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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Raw Fury
Developer: EggNut
Release Date: June 8, 2021

About Andreas Salmen

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PC Review - 'Backbone'

by Andreas Salmen on June 8, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Backbone is a dystopian pixel art detective adventure where you must uncover a cinematic noir mystery in the underbelly of animal society.

From the classic point-and-clicks to the more recent walking simulators, narrative adventure games are plentiful nowadays. Backbone, a Kickstarter project announced in 2018, tries to stand out from the crowd. A dark noir tale in a dystopian future starring anthropomorphic animals and rendered in beautiful pixel art does sound and look suitably different. Backbone releases on PC on June 8 (and will be available on Gamepass for PC) with other major platforms to follow in 2021. We spent about six hours of hard detective work in the dirty outskirts of Vancouver, B.C. ("the City" in the game) with Backbone, a beautiful but deceiving adventure.

The star of the show is Howard Lotor, a raccoon and private investigator who's usually kept busy with menial shenanigans such as spying on cheating spouses. A new case leads the PI nose-first into the city's seedy underbelly, which is teeming with crime and drugs. It doesn't take long before our nosey behavior in a local club has us stumbling over unfathomable cruelty and evil that points at a larger conspiracy. Teaming up with an investigative journalist (and literal fox) named Renee, we dig deeper to solve the mystery — with an unexpected outcome.

We won't go into specific story details beyond what we've already disclosed. The story is the main pillar of Backbone, and it starts off strong. The first of five acts, the prologue, is playable for free on Steam, and I would encourage players to check it out if they're unsure of Backbone.

Alas, the second half of the story does not hold up its end of the bargain. Whereas the first three-quarters of the game succeeds brilliantly in painting an unforgiving image of its dystopian society, the second half suddenly shifts gears and dissolves into an unsatisfying, unfocused and unengaging ending that left me with far more questions than answers — and not in a good way. It seemed unfinished and unprepared to answer the larger forces at play and left out far more than it included. It creates some memorable characters, and it has some twists and turns, but it glosses over a lot of things. This world is governed by elite apes with their own religious figure, but there are only small glimpses into these topics through second-hand exposition. The world, with its classes and problems (and the fact that the entire city is sealed off from its surroundings via an enormous wall) is interesting, and I would have loved to visit more locations and interact with or infiltrate the upper circles to get a better feel of how this world functions. Instead, you go through the game in a very linear fashion. You'll follow clues that you found in the previous area and hunt them down.

When Backbone work, it works. The title excels in setting the tone, the atmosphere is dense, and the game is gorgeous to look at. Its 2D pixel art visuals are detailed, and animations bring both characters and environments alive in new ways. Smaller scoped sections like building interiors look as one would expect for a 2D pixel art project, but that changes quickly when outside.

There are moments in the game where Howard is looking for leads in one of the districts of the city, and these moments shine. With impressive parallax and lighting effects, the whole cityscape comes alive and seems as three-dimensional as any conventional 3D game would, which is high praise for a 2.5D game. Civilians go about their day-to-day work behind beautiful shop fronts, neon signs illuminating the wet sidewalk, and the high-rise buildings and monuments in the background looming over everything. It's simply beautiful in these moments, which is further amplified by its good soundtrack. It doesn't matter which of the tracks play; they're consistently good as a backdrop and will get your feet to slowly succumb to its jazzy beats. This convincing atmosphere and the mentioned strong introduction to the story and world are nothing short of satisfying, but they're ultimately betrayed by the game's second half and the gameplay overall.

Backbone used to advertise the stealth and action parts in its gameplay, but those aspects are beyond superficial in the final product. Usually, you traverse a set amount of scenes and environments of varying sizes in a more or less fixed order and interact with anything that you can. Doing so uncovers the next steps to follow up on, and Howard usually discusses those steps with his partner before moving on and drawing conclusions on what they've found. There are some minor puzzles at the start of the adventure, but overall, it's a very straightforward affair that doesn't usually involve your inventory or any type of inventory puzzles, which can be either good or bad news depending on your expectations. There is an inventory, and you may occasionally pick up objects, but that's about the extent of it. I would've loved more puzzle sections or even choices to interpret the clues you find in a more meaningful way. As it is right now, you move down a very rigid path until its conclusion, which loses its appeal very quickly. There are no real action sequences to speak of, and there are a handful of scenes where Howards has to crouch past a guard or two, and that's about the extent of its stealth sections.

Overall, it feels like a game with a lot of promise and talent involved, but it feels shallow in its world, story, and gameplay execution. For all that Backbone does well, I sincerely hope that this isn't all we'll get to see of it because this game world and story have a lot more interesting things to offer than what is presented to us in this adventure. What it does well is creating a cast of characters that you get to interrogate and talk to throughout the journey. The game uses a system like a CRPG game, with many dialogue options, most of which give you optional insight into the world or characters. There are some interactive components, but ultimately, the story will go along smoothly regardless of your choices or behavior, and that feels like a missed opportunity.

From a technical standpoint, the game ran great throughout its 5-6 hours runtime. The visuals are superb and create an amazing atmosphere in conjunction with the music and setting. The only thing I noticed is that the game often puts you in lengthy dialogue sequences without any sound. In those moments, there's no voice acting, no music, and barely any (if any) background noises, which I hope will get addressed in a future update. It is a mixed bag and feels emblematic of the entire product. Some parts are excellent, and others are forgettable or may even work against it. It feels like an introduction to a grim and dark dystopian world that stops just before it gets interesting, offering little solutions and leaving you with a lot of questions, none of which will get answered for now. That just doesn't do it for me in a game that is so clearly focused on telling an engaging and shocking detective story.

Backbone starts off strong with an interesting premise and setting and tops off everything with great visuals. What starts as an intriguing detective story quickly loses its appeal, as it doesn't scratch more than the surface of its potential with a rather unsatisfying ending and a setting that is never explored to the extent that it likely deserves.

Score: 6.5/10

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