Monday, May 27, 2024

Backbone Leaves Players Ruminating on Life and Death

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After five years of production and two years after releasing the prologue, Backbone from developer EggNut and publisher Raw Fury is finally here! A deeply unsettling and atmospheric noir dystopian linear adventure game, the ending will leave every single player thinking about the choices we all make when faced with power and situations far above our pay grade.

As anyone who played the prologue knows, the game is much more than just walking around The City, and if you haven’t already, check out my review of the first hour!

Backbone is a gorgeous pixel art game that really keeps the player involved as you navigate dystopian Vancouver (called The City in the game) and make meaningful connections with a diverse cast of characters in pursuit of truth in an increasingly tangled mystery. I was lucky to receive a copy of the game for a fair review and played it all in four hours, which is on the shorter end of playthrough time.

If you haven’t read my review of the prologue, what is now Act I of the game, you really should because what happens in that informs the rest of the game and my review, though I don’t spoil anything else beyond Act I.

Off the reveal that bear Clarissa Bloodworth has a cannibalistic soylent-green style business happening in her club, Howard is found by Renee (the journalist fox) and so begins the real adventure of the game. With Renee’s suggestions, Howard navigates different areas of The City to learn as much as he can about what’s going on in the upper echelons of their society.

I could have spent hours just exploring all the locations.

Collecting clues involves Howard entering different stores and locations in attempts to figure out who else is part of Clarissa’s business and how the flesh is being delivered around The City. Along the way, the player learns that there’s much more going on under the surface with other missing members of society and just how entrenched the social hierarchy is with Apes and carnivores at the top and rodents at the bottom.

With that includes racism that Howard himself faces and judgment from others when he gets too close to the truth. Of course, it’s not just in the interactions that we see these issues when Howard eventually makes it to the West End, a dilapidated and run-down part of The City in comparison to glitzy Granville and even the super fancy apartment building where the Apes live.

West End in Backbone
Howard in the West End

The differences and details of the locations are some of the many things that I loved about the game. Each one is lovingly animated and the side-scrolling in the game allows the players to direct Howard and really investigate nearly every location shown on screen with text pop-ups that further flesh (hah) out the world. Similarly many of the characters we meet, even if only for a few minutes are given enough to become fully realized for the player yet still mysterious. All this against the superb jazzy soundtrack really helps immerse the player in the game, at least when the music is on which brings me to one of the few complaints I have about Backbone.

Backbone: What Does and Doesn’t Work

A lot in this game works! Again, the locations, characters, ability to investigate a lot of places and people, and connections made while sleuthing are all fascinating and fun.

Yet, while the music truly is lovely, there’s plenty of the game that is just in silence. Of course for some players, all games are silent, but for those of us who are used to having music or ambient noise in the background, it felt jarring and took me out of the game a few times.

Then when it comes to the characters and actual plot, well, I can see why the game’s ending has been polarizing for players. Personally, I found the ending inevitable considering the game is noir, dystopian, the clearly post-Soviet aesthetics (most of the developers are Russian) and focus on mortality and power. Obviously, any game where the first act reveals that rich upper-strata animals are literally eating the poor won’t have a happy ending, definitely not in a noir setting.

However, what I’m still grappling with three days after playing the game is how some of the story feels rushed and incomplete on its way to that ending. With a more complete story, the end is more well-earned and less likely to frustrate players.

The context that this game developed over five years and clearly changed in many ways from the original Kickstarter helps explain some of the drastic shifts in tone and story halfway through.

For example, one of the scenes in the trailer included Howard with a bear claw, as a result of what we could assume was some type of technology. That does not happen in the game and instead, the focus is much more on Howard having to decide what he’s going to do in his life. Does he develop a backbone and try to change the world after the reveal in Act I, or will he go through the motions heavily fearful of what might happen? When the plot twist occurs in the game, Howard and the player are now on a completely different path which may or may not work for folks.

This isn’t to say that the Kickstarter was what should have happened. Rather the developers changed their minds about the game that they wanted to make, and made what they wanted which is as it should be. In fact, a positive addition to the game are sublime animated cut scenes usually with Howard and Anatoly (his friend who also drives a cab) talking while going to the next location.

still image of the taxi animations from Backbone

Backbone is a linear game, so even with the incredible number of dialogue options, there’s still only one end. Instead, the dialogue and the player’s choices while investigating locations, people’s stories, and documents/items reveal a fuller yet incomplete picture of what the heck is actually going on in The City!

Now I don’t at all blame the developers for keeping some secrets and letting the player fill in some of the blanks, but for a game pitched to be 5-7 hours, that many finished in 3 to 4 (depending on speed of reading and just plain speed-running), I expected more. Especially considering how well developed and truly incredible the prologue/Act I was, with real puzzles, multiple stealth scenes, and quickly revealed multi-faceted characters. Give me more puzzles or don’t pitch it as a puzzle game beyond Act I.

It’s like watching an athletic routine from the middle and seeing the athlete stick the landing but not having any clue what happened before. (Maybe I’ve been watching too many gymnastics videos recently.)

Ultimately, Backbone is about the journey that Howard (and the player) takes to learn more about The City, but really about himself. While the lack of clarity in some parts of the story and resolution for certain characters may be disappointing to some, the “holy crap did that just happen” ending and relationships built between Howard and key others, more than make for a lovely short adventure in The City. I really do think this game should be played even with questions left unanswered as the nontraditional narrative is super interesting!

You can play Backbone now on Steam for PC. The game will eventually release on Playstation, Nintendo, and Xbox and be localized in a number of languages.

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Review copy and images courtesy of Eggnut Games and Raw Fury

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