Darting between overhangs, I’m desperate to put distance between myself and the security drone on the other side of the road. Raining, again, but I need space. My battery is running low already, but I can see batteries just one more building away. Not wanting to risk it draining while waiting for the rain to subside, I choose to sprint from this dilapidated sanctuary to the next. The rain proves too corrosive, however, and spells my end. I collapse in the street before my vision goes dark. Time to try again.
Backland is the newest project of solo dev B-Cubed Labs (@BcubedLabs), featuring music from Clément Panchout (@ClementPanchout). Made over the course of two weeks, the game offers gorgeous lo-fi “3D pixel art” and a moody soundtrack. Set among the ruins of a randomly generated city, you’re tasked with hunting down five beacons and activating them to signal a rescue ship. Things aren’t easy, though, as this place is under near-constant torrential downpour with only brief respite. As it’s acid rain, being drenched in it is detrimental to your health and will kill you quickly.
Thankfully, you carry a backpack offering substantial life support, but it’s operated by a quickly-draining battery, as indicated by the diegetic health bar on the back of the pack. As batteries scatter the ground and buildings, the constant discharge and rain will have you scavenging for them constantly during your search for the beacons. You’ll need to stay wary, however, as massive fleets of security drones patrol the streets and structures of the city. Being spotted results in bursts of gunfire, forcing you to take cover immediately before you wind up perforated and huge chunks of your life support are shredded away.Should you manage to evade the predatory gaze of the drones and discover a beacon, activating it will take a few moments. You stand next to it, waiting for an indicator on it to turn bright blue, and fire a beam of light upwards. Given that being exposed to the sky is necessary for its signal to serve its function, standing next to one of these to turn it on is can be a risky proposition. If it’s outside on the ground, those few moments leave you impatient should a drone be nearby or closing in on you. Even when situated on the top floor of a building, you need to dash to cover as soon as you see a sprinkle of precipitation, forcing you to wait longer and exacerbating the stress of managing your life support.
With such a tight gameplay loop, sessions in Backland are exhilarating. Each death regenerates the city, and the generation manages to be quite varied. Sometimes you’ll wind up trying to make the best of a city made up by swaths of exposed ground to cover, or tightly packed metropolises where a drone could be hiding around any corner. The constant need to push forward forces you to take risks and keeps the moment-to-moment gripping, while allowing for periods of rest when you come across a safe room with a mountain of batteries in the corner. It’s a pleasant experience as well; waiting for a short moment to let the rain pass lets you pay attention to the city’s quiet hum, listening to the droplets bouncing off the ground. Alongside the dulcet tones of the soundtrack, the mood shifts from dangerous and tense to one more soothing, if only for a second.
Overall, I highly recommend Backland. It’s a roguelike in the best of ways, giving you bite-sized sessions and staying fresh between runs. Remaining so modest in its scope, it sticks with you, and can easily become addictive since it’s so easy to pick up for a quick attempt or two on a lunch break. I’m eager to see more from B-Cubed, who’s quickly becoming someone to keep a close eye on. Until their next project, take a trip to the city. Enjoy the weather.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.