Indie innovation has brought with it increasing layers of complexity. We’ve got management sim roguelikes, dating sim dungeon crawlers, goat simulators with zombie trailers, and sentences like this trying to capture years of growth in just one breath. It can be, quite simply, a bit much. How refreshing it is, then, to find an indie that happily decides it will do just one thing.
That indie is Back Again, a platformer that does exactly what it says on the tin. Back Again is not an action platformer, with combat tacked on just for the sake of it. It is not a platformer metroidvania, with a map I’d never fully explore in one playthrough. It is not even a collectathon, that darling subgenre so often paired with the platformer. No, in Back Again, you just jump. A lot.
Back Again begins with our unnamed, unseen protagonist landing on the starting platform of what appears to be a long-run gauntlet. So says the disembodied voice acting as guide, warning, and narrator. From the way the voice speaks to the protagonist, one imagines an existing relationship between the two. Whatever the nature of it, one thing is clear: they do not want us reaching the end of this gauntlet. Fortunately, the controller is not in their hands.
Taking the first-person perspective, players are tasked with navigating a series of jumping challenges. The jump in Back Again initially feels a tad floaty. Given the rapid pace and precision that often arises in puzzles so heavily focused on jumping, one usually expects a more snappy motion than what Back Again offers. This is not to its detriment, however. The more measured jump suits the environment well, and still allows for speed when the moment calls for it. If anything, the generally slower movement feels just as satisfying as any of the wilder movements pulled off by bandicoots and plumbers alike.
The challenges of Back Again grow increasingly difficult. Yet, there is an incredibly gratifying balance with this curve. The usual offsets are there: every so often there is a checkpoint from which players will respawn should they fall. More impressive, however, is the way difficulty does not solely ramp up. It ebbs and flows, with more intense sections usually followed by a puzzle that, for at least its first half, is clearly less stressful than what preceded it. With this even design philosophy and weightier jump, Back Again strikes a happy medium between harsher challenge and fun gameplay.
Of course, part of the fun is the aesthetic. I may not have needed much time with Back Again, but I still needed to be engaged with what I was looking at. Here, too, does developer Manning Media’s platformer demonstrate the beauty of simplicity. In Back Again, there are two colours: white and red. You can also count the black and grey of the backgrounds and mannequins, respectively, but indulge me here. The point is, there is very little colour amidst these floating platforms. Rather than seeing this small palette as a limitation, the developer seems to have run with it. White platforms flash red as you step on them. White buttons stay red after you jump off them. Red flashes confirm a death as you return to a white starting point. All the while, the black abyss watches, ever tempting.
Though hardly the focus, I must also mention the story of Back Again. The disembodied voice not only greets us after every death with the titular question, but goes on the kind of soliloquy that would give even Hamlet pause. Granted, they speak to us, but given the silent nature of the protagonist, the vibe is much the same. Without spoiling too much, the topics our dear narrator brooches are mildly philosophical, and seem to be along the “meaning of life” side of things. There is also an interesting level of worldbuilding, as they use the history of the very gauntlet we’re on as means to deter our completion of it. It’s an impressive touch.
Back Again concludes with a bombastic final challenge and final cutscene that teases more to come past its decidedly dark ending. Following completion, there’s a speedrun mode for the more daring, and the final trophy for 100 deaths to nab if you managed to avoid that many before the end (as I did, heh). Back Again is a neat, tidy package, which gave such a wonderfully focused hour of good platforming, it may have been one of my favourite bits of gaming this year.
Should that ending teaser amount to more, I will most definitely be back again.
Sarim reviewed Back Again on PlayStation 5 with a review code. Back Again is also available on PC, Switch and PlayStation 4.