Whoa Boy! Backbone is a game that has been on my radar for what feels like forever. That and 12 Minutes are two games that are testing my own possible overhyping as there is a chance I am creating something in my head whose expectations can never be matched.
But blow me, does Backbone meet those expectations. A post-noir detective adventure where you take on the role of private detective Howard Lotor… who just so happens to be a racoon living in a city inhabited by other anthropomorphic animals… rats, foxes, beavers, bears and more.
But don’t let the anthropomorphic animals fool you, Backbone is anything but cute. The game is dark, grimy, seedy and has the overall feels of a city with more in common with Gotham than it does anything else. There is something uncomfortable about the world you are in, and it works so, so well. The dystopian version of Vancouver is dripping with atmosphere.
As usual, I won’t go into the story, and I believe you should discover it all yourself, but I will mention the opening act a little. You essentially take on cases as a private eye as a story unravels around you, taking you further and further to a wider ‘truth’. The game actually starts fairly mundane, as you help a lady try and prove her husband is cheating so that she can get a divorce. This is essentially taking the noir trope of a simple opening to get you used to the game mechanics, but even this is something that draws you in.
The setup of Backbone relies a lot on the characters because there is so much interaction between yourself and the inhabitants you meet. Unlike many games in the genre of late, there is no voice acting, so Backbone really needs to convey character in the text, and it does that remarkably well. Every character feels unique, thanks to some clever writing. Although, as someone with ADHD, I got worried I’d lose track or get bored with following text conversations. But and this is huge for me… there are no walls of text, everything feels natural, and despite allowing you to go through every single line of dialogue, it works really well.
It is important, too, as conversations have meaning. It could be as simple as learning a password, right up to gaining slight insights about another character that can be used later in an act. It really is a superbly crafted experience, and it somehow makes all characters memorable but not trying to stand out. It is hard to explain just how natural it all feels.
As this is a point & click detective game, there are puzzles all over, but like with Lacuna, Backbone has modernised how you interact with the world and how puzzles work. There are no obtuse solutions for simple progression; instead, everything makes sense and flows well. That isn’t to say it is easy. Nope, you do need to take your time and think about your actions. Brute forcing your way through will not work here.
In saying that, though, persistence can work in your favour. I had one section in Act III where I felt I had hit a wall, but I went back and forth talking to characters again, and eventually, the piece all fell into place. Now it wasn’t a case of the game causing this. It was purely my own idiocy, but I was free enough to find a way without ever getting frustrated. Backbone wants you to progress, and it paces everything exceptionally.
We’ve hit a point with Indies now, where some will always raise expectations, and we expect more from them. Unfortunately, at times, they can fall a little short, but Backbone is one where the game went way beyond what I was hoping for. The Indie space used to be one where you would play some excellent but often flawed experiences, especially in certain genres, but now the tables have turned. Indies have surpassed the AAA space and are the games setting the bar, proving that flashy graphics and bigger environments with more towers aren’t a sign of quality. Instead, the lovingly crafted games show that a solid premise is the best way forward.
Backbone has a lovely art style, wonderful characters, amazing environments and sublime writing. It may be showing a dark, seedy underbelly of society, but it does it with aplomb, and I loved my time with it. Also… racoons are cool.
Backbone from Eggnut and Raw Fury is out now on Steam, GOG, Epic Games Store and Game Pass for PC