The timeless popularity of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human beings- cannot be denied and has always intrigued me.
From the Jataka Tales, Panchatantra, Heriod’s “The Hawk and the Nightingale” tale, and of course, the ever-popular Aesop’s Fables of millennia ago to Tom and Jerry and the slew of Disney characters that have dominated animation in recent decades, it’s hardly an overstatement to say we as humans seem to love injecting our own shortcomings into innocent, unsuspecting animals.
Which begs the question I ask myself each morning upon waking up to another nebulous day of painful existence that blends insidiously into the rest – Why? My own existentialism aside (wish I could do that IRL), I suppose it must be because telling human stories through animals is more effective – they’re cute and inherently likable, which makes the uglier facets of humanity, and the underlying human message, easier to digest without undermining the truth of it. Plus, from a visual standpoint, animals are just more interesting and offer more variety.
From Animal Farm satirizing Russian communism to Night in the Woods exploring mental illnesses, it’s hard to argue that this method isn’t extremely effective. All that to say, I find anthropomorphization compelling and so, was already invested in the premise of Backbone before even laying eyes on that oozing-with-style trailer.
Backbone is a post-noir adventure game starring a depressed raccoon detective, developed by Eggnut and published by Raw Fury, out now on Steam, Game Pass, and last-gen consoles. After the amazing demo released in 2019 and thanks to their active Twitter account, this has been one of the most anticipated indie titles of the year for me – the hype for this game has been through the roof in indie circles. So, let’s find out how it fares, shall we?
Dripping With Style
Let’s start with what’s BY FAR the best and most worth-playing aspect of Backbone – the backbone of the game if you will (see what I did there? I’m a genius) – the presentation. I’ve been on a noir kick lately – with the excellent sci-fi noir Lacuna and the action RPG Pecaminosa (review coming soon hopefully), but I can confidently say, in no other game have I witnessed the atmosphere and tone of the noir aesthetic better realized than in Backbone. Granted, I haven’t yet played Blacksad or Chicken Police (what is it with noir anthropomorphism in indie games lately?), but Backbone sure does set a high bar.
The overall presentation is truly top-tier and the game is worth experiencing just for that alone – I found myself uncontrollably sending screenshots to anyone who could possibly spare a damn. I doubt I’ll be able to forget the first time I played the demo and got to explore the rainy Granville – the beautiful neon lights reflecting on the wet asphalt, drops of rainwater subtly dripping on the camera, the meticulously detailed buildings and roadside food stalls, the charmingly animated visually distinct residents of all Kinds, all in a lived-in feeling environment brimming with activity… I remember thinking, man, I fucking love video games. You can even pry on characters through the windows of a lot of these buildings just on their computer, doing their thing, completely unaware that they’re being spied on by an extra-dimensional being!
The beautiful multi-layered 2.5D pixel art, made possible by the Unreal Engine 4’s Paper 2D system, genuinely makes the world jaw-droppingly gorgeous and feel alive – the highest of fives to the artists. Also, the Mindhunter-style screen-size font letting you know where you’re at when you enter a new location is, while perhaps obnoxious in its lack of subtlety, a stylish quirk, and a reference that I can appreciate.
Suffice it to say, the look and atmosphere of this dystopian, anthropomorphized version of Vancouver are a true pleasure to experience and noir through and through – complete with a burning out cigarette for a loading bar. The music is excellent as well, the OST being mostly made up of smooth jazz tracks, and the menu music, in particular, is so enjoyable I must’ve just sat there vibing for a solid 5 minutes before starting the game. However, I did notice that at multiple long stretches of the game, during conversations with Renee for example, there’s no music at all which is a shame.
As for voice-acting, there sadly isn’t any (even though the stretch goal for it was successfully reached in the Kickstarter campaign, WTF devs!) but I’ve never been a stickler for voice acting – no VA is better than bad VA and I’d hate for the wonderfully built atmosphere of the game to be ruined by some spotty performances.
