“A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets….” Okay, that’s actually the introduction to the Guy Noir segment on A Prairie Home Companion, but it’s still an apt description of the mood developer EggNut is going for with their new detective game, Backbone. Set in a dystopian version of Vancouver populated by anthropomorphic animals and featuring some gorgeous pixel artwork, Backbone immediately captured my attention the first time I saw it. But is the game’s story a match for its visuals?
Let’s start by talking about those visuals since they are likely the first thing people will notice. Backbone features a lovely mix of beautiful pixel art and 3D visual effects, like reflections in puddles of water or raindrops hitting the screen. The atmosphere is fantastic and helps sell the look and feel of the city as you explore its various districts. The art design alone is stunning when you walk through a neighborhood like Granville or Gastown and see all the little details, like characters milling about outside a movie theater or a person working at a sewing machine in an apartment above a dress shop. Every place you go feels distinct, and I only wish that you were able to visit more of Vancouver; on that note, I’m sure locals will enjoy seeing their city represented so lovingly in pixel form.
You play as Howard Lotor, a raccoon private investigator hired for what he thinks will be a standard infidelity case. But when he finds his mark dead in the basement of a bar run by a mob boss, he stumbles onto a conspiracy that reaches all the way to the top rungs of society. With the help of a fearless journalist, he tracks down leads across the city, from the homes of the rich and famous to hovels the poor and unlucky are stuck in. Things take a trippy turn in the last hour or so of the game, and I have to admit, I did not see a certain twist coming. Unfortunately, this is also where the plot’s momentum starts to fall apart, leading to an ending that feels depressing and unsatisfying.
It’s hard to explain why the ending is disappointing without spoiling things, but basically, the game sets up an interesting world and shocking developments, and then just kind of… ends, without really resolving any of the issues. To illustrate, let me discuss the dystopian nature of this alternate Vancouver. It quickly becomes obvious that animal species (or Kinds, as they’re referred to in the game) serve as a stand-in for racial discrimination, and there’s also a sort of class system in place. Apes are the bigwigs in charge of this society, and certain Kinds like dogs and cats are seen as better and smarter than others, to the point where some Kinds are effectively barred from doing certain things. A rabbit, for instance, tells Howard that no one would let her be a scientist because of her Kind. There’s also a lot of talk about a horrible war a long time ago that destroyed everything beyond the giant Wall that the Apes put up to protect the city. Everyone thinks that entering this wasteland is a death sentence, but of course, you find out that this isn’t necessarily true.
Everything in the first two-thirds of the game seems to be building up to an inevitable exposure of corruption. Indeed, the idea of overthrowing the Apes and instituting some new form of society gets proposed at one point. But it’s just that — a proposal. Instead of being a part of the story, perhaps something interactive where your choices help decide who prevails, it’s more of a teaser. And that twist I mentioned earlier? It goes in an entirely different direction than the rest of the game — almost another genre even — but it too doesn’t resolve at the end. You don’t get any answers, there’s no real change to the status quo, and you don’t even really know what happens to Howard when the credits roll. I went back and played through the game again to see if maybe making different choices would change things, and that’s where we come to another issue with Backbone.
Most of what you do in this game is talk to people. There is a puzzle to solve at the beginning and a few instances of very basic stealth where you crouch to move around unnoticed, but otherwise, you look around and chat people up. The good news is that the dialogue is well-written and enjoyable throughout. I noticed a few typos, but nothing impaired my understanding or impacted my enjoyment. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are a lot of hilariously snarky lines you can choose from — Howard is a cynical private eye, after all — and I often found myself laughing and picking dialogue options just to see what would happen. While the immediate response you get does change depending on what you say, the bad news is that none of your choices impact the story or affect how you get from plot point to plot point. The game doesn’t even really remember your choices, as there were several minor instances of characters referring to choices I hadn’t made. Having a linear story isn’t necessarily bad, of course, but it feels odd to give players so many dialogue options in a detective game and then not create consequences for their choices.
The control scheme in Backbone is exceedingly simple. A handful of keys allow you to move, crouch, sprint, and interact with people or objects. There are a few sequences where you have to use the mouse to investigate the contents of a table or a locker, and you can also use it to scroll through the conversation log and make dialogue choices if you would rather not use the number keys. Sometimes it felt like a key wasn’t responsive; sprinting occasionally required me to hit the key twice, and there were times when it seemed like I had to be in the exact right spot to interact with something. Thankfully, you can remap the controls to suit your preferences, and there is controller support — though I did not make use of it in either of my playthroughs.
Finally, let me briefly talk about sound design. There is no voice acting in Backbone, but the music is quite good and fits the setting. Most of the tunes are jazzy, with light percussion, heavy bass, and brass or electric piano setting a swaying melody. There are even a few pieces that feature real singing; for instance, the bar you visit early on in the story features a live performance that is not only a great piece of background music but also helps to sell the atmosphere created by the visuals. Sound effects also do their job admirably without drawing too much attention or overpowering any given scene.
I walked away from Backbone puzzled about the ending, and in truth, I was a little disappointed. The game kind of squandered the excellent setup it spent hours developing, but because the setup is so good, I don’t feel totally let down. I still enjoyed my time in this dystopian Vancouver populated by animals, and I would almost certainly play a sequel if one were ever developed. But there’s the rub. Backbone feels like it needs a sequel. The story just doesn’t feel complete right now, and given that the game is pretty short (you can probably beat it in about 5-7 hours), it’s hard for me to enthusiastically recommend it. If you’re still interested despite the issues I’ve outlined, make sure you’re prepared for an abrupt conclusion. If you’re on the fence, well… maybe wait for a sale.