I first heard about Backbone all the way back in 2019 at the Pax West convention in Seattle, where I was immediately drawn in by both its art style and the fact that its story took place in Vancouver. Several years later, EggNut and Raw Fury have released Backbone into the wild. Let’s have a look at how things turned out.
The story begins in Howard Lotor’s office, where he’s meeting with a client about a potential case. Howard is a private detective in The City. This particular city is clearly modelled after Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, even though it is never referred to as such. The various districts in the city are named after real world areas in Vancouver, and anyone familiar with the city will immediately recognize landmarks during their travels. Oh, and Howard is also a raccoon. In fact, all beings in this story are some sort of animal, ranging from the ruling class of Apes to bears, cats, dogs, otters, weasels, and more. The class system in this dystopian world ranks its creatures based on social powers, so the stronger animals tend to oppress the weaker ones. This all stems from the preaching of The Shepherd, a mysterious religious figure that teaches Ape superiority. Any creatures that don’t fit nicely into this scheme are called Kinds and the most severely outcast.
If this all sounds bizarre, that’s because it is. However, as you get into the story, a case of suspected adultery, some far more serious social issues begin to emerge and Howard is hell-bent on getting some justice. Alongside Renee, an investigative journalist, you will gather clues and form theories, all via conversations with various characters.
Navigating through The City is done via simple left to right movements in front of beautifully rendered high-resolution pixel art. The first few chapters fall into standard P.I. fare, with Howard following up on leads and unearthing further evidence that eventually leads into some full-blown conspiracy theories. I greatly enjoyed this first half of Backbone, including its characters, stories, and potential outcomes. It had the vibe of a good old-fashioned detective thriller, all with pretty graphics and cute animals as characters.
But it isn’t very long before Backbone takes a dark turn into the bizarre. I can only assume that the developers were trying to tackle various serious social issues alongside the rather standard detective story lines. In the end, this doesn’t come across so well. I can’t go into further details without spoilers, but everyone will have their own opinion on whether this turn in style makes sense to them. For me, it was less than satisfying and the eventual end to Backbone came with more questions than answers and a slight feeling of relief that it was over.
Technically, Backbone runs and looks beautifully. The choice of music is at times extremely fitting and at others bizarrely odd, but it does fit the evolving overall theme. While EggNut touts that you will make meaningful choices and form relationships with other characters, I found this to be only partially the case. I spent a significant amount of time speaking with everyone and exploring these characters’ backstories, but none of it ever made much of an impact on the world or story. By the halfway point of the game, I was less interested in what other characters had to say and more interested in making progress.
Controls in Backbone are very straight-forward and easy to pick up. Using a controller or a few buttons on the keyboard is all that one needs to take control of Howard. Moving left to right and activating items, conversations, or the occasional hiding in shadows are the extent of it. There is a list of objectives and a simple inventory system, but neither seem particularly necessary. You’ll generally only have a single objective of any significance to pursue, and I don’t recall ever going into Howard’s inventory for any reason.
Overall, Backbone presents an interesting world with an enticing story that satisfies for a couple of hours before taking a sharp turn into something very unexpected and significantly less enjoyable. If you’re a fan of dystopian futures with interesting social norms presented in gorgeous pixel art, you may find what you’re looking for in Backbone. Otherwise, you may want to keep looking for a more appropriate case to come across your desk.