Review – Backbone
Shockingly, I was unfamiliar with Backbone from indie developer EggNut, even though it had been featured in our April 2018 Kickstarter article. I’ll chock it up to me being distracted by other things, as a pixelated, anthropomorphic, noir detective adventure is the kind of game that just screams my name. At the time, only a trailer was available, which showed a promising title focused around investigating, stealth, and action. What we got ended up being something quite different, for better or worse.
Backbone starts off like any typical noir crime drama. You play as Howard Lotor, a racoon private investigator who is hired by a pregnant otter who suspects her husband of cheating. Some of you might be thinking that racoons and otters aren’t really your typical noir thriller staples. But I’d argue that with the rise of anthropomorphic noir detective games, such as Blacksad: Under the Skin and Chicken Police – Paint it RED!, they’re more normal than you’d think.
You’re tasked with finding evidence of his infidelity so she can use it against him in court. A pretty run-of-the-mill scenario for your average detective game. Things quickly spiral out of control for Howard as a simple case turns into something bigger and more sinister than he could ever have imagined. Once again, this is often the case with gritty crime dramas, but I genuinely wasn’t expecting Backbone to go in the direction it did. Zootopia this is not.
I have mixed feelings about Backbone‘s story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very well written. Or I guess I should say that the storylines we got were compelling. The problem is that Backbone was either too ambitious and tackled more than it could handle, or the developers at EggNut ran out of time and money before they could finish their full vision. My guess is on the latter, because there are clips in their Kickstarter trailer that aren’t in the game, but definitely feel like they should be.
It simply ends rather abruptly, with hardly any of the numerous story threads being wrapped up. I wouldn’t mind this so much if it ended with a “to be continued”, or if the developers had announced upfront that this was going to be an episodic game. In that case, a cliffhanger would be exciting, but as of right now, there’s no word on if there will be another installment. So for the time being, even though I enjoyed the ride, I was left feeling unsatisfied.
The gameplay is another area that baffles me. The prologue was developed first and was used as their playable demo. In it, there was a fantastic mix of point-and-click action, light puzzles, and stealth. None of it was particularly hard, but each of those gameplay elements complimented each other beautifully. The stealth sections added a bit of tension and the puzzles, while not difficult by any stretch, were fairly clever. From what I experienced in the prologue, I was expecting Backbone to be an astounding game.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game played nothing like the prologue. The main game is five Acts long, and each Act plays like a linear point-and-click adventure. By the end it felt almost like a visual novel. There were only one or two puzzles in the remainder of the game and the stealth mechanic only popped up for half a screen in one section. It’s like they forgot to include those elements in the main game. I’m not sure what happened, but if I had to guess, I’d say once again that they probably ran out of time and money, and opted for ease instead.
However, it’s not all disappointments when it comes to the finished product. Backbone is absolutely gorgeous. They really knocked it out of the park with the art design. Even though it has a pixelated art style, there is a shocking amount of detail in every area, complete with dynamic lighting effects. There are many different locations to visit too, so you’ll never start to feel bored by being stuck in one place.
Even the character models are fully detailed. There’s no voice acting, but each character is animated so expertly that you can still understand the emotions they’re conveying. The characters feel believable because of this, in conjunction with their natural and realistically written dialogue options. There’s a fair amount of swearing, but it’s never comes off as excessive. Instead, it actually makes the conversations more convincing.
The sound design is another area that nailed it. As I’ve said, there’s no voice acting, which is curious because that was one of the stretch goals they had that was achieved through their Kickstarter campaign. That being said, I actually feel going without voice acting was the right call. I think it would have slowed down the flow of the game, given that there are so many dialogue options to choose from. Perhaps that’s why they decided against it.
Backbone more than makes up for the lack of voiceover through the other areas of its sound design. The sound effects are wonderfully done and make the city feel alive. But the real star of the show here is the soundtrack. Artists Danshin and Arooj Aftab created a completely original score for Backbone, and it fits the tone and atmosphere of each area in every chapter expertly. There was one song toward the end that seemed a little hammy and awkwardly inserted, but I think that’s more due to nothing really happening onscreen while it was going on. The rest of the soundtrack was incredible though, creating an almost cinematic experience.
I want to recommend Backbone, but it’s hard to do so without knowing for certain if we’re getting a sequel or not. The change in the gamelay elements from the prologue to the main game was disappointing, but not a dealbreaker. If you go into it knowing that most of the game is a point-and-click, borderline visual novel, then I think you’ll enjoy it.
The main reason it’s hard to recommend Backbone is that so much is left unanswered. I truly hope there will be more games in the franchise, because the world building and character development are outstanding. If they could bring back the puzzles and stealth elements from the prologue into future titles, then I have no doubt EggNut could have a classic on their hands. As it stands I’ll have to cautiously recommend Backbone to anyone who loves a gripping noir drama. Just be prepared finish it with more questions than when you started.
It might feature a pixelated art style, but it’s gorgeous. There’s an incredible amount of detail and the animations do a wonderful job of conveying the emotions of each character.
The prologue is the game’s highlight, with a fantastic blending of point-and-click investigating, light puzzles, and stealth. It’s misleading though, because the rest of the game is a linear point-and-click game that borders on becoming a visual novel by the end.
The sound design is well done, and the original soundtrack is far better than I was expecting.
The prologue is amazing and I wish the rest of the game was designed like it. At least there is still a gripping story that will captivate you the whole way though.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Backbone is available now on PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16gb DDR4 RAM.
A copy of Backbone was provided by the publisher.