From developer Egg Nut and publisher Raw Fury, Backbone is a beautiful dystopian noir roleplaying adventure done entirely in pixel art. Approximately an hour long, the free to play prologue is a gorgeous, atmospheric, and deeply unsettling preview into what is sure to be a well-loved and replayed game!
Step into the shoes of anthropomorphic raccoon and private eye Howard Lotor to explore the beautifully rendered 2.5D pixel art environments of dystopian Vancouver. Along the way sniff out clues and solve a few mysteries.
Per Egg Nut:
Howard Lotor is smart, self-assured and set in his ways. Caught in the tedium of day-to-day life, he’s resigned to the abuses of the authoritative regime in power and compliant with the systemic inequality that permeates society. But a string of cases that grow progressively more outlandish will put his worldview to the test.
Backbone’s gameplay is a new take on point-and-click adventure, featuring stealth, exploration, and extensive branching dialogues inspired by classic CRPGs. As Howard, you must traverse the diverse districts of a now walled-off Vancouver, sniff out clues, collect evidence, interrogate witnesses, and choose which leads to follow.
Inspired by film noir, the game submerges the player into its dark dystopian atmosphere, which includes an original doom jazz soundtrack which envelops the player in a veil of bepop and cinematic soundscapes.
Backbone: Immersive and Unsettling
The prologue introduces us to Howard and the cast of characters when he’s hired to find proof that Odette’s husband Jeremy is cheating. Just gotta talk to some people, find out if the husband is as bad as we’re expecting, get the proof to client, get back to ignoring all the awful things going on in this Vancouver. Sounds simple enough!
Backbone is a point-and-click adventure. You’re given tasks, like cleaning up your bedroom before the first client arrives, and then after talking to her, must move forward in the game by talking to other characters to find her husband. Here though you get choices, with the branching dialogues mentioned in the description. I always try to pick each dialogue option to get as much information as possible from the characters, but sometimes picking the wrong one will make them no longer talk to you. Oops.
Fortunately, you don’t have to hunt for items or clues because you’re given notifications when you’re near areas of interest. These areas include books, posters, and other items that provide context to the story. Like the books we get descriptions of in Howard’s bathroom about The Great Story, the history of how the Apes “ushered in an era of prosperity for the City and its Citizens.” Hmmm, that sounds fake! This story must be a big deal because it’s also showing at the movie theater and referenced in other parts of the game.
I love these additions and details because the game is really about the dystopian story as much as it is about Howard investigating on behalf of his clients.
In other scenes you might click on things or beat puzzles to get the next clue or get past a locked door/area. Howard can also crouch so as to not get caught by different characters. If you do, you get sent back to where you were before getting caught so it’s not a punishment, just a few minutes if that of getting to the next part of the game.
What really elevates Backbone is that each animation is handcrafted and the environments are modeled after real Vancouver! When not in an interior location or alleyway, the game is a side scroller with Howard walking across Granville street with the stores and other features you’d expect in a city. As the business center of the game, Vancouverites and others will recognize Foxy Burger, the Rogue Theatre, and other versions of real locations.
Fortunately even in a dystopian noir, the designers have taken great pains to make sure that players can still see what is actually happening on screen as needed. Nothing takes me out of a game more than not being able to tell what is going on!
I especially appreciate the lighting choices in the game because there’s much more lurking under the surface, and not being able to literally see what’s going on would detract from the enjoyment of the story unfolding. And as we know, I’m a sucker for a good story. Since there’s no voice over, the music really has to stand up by itself, and boy does it! The OST is also gorgeous and I just know that the full game experience is elevated by the sound direction.
From the first interactions with characters outside Howard’s home and office, the player is primed for the truth of Backbone. Some characters don’t want anything to do with him, and not because he’s a PI. Truly characterization is one of the strongest points in the game.
Even those who we only talk to sparingly are well rounded and the interactions with them feel organic instead of shoe-horned in for plot reasons. Some are especially fascinating, like Clarissa Bloodworth, a polar bear who owns The Bite, the bar and restaurant that Howard has to get into when attempting to find Jeremy. Too bad raccoons aren’t allowed.
I was not prepared for Clarissa to be as intense as she is, and talking to her felt like there was never going to be a good response, which is most definitely the point. Of course considering her name is Bloodworth and the rumors about her are wild (hah) it makes sense that she’s a foreboding character. A Bear fatale if you will…
The prologue ends with Howard investigating around The Bite’s kitchen, backrooms, and basement. Ultimately we find out where Jeremy has been and it is simultaneously the most horrifying thing ever and yet completely expected in that this was always advertised as a detective noir!
He’s dead y’all. But worse…is why and all I’ve got for y’all is two words.
Soylent. Green. Anthropomorphic animal style.
Okay so five words.
If you already know what that means, well you know why I had to pause during the cut scene and stare off into the distance because the reveal was that good. If you don’t well, I’ll let you do that search after you finish the review.
The full game is somewhere from 8 to 10 hours depending on the branches the player chooses and after that reveal, I’m so ready for it to release!
Me too Howard. Me too…
The prologue for Backbone is available for free on Steam and the full game is releasing in 2021 for Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.
Images courtesy of Egg Nut and Raw Fury Games
Have strong thoughts about this piece you need to share? Or maybe there’s something else on your mind you’re wanting to talk about with fellow Fandomentals? Head on over to our Community server to join in the conversation!