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Backbone is not the game I thought it would be. Set in a dystopian, animal-ruled Toronto, the post-noir mystery game sets out with a simple premise and quickly grows into a behemoth of societal, political, and supernatural problems revolving around one murder. And though Backbone has created a gorgeous, full world, it left me feeling like it tried to do too much.
You play the racoon Howard Lotor, a semi-successful private investigator who solves petty crimes and personal issues. Just like any other day, you're approached by an otter whose husband has been led astray - he comes home smelling of an odd perfume, hasn't been going to work, and disappears at odd hours. He has a nasty temper, so his wife wants evidence of him cheating so she can get a divorce and keep the kids.
Here is the trailer for Backbone...
Very quickly Howard finds himself deep, deep in the criminal underbelly of The City. Society in this civilisation is divided into Kinds - the animal categorisation system. At the bottom, you'll find rodents (mice, rats, rabbits), then faux (raccoons, otters), then carnivores (wolves, bears, cats, dogs), and then the Apes at the top.
The Apes rule The City as the mysterious, dominating elite. They're the ruling class and control food, healthcare, politics, sciences and more, as they are considered the higher life form. And though Howard doesn't know it, he quickly becomes wrapped up in his world's most dangerous power struggle between the Apes and a bear, and well... he struggles with it.
Backbone has an amazing, believable world you're dropped into. Though we may despair under the weight of our real-world struggles, somehow the developers at EggNut have encapsulated a lot of the familiar fears we have as a society into this game. Poverty, racism, healthcare, homelessness, drug abuse, corruption, black market criminal activity, and even at the end, sexism - so much is touched on and naturally dealt with in this story. Though it doesn't linger on every issue in a devoted manner, I enjoyed peeking into a world where these struggles are portrayed as a typical civilization. It didn't matter that I was listening to a rabbit talk about the difficulties of motherhood because the sentiment was so human.
But for all that effort, the story of Backbone sort of drives itself off of a philosophical cliff that I couldn't seem to follow. I'm not against deep philosophical questions in games - I adore Studio ZA/UM's Disco Elysium, for example, which handles the philosophy of self and internal struggle phenomenally well. It navigates existentialism and despondency with a grain of humour, however, while Backbone just gets flat-out depressing.
I started the game ravenous for a murder mystery. I thought it might be typical of a point-and-click adventure where you have to do some mental jumps to piece the larger puzzle together - but if you're looking for an Agatha Christie novel, this is not for you. There is literally one puzzle in the storyline and it comes within the prologue. It's fun and clever and definitely gives you an 'aha' moment, and combined with the intense feeling that anyone could find you as you're trying to solve it, I thought that this electrifying atmosphere might be found elsewhere. But it's not, and the prologue is really the best part.
Backbone starts out incredibly strong. You start a normal day doing your job before being shocked and frightened at the true implication of your case. After the first chapter, the story's momentum grows and grows and grows until the plot feels like an uncontrollable tumour, collapsing in on itself as it continues on (if you play the game further, you'll understand this analogy entirely). And you have no say in the matter. You'd be driven down a thrilling path until Howard makes a mistake you have no control over. It seems sort of forced and silly in context, and doesn't match the tone of the three previous hours.
The last section of the game is a stark contrast to its beginning. Though I could see the point of this desperate, bleak tragedy, and how it relates to this dystopian, daunting world, I felt dissatisfied with the answers I was provided because they weren't solving any of the questions I had to begin with. The credits roll and you're left asking why, you ask who, and you ask what was the point. This might be a deliberate choice in EggNut's case, as those are questions we ask ourselves in a philosophical sense - but I'm not sure placing this conversation in Backbone's final hour was a good move for the game when it had such a strong opening.
Where I cannot fault Backbone, however, is its phenomenal visuals. It's stunning. Simply stunning. This may be the prettiest pixel-art game I've ever played, and the world is conveyed so beautifully throughout. It's astonishing, so if you're interested in the art style, a playthrough is well worth it. If nothing else, Backbone is stylish and it'll leave a mark on players as a gorgeous adventure.
Overall, Backbone is a grim, unhappy tale that didn't sate any of my hunger for a good murder mystery. However, if you are looking for a deeply interesting world with complex and unsettling themes which will stick with you, I'd still recommend you give it a go.
Pros: Stunning environment, strong world-building, and some great plot points
Cons: Weaker ending, lack of puzzles and player autonomy
For fans of: Disco Elysium, existentialism, pixel art
Backbone was released on June 8 2021 on PC and releases on Xboxes, PlayStations and Switch later this year. Review code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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