Okay so the presentation is great, cool, but what about the narrative? After all, Backbone is being billed as a narrative adventure, making the story, in theory, the most important part of the game. Sadly, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, to say the least.
First off, let me just say, the world of Backbone is honestly super intriguing and has a ton of potential. As soon as you start the game, you’ll find a map on a wall detailing the different districts in the city, as well as some personal background info on Howard Lotor, the depressed raccoon whom you play as. The overall concept of a decaying society serving the rich and sacrificing the poor, hints at racism against certain Kinds, being confined within the Wall, the religious figure of the Shepherd apparently putting the Apes in charge over the other Kinds, etc. is all compelling stuff.
The lore of the world is intriguing and begs to be explored. It’s a shame then, that it barely is. This brings me to my point and one of the two major, and I mean MAJOR, problems I have with Backbone – the story is, much like Cobain’s brains on April 5th, 1994, all over the fucking place.
Backbone starts off relatively simply, with a depressed Howard being hired by a wife who suspects she’s being cheated on, to investigate her dodgy husband. This quickly evolves into something much more sinister as you investigate, into a conspiracy that possibly reaches into the highest echelons of the world’s political hierarchy. And then the story goes even further off the rails when there’s a jarring, genre-shifting development caused by Howard’s nonsensical action in Act 5 that you have no control over. And then the game just ends, without bothering to give you any ending at all.
Look, I can deal with a bullshit left-to-your-interpretation ending if the journey to it is at least good. The thing is, Backbone never seems to know what it wants to be. As one of the top Steam reviews ponders, is Backbone about solving a series of grisly murders? Is it about class struggle and unraveling a conspiracy? Is it about Howard’s quest to find purpose in life? Or is it a sci-fi story about an alien entity for some reason?
Don’t get me wrong, a story, if well-written enough, CAN be about all these things at once and pull it off. However, Backbone certainly isn’t, and none of these different possible storylines, which individually could be their own full game, receive enough development in the measly 4 hours of game time to make them effective. Plus, there is no resolution to any of these mini-storylines at all. It almost seems like the writers threw a bunch of unfinished shit at the wall to see what sticks and what to focus on in the sequel.
A lot of possible plot points are left behind and new ones introduced, only to be promptly discarded once again. As a result, you end up experiencing a hodge-podge of interesting Chapter 1s of storylines with no resolution to any of them, leaving me blue balled and scratching my head. As a great man once said, “My disappointment is immeasurable and my day is ruined”. Do NOT expect a satisfying or even complete story from Backbone.
Flawed and Weightless Dialogue
Meanwhile, the writing, which initially seems promising, ends up being a bit of a scam as well. The scrollable dialog system that seems to be inspired visually by Disco Elysium, is all smokes and mirrors.
First off, none of what you say has any consequences. You can choose to either be a dick or a good guy to people, always tell the truth, choose to lie or do a bit of both, but the outcome is always the same (except for which achievements you get). In the very first Act, for example, you need the help of this fox to get into a club called The Bite. No matter which dialog options you choose, you end up being a dick to him anyway and he incomprehensibly decides to help you anyway. I mean, what exactly is the point of the different dialog options then?
There are no complex dialog trees, no information you can glean by choosing one strategy over another, and it all leads to the same thing no matter what. The whole game feels like you are forced to follow a tightly written script that refuses to give you an inch of freedom to put any player agency into it. The script has already been written, and you WILL follow it.
Furthermore, a lot of the dialog options tend to be super similar anyway, just different ways of ultimately saying the same thing. Plus the replies to these dialogs tend to be written in such a way that they could work as a reply to multiple dialog choices, to save on writing time I suppose? These reused lines are obviously noticeable at times when replies seem only semi congruent to what you chose to ask, which makes the writing feel lazy and took me out of the story each time.
