Backbone Review – A Raccoon Goon Makes Me Swoon
Developed by EggNut
Published by Raw Fury
Available on PC
When you picture a noir detective thriller, you usually picture men in trench coats solving crimes for damsels in distress. In a way, Backbone isn’t too far from that. Just the man you play as is a raccoon, the damsel in distress is an otter, and the world of The City, based on the city of Vancouver, is filled with anthropomorphic animals. Is this enough to tell a unique story? Good news: it is.
You play as Howard Lotar, a detective who’s hired by a woman to find her missing husband, who she believes is cheating on her. At first, this starts as the typical detective plot: you’re breaking into nightclubs and working with informants in an effort to sniff out the missing husband. Before long Howard stumbles across a nightclub owner who is murdering people, chopping their bodies up, and mailing their flesh to mysterious clients. Suddenly his job gets a whole lot more challenging.
There’s even more in store, with Howard teaming up with foxy (literally) investigative journalist Renee, taxi driver Anatoly, and homeless former roommate Larry to look further into the crime. Of course, the deeper the mystery goes, the more disturbing it gets. I don’t want to go into details about later plot segments (that’s a lie, I do but I want you to experience them without spoilers) but Backbone‘s tale gets disturbing in a way I haven’t seen many games manage before. The further you look into The City, the more twisted it seems to get. There’s a rather significant mid-game twist that changes the tone of the game drastically, and I can see it being something that ends up being divisive for players. However, I really loved the direction the story went and absolutely want to see more of it.
This is achieved through some absolutely fantastic world and character building. Each new section of The City that you get to explore is filled with all sorts of details, both implied and stated, that build up the setting and give you plenty to learn. There are tons of slang terms that tell you plenty about the culture without outright stating it. Even which kinds of animals you see in the different neighborhoods is important. Notice how the wealthy neighborhoods are full of canines and cats, while the poor ones are more rabbits and rats.
None of it would mean much if the characters weren’t worth talking to, but I really loved all of them. Crime lord Clarissa always kept me on my toes by feeling like she was three steps ahead of me, bizarre conspiracy theorist weeb Samson is hilarious as he rants about fighting the government with his anime sword skills, while Anatoly interrupting a phone conversation to proudly announce his kid has used the toilet for the first time is both funny and heartwarming.
It’s a good thing these characters are so interesting to talk to, as that makes up the majority of the gameplay. You’ll wander around levels, talking to people and picking answers. For the most part there’s only one plot, and you’ll just be changing how Howard reacts to it, so you don’t need to worry about missing important story beats in Backbone. However, I do kind of wish there were more moments where you could influence the story.
Sometimes you’ll have to do some light puzzle solving. They’re mostly front loaded, with most of the puzzles dropping out of the game after the second act. A lot of it involves finding passwords. This may involved moving pictures on top of other pictures to highlight numbers for a keypad, or going through a woman’s house to answer the security questions on her computer. One requires you to break into a building either by figuring out the verbal password for the basement, or convince a nearby newspaper stand owner to let you climb on his roof to get in through a roof entrance. The puzzles just sort of stopping is a shame, as these are fun and I’d have loved to do more.
There’s also some occasional stealth. All you have to do is hit the crouch button and stand behind large pieces of furniture until a guard that just walks back and forth walks past you. Sometimes you need to hit a button to distract someone. However, just like the puzzles, the stealth is extremely front-loaded and by the end of the first act, you’ve seen almost all of the stealth segments. Unlike the puzzles, Backbone is honestly a better game without them. They’re mostly uninteresting, extremely easy, and serve as little more than a waste of time.
All of this is wrapped up in some lovely pixel art and a soundtrack that manages to always fit the tone of the game. I loved one scene in particular, which saw Howard going through a parade. It’s a combination of lovely pixel art, such as the crowds and the floats, and some absolutely terrifying music that manages to fit the events in a creepy way. I loved every second of Backbone‘s presentation.
The truth is that I loved almost every second of Backbone as well. The game is a deep and dark detective game that managed to pull me in and keep me hooked. If any of this has even mildly sparked your interest, I strongly suggest grabbing the game and making sure to keep as much of it unspoiled as possible. It’s a hell of a ride.