Game review: 'Backbone' (2021)
The style is heavily influenced by noir detective stories, with a dash of science-fiction. Set in a dystopian Vancouver, British Columbia, all the characters are anthropomorphic mammals. You play as Howard Lotor, a raccoon private investigator, trying to find evidence of an affair. To say things do not go as planned would be a vast understatement.
The game is surprisingly short, you can finish it in around four to five hours. After playing it, it felt like it had so much potential, but didn't deliver as much as it could have.
The game's biggest weakness is that it's extremely linear, and the gameplay aspects are minimal. Adventure-wise, there were only maybe three puzzles, pretty easy ones. Two puzzles had alternative solutions, and one of those was only possible if you'd done something earlier. But upon replaying it - twice - I discovered that a lot of what you do doesn't matter. This makes it feel less like a game, bordering on interactive visual novel territory. You can access a list of your current objectives and inventory, but you never need to, it's that linear. (Handy tip if you play it again: To skip cutscenes, press and hold down the space bar.)
Some conversations can result in achievement badges, but those don't alter the story. The game auto-saves, so if you want to try a different way, you have to start the game all over again. At best, you get to have a subjective personal experience when you talk with people. Your available choices typically vary between being sympathetic, being an asshole, prying for information, or (surprisingly) expressing a lack of self-confidence. I had a very difficult time trying to figure out how the other person might respond, eventually gave up and hoped for the best.
It's obvious that a whole lot of world-building went into this! The game is soaked with atmosphere. But you're not being given enough information, you're only experiencing tiny little snippets. Your character knows the context, but you, as the player, do not. There are details you can gather from observing the city around you, but other information only comes from dialog, and that can be very easy to miss.
Even then, the little snippets of world-building... they insinuate, but as the player, you don't actually know. This ambiguity applies to everything in the game. What's with your relationship towards your family? Why the racism against your species? Are you actually good at your job? What's the nature of the dystopia? What's the rest of the world like? You don't find out, you can only make vague guesses.
And not only are you trying to make choices without information, the noir genre is known for making it difficult to trust anyone. (Along with themes of systemic corruption and moral ambiguity.) One set of conversations felt extremely crucial to Howard's well-being. Turns out, your choices don't make a difference. By the end of it all, you're left with multiple unresolved plot threads. You get glimpses of the antagonist's schemes, but not their overall motives. Some information is contradictory, or outright missing. A form of social inequality is mentioned as an important plot point... but you don't actually see it experienced. The ending is not in the least satisfying.
So the gameplay is disappointing. That's fine, if the story is strong enough to compensate, but it isn't. And yet the potential is there. It feels as if the developers had a lot more planned. The story takes some surprising turns, but you're not going to get resolution. One chapter felt like filler. I'd have liked to have understood more about the animal kinds; there appears to be some kind of class or caste system at work.
Did I like anything about this game? Yeah, I loved the style and the visuals! The background art is excellent, the camera is doing subtle effects with perspective, parallax and lighting that enhances the atmosphere. The music really adds to the mood too. And is it furry? Very much so! (Characters named Deo and Casey show up in one section.) But in all other respects I felt rather let down. I'm hoping for a sequel; this felt way too short, and I'd really like to know more about this story universe. Also, I didn't think it was possible, but it made me sympathetic towards a Canada goose.
My recommendation is that if you're curious about Backbone, wait for a sale. It's currently available on Steam, and there are plans to release it on GOG, Playstation, XBox and Switch. Alternatively, you can play the first part of the game for free. You won't have closure at the end, but so what? The full game doesn't give you closure either. You'll miss an interesting plot twist, the way it ends will leave things unresolved (but less frustratingly), and you'll still get to experience the great atmosphere. Strangely, the game's prologue is more satisfying than the whole. On the other hand, sending money their way may encourage more and better work; I do hope we'll eventually find out more of the story.