At times though, the writing is honestly very good, even great. There’s just no consistency to it – it feels like a great writer and a crappy one wrote the game together in opposite ends of the room and never bothered to talk to each other and collaborate. The Acts are spread out in a very strange manner as well – they’re all of inconsistent lengths – the last 2 take about 30 minutes combined.
The bottom line is, in a post-Disco Elysium world, the inconsistent, lazy and at times abysmal writing of Backbone is extremely noticeable, as is the complete lack of player agency to have an impact on the story. You’re just forced to follow the script and read your lines until you reach the same confusing and frustrating cliffhanger everyone else will be confused and frustrated by.
As for the gameplay, there is basically none after the first Act, the Prologue, which I definitely take umbrage with. You see, the Prologue was released as the demo in 2019 and that’s what everyone has been excited over. It features a stealth section, puzzle-solving, multiple ways to reach an objective, and even some basic platforming, all of which are nowhere to be seen in the rest of the game.
Needless to say, the demo is nowhere near a good representation of the rest of the game, it’s all downhill from there. And seeing that most of those who were hyped for Backbone, were hyped on the basis of the demo, it’s no wonder a lot of the player base feels cheated out of what they were justifiably expecting – a game with some actual player agency.
As for what we ended up getting, Backbone might as well have been a visual novel. Seriously, it’s not hyperbolic when I say there is NO gameplay AT ALL beyond the first act – it’s just go to location A, talk to person B and repeat in a different location. No more stealth sections (which were extremely basic anyway), no more platforming, no detective-work or critical thinking, no multiple ways of accomplishing an objective (the script is written and you MUST follow it), and ultimately, no player choice at all.
There was even a game mechanic that made headlines in a few gaming sites in 2018, boasting a never-before-seen sniffing system that would have characters and some objects leaving trackable trails, allowing you to track suspects, or for them to track you. In this version of the game, occasional stealth sections would require you to mask your smell with a change of clothes or a quick bath in the garbage bins. How cool does that sound! Sadly, that seems to have been scrapped for the final release as well.
If your disappointment is measurable and your day pleasant before, they sure won’t be after Backbone, especially if you were a Kickstarter backer. Look, I’m not saying the devs falsely advertised a completely different game (one that had GAMEPLAY) and upon seeing the hype for the game, realized they could get away with delivering a very linear, unfinished title… But it sure would seem that way to a cynic.
Plus, the inventory system is pointless – I never once had to use any of the items and none of them even provided any lore. I bought a book in a book store for Gabe’s sake, hoping to learn more about the world, and got nothing for it! What was the point of it? Is a couple of paragraphs of lore too much to ask?
Also, for some reason, once you finish the game there’s no option to replay Acts without starting over from the very beginning. The performance at least was great throughout the game, I didn’t experience any frame drops or crashes. As for bugs, I didn’t experience any except for sometimes during conversations the mouse cursor suddenly disappeared. This isn’t a big deal though since you can just use the keyboard instead.
As you can probably tell, I went into Backbone extremely excited and loved it for the first two Acts, after which it all went downhill, fast. I’ve wanted to love this game since first playing the demo last year so it pains me to say, since finishing the game, the more I think about it the more frustrated and annoyed I am with it, liking it less and less as time goes by.
There is greatness here, especially in the world-building, some of the writing, and all of the art. But is it worth buying full price? Hell no – there’s no gameplay or player agency of any kind beyond Act 1, the writing is inconsistent, and the incredibly linear story on offer isn’t even finished. There’s a reason something that most assumed would be a sure thing is now sitting at 58% ‘Mixed’ on Steam.
Still, Backbone IS on Game Pass, and I definitely think it’s worth playing at least the first two Acts just for the intriguing world-building and the fantastic visuals (if you don’t have Game Pass, the demo is free on Steam).
If there eventually is a sequel that finishes the story and delivers on the promises of the demo (or at least makes no false promises), I would then recommend you buy this and the sequel together on sale. Until then, don’t waste your money or time on it, even if it’s only 4 hours.