|Release Date||June 8, 2021|
Upon first viewing promotional material for developer EggNut’s new detective thriller Backbone, I couldn’t help but be struck by its intriguing mix of elements: a dark noir aesthetic, anthropomorphic animal characters, a jazzy soundtrack, and stunning pixel art. It’s the kind of quirky game that you see almost exclusively in the indie scene, and I knew that if it is put together well, it has the potential to take audiences by surprise. With my curiosity piqued, I dived headfirst into this bizarre world, and I’m pleased to report that I’m hungry for more.
Violence: While most of Backbone is free of onscreen violence (as this is not an action-heavy title), blood, gore, and character death appear briefly at several specific points in the story, and in some shocking and grotesque manners. The main character is physically assaulted a couple of times, as seen in the trailer attached to this review.
Drugs/Alcohol: Smoking and drinking occurs often in Backbone. Many characters can be seen puffing away at cigarettes throughout the game, and our chain-smoking protagonist is the furthest thing from an exception. He also attempts to drown his troubles away in booze at one point. Another character is notorious for substance abuse.
Language: Foul language occurs frequently during the game, including “f**k,” “s**t,” and “b***h.” All dialogue is displayed through text, so you’ll read the profanity rather than hear it.
Sexual Content: A few pieces of artwork depict characters with little-to-no clothes on and in seductive poses, but no frontal nudity is shown.
The world of Backbone is inhabited by anthropomorphic mammals of various kinds, including bears, rats, mice, and raccoons. You play as one such racoon: Howard Lotor, a private detective with the kind of gruff, cynical, down-to-earth personality typical of a noir protagonist. The story begins simply enough: you are hired by a woman to trail her husband, who she suspects has been cheating on her. As your investigation proceeds, however, you uncover dark, grisly secrets that lead into even greater mysteries. Together with your jovial beaver buddy Anatoly and a foxy investigative journalist named Renee, you’ll follow leads, interview witnesses, and infiltrate hideouts as you try to find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
Backbone lays the noir atmosphere on thick, and I love it. The gorgeous pixel art oozes with character, showcasing tons of detail that gives each area you explore a distinct feel, from bustling city streets to dingy apartment buildings to ramshackle homeless communities. The soundtrack is remarkable as well, with its mix of moody atmospheric tracks and smooth, somber jazz pieces. This soundtrack is one I’ll likely come back to time and time again, especially for songs like “Abode” and “I Wonder.” The moment I stepped into the city’s swanky nightclub and heard the musicians’ snazzy tunes, I knew I was in for a treat.
As good as the presentation is, though, the storytelling and characterization are the game’s greatest strengths. The stakes ratchet up quickly, and every new turn and tidbit kept me curious, eager to learn more about this intriguing world and what it’s hiding. Backbone slowly peels back the curtain over the course of the game, adding new and unexpected layers of depth to the world and showing you how much you are in over your head. The characters prove excellent vehicles through which to experience this story, too. Howard’s classic gumshoe persona sets the overall tone and plays well off both his companions and adversaries. Howard’s friend Anatoly stands out in particular, adding an endearing dose of comedic relief to this otherwise grim tale.
However, the story is also the source of my biggest frustration with this game, which is the lack of almost any sort of closure at the end. It’s difficult to explain without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that the aforementioned peeling of the curtain is still in process when the credits roll, providing no clear signposting that the game is about to conclude. The ending can barely be considered a stopping point in the overall narrative, either. It’s clear that the developers intend to continue the story—they have openly said as much, stating that “there is more to come for the world of Backbone”—and I desperately hope they follow through on that, because the story has me hooked, and leaving it off here with so much remaining mystery and so little closure would be criminal.
Compared to the storytelling, Backbone’s gameplay takes a backseat. Most of your time is spent conversing with NPCs, and while your dialogue choices affect the flavor of your conversation—your input and inquiries can take sarcastic, impersonal, and confrontational tones, or they can be polite, understanding, and helpful—they cannot change the arc of the story in any significant way. I wish I had known this from the outset, as I restarted the game several times early on as I tried in vain to alter the outcome of a particular conversation. Once I understood that my choices didn’t matter in that sense, though, I felt free to go along with the flow, satisfied with the ability to simply influence Howard’s characterization and content to let the compelling story run its course.
At a few select moments, the game does in fact place you as a player in a more active role, namely with a handful of puzzles and stealth sequences. While the puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, they lean into the investigative nature of Howard’s profession and thus dovetail nicely with the story. I wish there were more of them than there are. The stealth sections are painfully simple, however, requiring you merely to crouch behind low objects and either wait for enemies to pass or interact with one or two objects in the environment to make them move out of your way. Both they and the puzzles would have benefitted from more depth, complexity, and frequency.
Despite these criticisms, I ultimately walked away from Backbone entranced. This game only scratches the surface of the universe it has created, with plenty more nuance, detail, and mystery left to examine. If, for their next title, the developers can add some more gameplay depth to go along with their storytelling, they could have something incredible on their hands. As it stands now, though, I want more. I NEED more. Backbone has me hooked, but it’s currently leaving me hanging.
The Bottom Line
While its simplistic gameplay and lack of closure hold it back from greatness, Backbone still delivers a compelling experience thanks to its deep worldbuilding, well-realized characters, and gorgeous pixel art.