What do you get when you cross a raccoon, a trenchcoat, and the neo-noir genre? You get Backbone. Backbone is a game that puts you in the boots of private investigator Howard Lotor, a racoon detective in a world where mammals (sans humanity) live together in a city. It is a metropolis where division by wealth and Kind (an allegory for race) set a background for the events that Backbone weaves its way through.
In classic noir fashion, the game opens with Howard being hired to snoop on someone’s husband and find our what they’ve been getting up to when out of the house, but he soon winds up crossing paths with one of the city’s biggest crime bosses and stumbling onto a disturbing secret that involves some of the city’s most influential figures.
There’s a really nice aesthetic as you head through the city and soak in the detailed and nuanced pixel art. There is a particular scene with water filling the screen as Howard walks the street which looks really good. The pixel art itself is decent and full of colour, which different districts of the city having signature looks. The visual design of Backbone far outshines many of the other elements.
The prologue introduces different elements to Backbone, including puzzles and stealth to avoid enemies, as well as the multiple choice conversations that you use to steer your way through the story and build relationships with other characters. However, while Backbone starts off strong it falters through the remaining acts, which in total last a few hours.
The most challenging puzzle in the game is presented in the prologue, but that’s partly because puzzles hardly make an appearance after that, except for when trying to find answers to security questions. Unlike many other adventure games there is no real element of picking things out the inventory and figuring out what will work. If you have the correct tool in the inventory Howard will automatically use it. There are a couple of stealth sections, but they are very simple to sneak through and do not last long either. Instead, the main element of Backbone is engaging in conversations, though these seem to lead to similar conclusions instead of branching out significantly.
The other issue is that Backbone doesn’t seem to not know what kind of story it wants to tell. If it stuck to the themes of the divide created by power and race, along with delving into its noir inspired atmosphere, Backbone could have been considered a must play. However, partway through the game it kind of drops all of that and becomes more about body horror and sci-fi, which is pretty jarring and not what you would expect.
Once the credits roll, you’re left without a satisfying conclusions. New plot points are introduced right up until near the end, and there is no proper way to tie up the story. It becomes a bit of tangle trying to work out what was important, with the initial discovery effectively thrown to the side. It feels like the developers are either wanting the players to draw out their own conclusions or hoping to come back with a sequel that expands on the unanswered questions. In short, the story is unsatisfying and misuses some interesting characters.