme, Backworlds is a very good title that is well worth your time.