Have you ever wondered what the movie Zootopia would look like if David Fincher directed it? I hadn’t either until I was a couple of hours into Backbone. In this engaging adventure, you will play as Howard Lotor as he navigates his way towards truth and justice. It is absolutely worth checking out if you have been looking for a game filled with anthropomorphic creatures and themes such as classism and nihilism.
Backbone is currently available for PC. It is coming to Xbox, Playstation, and Switch later this year.
Story – This City Bites
It was hard not to draw comparisons to my favorite noir stories like Sin City or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang during the game’s opening moments. As our hero smokes a cigarette in the bathtub, rain crashing against his window, I could already feel the grime through the screen. Shortly after his bath, we meet up with his first client of the day. A worried otter suspects her husband is having an affair and needs Howard to follow him so she can prove it. What begins as an ordinary day for our private eye quickly escalates into something beyond his pessimistic imagination.
Once you begin your investigation, the game opens up and lets you wander in its desolated version of Vancouver. Meeting the struggling locals was one of my favorite parts of playing Backbone. Most of the characters you talk to have it pretty rough and do what they can to make it through to another day. I was surprised by how deep each character was written and easily empathized with most of them.
Backbone uses its opening moments to introduce pivotal characters and set the tone for the rest of the adventure. It doesn’t take long for Howard to meet Renee Wilson, an investigative journalist with goals similar to his own. They both have their suspicions about Clarissa Bloodworth, one of the cities most powerful and ruthless figures. After a day of exploration and interrogation, they typically meet up at night to compare notes. I loved watching the relationship between Howard and Renee grow and had a tough time putting down the controller for the first half of their journey.
Unfortunately, one specific twist appears during the middle of the adventure that derails most of what Backbone was leading up to. At first, I thought I had made the wrong choice and received a bad ending. Upon further research, the game offers the player the same story no matter what they choose to say or do. A part of me understands why the title ends the way it does, but the story I was so intrigued by doesn’t feel like it gets the ending it deserved. While I beat it in under five hours, I felt dissatisfied by the ending and wish it was a bit longer to give it a proper conclusion.
Gameplay – Sneaky Creatures
Backbone is mostly a visual novel, with some gameplay elements scattered throughout. Howard spends most of his time talking to folk, hoping to learn anything he can about his current case. During conversations, you will be offered many different dialogue choices. Similar to Disco Elysium, the choices you make can affect other characters’ perceptions of you and how much information they are willing to give away.
There are less than a handful of times where talking is not your objective. Hearing rumors on the street is good for a lead, but collecting physical evidence is the key to success. Howard will need to sneak into many places, and it couldn’t be easier. The game provides a crouch button, and you must time your movements correctly to avoid detection. If you are caught in the act, it brings you back to a checkpoint to try again.
The puzzles are few and far between, but fun nevertheless. You will occasionally need to find ways to explore locked rooms and reach new heights. They are usually creative enough to leave you scratching your head for a minute, and some even have multiple ways to solve them. Like sneaking around, I wish Backbone offered the player more puzzles to solve between conversation sequences.
Graphics & Audio – Pixels and Jazz
The stunning pixel art design drew me in immediately and never ceased to amaze me. Almost every frame is full of detail that helps add to its world-building. As you walk down the main street of Granville, you will see posters for Citizen Mane and can even observe what is happening inside apartments. The use of bright neon colors elevates the mystery and provides an amazing style for the game throughout.
While traveling between chapters, Backbone often uses a hand-drawn art style reminiscent of pulp magazines. I loved being able to see characters like Renee and Clarissa come to life through this animation shift. The pixelized versions were well animated and designed; I was just happy to see them in a more realized form.
The soundtrack, composed by Nikita Danshin and Arooj Aftab, sounds like a smokey jazz lounge from the 1960s. I don’t often beat a game and instantly want to find the soundtrack online, but I was ecstatic when I found out it was available on Spotify. The sounds of dancing piano melodies and groovy basslines will follow Howard throughout his journey. A couple of songs like “Abode” and “The Warmth of Parents’ Hands” include vocal sections that surprised and enchanted me.
The only issue I had with the audio during my playthrough was that I thought specific scenes were too quiet. Certain conversations take place without any sound whatsoever. I thought characters would grumble or make a noise while talking to each other, but instead, it’s just silence. While only slightly distracting, some ambient music during these scenes could have helped.
Backbone was reviewed on PC.