Backbone tells the tale of Howard Lotor, a raccoon living in a walled city with thousands of other anthropomorphic critters. As a private detective, Howard barely scrapes by with jobs about chasing down unfaithful husbands for a few loons. His latest case, helping an otter named Odette with procuring evidence for her divorce, initially seems like any other. Howard quickly finds himself embroiled in an investigation that threatens to overturn society as its denizens know it. Dark secrets emerge that could change not only himself but everything he ever knew. Since this is a game with an emphasis on mystery and investigation, be mindful that this review will contain spoilers!
The city is ruled by the Apes, mysterious officials that run the city with pro-Ape propaganda. From there, the city divides itself into several castes based on their Kind. At the top are carnivores, such as bears, cats, and dogs. Following the carnivores are faux-carnivores such as raccoons and weasels. At the bottom are herbivores, such as mice and rabbits. While it isn’t necessarily a perfect map, one can infer another being’s social class by their Kind. Beyond the wall lies nothing but death and desolation. The denizens also worship the Shepard, a creator deity, though Howard is too cynical to put much stock in faith.
Visuals in Backbone are gorgeous. The 2D pixel art flows nicely, with a lot of little animations added to characters. This certainly helps to add to the liveliness of the game, and the attention to detail is something that Backbone does well. Modern techniques add shading and enhance the backdrops. The first two acts show the duality and inequality between the haves and have-nots. Howard attempts to break into a high-class bar for carnivores in the first Act and later investigates the crumbling city slums in Act II. The contrast between the wealthy Gastown and the dilapidated West End is palpable.
Backbone’s dystopian society provides an incredible background for worldbuilding. As a “mid-tier” citizen, Howard has a certain degree of privilege over the herbivores. However, Howard doesn’t fare significantly better than them, since he can’t simply waltz into The Bite as they don’t normally serve his Kind. Many of the citizens in the poorer district are rabbits and mice. In Gastown, many of the NPCs are carnivorous. As Backbone progresses, we see more and more contrast between the various castes, including the underclass that refuses to play by its rules.
Describing itself as “doom jazz,” the soundtrack in Backbone fits its noir aesthetic. While there isn’t any voice acting, I don’t think it was necessary in the first place. There are a few soundtracks with some haunting vocals, but other than that it slips quietly into the background, just like Howard himself.
Gameplay in Backbone is pretty straightforward. Howard moves left and right and interacts with people and objects with a keypress. Players also will occasionally have to elude enemies using some stealth mechanics. The meat of the game comes in talking to other characters, however. Howard has varying responses to everyone from shop owners to his partner, Renee. The conversations can take some interesting turns, and even the surly Howard isn’t immune to the occasional silly tangent.
As a mystery game, there are a handful of puzzles. One takes place in The Bite, the aforementioned high-class bar. Howard must arrange a series of images and lay covers over them to reveal the solution. While this is not a good security protocol, this example was a pretty neat test of observation. There are other puzzles with the answers couched in dialogue, books, and parts of the world. Compared to something like Chronicle of Innsmouth Mountains of Madness or Thimbleweed Park, other contemporary adventure games with lots of dialogue, there are notably fewer puzzles in Backbone. There aren’t really any inventory-object puzzles or sequences of trading items. Instead, much more emphasis is put on the branching dialogue and learning things from other characters.
Though I loved what was there, the climax of Backbone changes the perspective of both Howard and the player. Backbone follows a pretty standard five-act structure, with rising action, a climax, then falling action, and resolution. The introduction and rising action in the first few acts build up to a shocking reveal. While this works in terms of narrative structure, it significantly changed both my perspective and the way that I interacted with the game world. Things became more philosophical, introspective, and interpersonal than investigative. Something I’d really enjoyed was the exploration and piecing things together in earlier acts, so I was a little disappointed in that regard. Some subplot threads also had resolutions that didn’t quite satisfy me from a narrative standpoint, like Howard’s tumultuous relationship with his mother. The early Acts certainly felt stronger with their setup and worldbuilding. The change in Backbone’s direction isn’t bad, but it definitely is a sharp departure from the beginning.
The ending leaves plenty of room for more in the world of Backbone. The visuals are great, and Backbone is a solid first release from a small studio. Doom jazz is a good way to describe the melancholy soundtrack, as well. It is rather short if you’re experienced with adventure games, with each Act probably taking about an hour if you do a good job exploring. While the journey is only a few short hours, Backbone offers an interesting societal critique with hope enmeshed within its baked-in cynicism. It has my recommendation for those looking to scratch that adventure game itch, and has a good premise, too.
TechRaptor reviewed Backbone on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game will be launching on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch at a later date.
- Clever Puzzles
- Great Soundtrack
- Dramatic Shift in Gameplay/Tone
- Lack of Sense of Efficacy on World