Last week, I was provided a code for the new game Backbone on PlayStation 5. I didn’t make it super far into the game, I’m about 20% into the story, so I’m calling this post a Backbone preview.
“Backbone is a beautiful, pixelated detective narrative starring human-like animals in a dark post-noir dystopian Vancouver, BC.”
Backbone is a post-noir narrative adventure game from indie studio EggNut. In the game you play as Howard Lotor, a raccoon private investigator, in a dystopian Vancouver, BC that is inhabited by bipedal human-like animals. Howard is your classic, sad detective looking for that one job that’s going to change everything.
The overall tone of the game is much more serious than you’d expect from a talking animal filled world. Backbone’s story feels straight out of an old crime novel. The dialogue even reminds me of those classic 1940s black and white PI film — like The Maltese Falcon (1941) — or even the more recent Brick (2005) by Rian Johnson.
The game features a beautiful, pixel art design. Gameplay and cutscenes are mixed between both close up and panned out shots. While the close-ups feature big, low-res pixel imagery, they are still visually stunning. There’s small things like the use of reflection, shadows and lighting that make this simple art style stand out in games.
As Howard walks through big, living city blocks you almost forget that the art design is so simple. It also helps that there are multiple layers of movement across the screen: including cars driving by and characters in the foreground. Just look at the reflection and lighting below. The wet streets feel real.
The game also features some soothing jazz tunes. The music adds some eerie undertones to the gameplay and conversations. The only problem was at times where the game was completely silent. At times, I found myself having deep conversations with other characters in complete silence.
The most important thing I learned early on in Backbone was to talk to and interact with everyone and everything. This is a true narrative adventure, where the responses you choose truly make a difference. If you upset someone early on during a conversation, you may not discover some much needed details.
Backbone is a story-heavy game, and the story is quite good. Although it may seem like a cute animal version of an old school detective film we still get the murder, drugs, a mob family, gangs, shady characters and more.
This is not a game to play while tired though, you will need to do a lot of reading and responding to characters. It’s also not a ‘Netflix & Play’ type of game — you know those games you can play only using part of your brain while you consume other content with the other part of your brain. Backbone is a game that you must fully immerse yourself in. There are some games that cutscenes and dialogue are skippable, this is not one of them.
Backbone is a mature game, featuring adult themes and language. There’s also some silliness to it — like Monkeybutt.
I did experience other gameplay features other than just narrative elements and dialogue trees. There are parts that consist of sneaking around, puzzles to solve, and I’m sure there’s even more on the way. I didn’t get into any combat, but I don’t think this game needs that. Howard did get beat up, but there was no way around that. Backbone is more of a make the right decisions and don’t get caught sort of game.
I did run into one small problem, which is there’s no save point or checkpoint system in the game menu. It does save at certain points, I’m just not sure when. Anytime I had to quit the game and come back later I was somewhere a few minutes prior to where I had left off.
It would be nice if there were a “Save and Quit” feature, or even some sort of autosaving animation like most games have today. This way I would know when there’s a good time to take a break.
Who’s it for
Backbone is a great game for someone looking for a narrative focused game with a great story. It’s also great if you love to explore beautifully laid out pixelated worlds. It’s a very cool take on those old detective films. I can also see a group of friends watching one friend play through Backbone just for the story.
Backbone sort of reminds me of the Choose your own Adventure stories I used to read as a child — where you’d have to choose what happens next in the story, by flipping to a specific page. In the game the choices you make are dialogue-based and impact the outcome of the story.