Backbone can in the loosest terms be described as a furry detective game, which is why in April of 2018 I wasted no time in backing it on Kickstarter. Since then I mostly tried to forget about that game. I know personally that if I follow a game’s development closely I am doomed for disappointment. For whatever good my chosen strategy did me, I still found myself disappointed. The Backbone I got was not the Backbone I bought. I’m still not sure if that is a bad thing though.
The Kickstarter campaign described Backbone as:
[A] pixel art cinematic adventure with stealth and action elements. As private investigator Howard Lotor, you are set to solve detective cases, interrogate witnesses, explore the intriguing and dangerous world around you, and sneak your way to safety using smell-based stealth mechanics.
Backbone combines the visual and social contrasts of film noir with anthropomorphic animals, retrofuturistic technologies, and dystopian fiction. Crawl through the dark alleys of pixelated Vancouver, and experience the impactful storyline focused on themes of power and prejudice.
In the final product, nearly all of this is false. The pixel art cinematic adventure is true, and we’ll get to how wonderfully true it is later. The stealth elements part is true-ish. There are no action elements that the payer has any control over. Howard Lotor is a private detective, you don’t really solve cases so much as experience them happening. I don’t even know what they mean by smell-based stealth mechanics, because that is not even in there. Mind you all of these broken promises are in the first paragraph. So why am I not sure if I feel cheated?
As it turns out Backbone is beautiful. The art style and the environments are stunning. Howard Lotor is a downtrodden raccoon who I can relate to in a way that I just can’t with most protagonists. Coupled with a brilliant soundtrack all of the ingredients needed to immerse the player in a neo-noir detective story are there. Unfortunately, once you remove the atmosphere there is nothing left.
Backbone takes about 4 hours to finish. I’ve heard a lot of people say it takes about three which is probably true if you don’t have trouble reading as I do. In that regard, it is much shorter than I was prepared for. And there is no actual gameplay. Once you’re through the first act, I’m not even sure you can fail at anything, and failure in the first act is just due to a touch of crouch-based stealth. This is a big problem given all of the promises made by the development team.
There is no detective work to be done. There are no real choices to be had. The end is coming and it is homing hard and fast and without warning. Maybe that is the biggest disappointment. Backbone tries to tell the story of society crushing a man, but it is neither long enough to do it nor is society Howard’s antagonist at any point.
I think this is the video game equivalent of a child trying to make a spy movie with their parent’s video camera. The end product itself lacks the tension in the child’s mind as they were making it. It is obvious there was a lot of world-building done in the writing room, but almost none of it has any bearing on the plot. The knowledge of the world-building went in the marketing pitches and the Kickstarter campaign, but none of it mattered. In the end, Howard didn’t fight any systems. He fought something else.
From here on I am going to get spoiler-heavy. Because the game is short I will pretty much be ruining the whole thing. Go ahead and skip to the next break if you don’t want spoilers. If you’re still reading let’s get started.
Backbone begins with a woman who asks you, Howard, to find evidence of her husband’s unfaithfulness. What you find is that while her husband has been unfaithful he’s also been murdered by a cabal of people who eat other people. I won’t call them cannibals since all the characters are anthropomorphic people. In either case, people eating people is bad.
Howard then teams up with an investigative journalist to figure out just how deep this pile of bodies is. This is probably the most interesting phase of the game as you can really get into who Howard is, which is important. Along the way, you learn some girls are also missing, but maybe they left on their own. Either way, the evidence leads all the way to the highest echelons of government. So it’s off to a secret science building for Howard.
The game does a better job of tying a straight line between the previous two plot points than I did, but in hindsight, the connection is tenuous at best. This is where the investigation ends because Howard gets some black body-horror goop on him and faster than you can say genre change now things are all about survival.
The black goop is basically as if Venom from Marvel Comics was made of extra-dimensional horror. This was somewhat hinted at in one of the early release gifs, but it doesn’t work out that way. Instead, you try to hide out with the city’s homeless and forgotten until you’re scooped up by some mafia scientists and live out the last portion of the game in an experiment chamber. Then you escape and die walking through the desert. The end.
And that is how suddenly it happens. The thing is other games have done this exact ending, better. Spoilers ahead of a different game, that I obviously can’t name here since I’ve over-committed at this point. You can just skip the rest of this paragraph if you want. The game that did this exact ending better was The Final Station. Literally, the same ending, black goo, the player character dies. The thing is that you see it coming. The player starts coughing as they make the final journey home, throwing up more and more black goo. In Backbone they tell you you’re going to die, but then give you hope that you’ll be fine when you escape the experiment chamber only to have Howard die a moment later and it just sucks.
What do I think of Backbone? I think the atmosphere is good. I think the design is spot on and I think the mood fits what they were going for. It is not a detective game though. It’s not even a detective story. It’s a light eldrich horror game. Which is fine, but it’s not what I signed up for. Now because I’ll buy any game that has an anthropomorphic main character, I would have gotten it sooner or later. In that circumstance, I may have actually known what I was getting into.
All and all I feel cheated. I didn’t get the neo-noir detective story I wanted. I got a short horror visual novel, that while not bad is not what I wanted. At the very least I wanted a game where choices made changed anything, anything at all. For those reasons, I hold a bit of a grudge. I suppose that is the risk when prefunding a game on Kickstarter. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a game that took two years longer to come out than promised to actually contain the features advertised.
In short, I’m upset I didn’t get what I wanted and I’m happy to have experienced something with moody furries. Nothing new really.
Backbone is available on Steam for $24.99. Don’t bother buying it unless you really really like the aesthetic or something. Maybe watch a Let’s Play. Also, be wary of any games put out by EggNut in the future.