Trends in the gaming space are so hard to predict, but one that I never could have seen is the rise of the anthropomorphic animal noir detective story. Following Blacksad and last year’s Chicken Police – Paint It Red, is the all new Kickstarter funded project from Raw Fury and Eggnut, Backbone.
Backbone is a gritty post-noire tale of a simple raccoon private investigator, Howard Lotor, that falls face first into a scandal that puts his life on the line. In this city full of anthropomorphic animals, racism and class warfare weigh heavy on daily life. The highest of the animal society controls the gigantic wall that surrounds the city and makes attempts to climb the wall punishable by death, effectively allowing them to treat the inhabitants however they want. As Howard gathers info on the case at hand, Backbone explores the oppression of the lower class and the structure of this society’s caste system.
Presented in an absolutely stunning pixel art style, the world of Backbone is rich and crafted with a personal touch that feels very lived in. There are plenty of nods and references throughout the game that can really make you light up when you see them; whether its a character wearing the signature jacket from Akira, graffiti of the infamous Cool Cat, or even a reference to the “understandable, have a great day” meme. The designers, artists, and writers of the game utilize every bit of each scene to make it stand out and leave an impression. It’s obvious that a lot of love and care went into crafting the visual style.
The prologue chapter of Backbone promises an investigative puzzler with dialogue options that have impact, but unfortunately that dissolves away rather quickly. In fact, there is only 1 puzzle in the entire game and it is in the prologue. As the game goes on the focus on telling the narrative becomes so linearly focused that it feels less like you’re exploring a gritty underworld to solve an intricate crime and more like you’re bombing down a tube slide, barreling towards the end of the game, and all you can do is go forward.
The dialogue in the game is very witty and tightly written, there were more than a few times I found myself laughing along with our raccoon hero. Despite the dark nature of the overarching story, the dialogue between characters provides some much appreciated levity throughout. Backbone is chock full of dialogue options that provide some slightly different tones and text from characters, but ultimately still follows along the same path. In the later phases of the game I started wondering why the dialogue options were even present if they didn‘t really change anything. As a private detective you would think that you would need to use cunning verbal skills to get information out of suspects, but not really. Everyone tells you everything you need to know regardless of how you ask for it and you end up in the same place anyway.
Backbone’s first few chapters are so genuinely engaging and had me hooked on the mystery and presentation of the whole spectacle, if the game could have kept it up throughout it would be one of my favorites of the year. Unfortunately things take a massive turn past the halfway point and ultimately fizzle out with a dud as the back half of the game eats away at the goodwill the opening had built up in me until it unceremoniously just ends.
It’s so hard to express how the game ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth without getting into serious spoilers, but I’ll try my best. The story abruptly shifts genres from a grounded, street level crime thriller to something more supernatural sci-fi horror, most of the plot threads are handwaved with confusing rationale or dropped entirely, and to say it ends on a cliffhanger would be a bit too generous as the game just ends seemingly in the middle of this new plot that started up in the last half.
Backbone is a definite case of style over substance. The art, tone, and ambience are polished to a mirror sheen and really do all of the heavy lifting as the narrative struggles to plant its feet and commit to tell a story start to finish. Backbone will take the average player anywhere between 3-4 hours to complete and that gameplay time will be densely packed with beautiful imagery, music, and some great references and comedy. Unfortunately, while the first half of the game seems to have been tuned up to perfection, the rest was seemingly pieced together until the team ran out of steam.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Backbone is a beautiful 2.5D pixel art post-noir detective story with a wonderful tone and perfect ambience that unfortunately falls apart narratively as the gameplay dials back and focuses more on that narrative, revealing all of the cracks in the wall.