Played on PC
Times are tough. While a chosen group of Elites live in privilege at the top of the food chain those at the bottom scrabble around doing what they can to survive. A dark dystopian vision of the future has come to pass and every member of society has a part to play whether it is for good or for evil.
Let’s all take a deep breath and try to forget about the state of the world in 2021 while we look at a newly released title on Game Pass for PC called Backbone.
Developed by EggNut and published by Raw Fury, the game is described as being a ‘post-noir roleplaying detective adventure’ set in a walled city that no one is able to leave, inhabited by animals who behave and dress like humans. We never really learn the reason for this but a location called burning park which is known for being the site of an event involving a massive fire seems to hint at the possibility of a Nuclear detonation having taken place at some time in the past.
The ruling class is made up of Apes who have been elevated to this position by the teachings of a religious figure known as the Shepherd. The social structure of power in the city then moves downwards from the carnivores (Bears, Wolves, etc.) through faux (raccoons, otters etc.) to rodents including hamsters and mice.
Playing as a Raccoon Detective called Howard Lotor you accept a typical case involving tracking down an abusive cheating husband. After carrying out some low level investigations and teaming up with a mysterious stranger what starts as standard detective fare soon escalates into several sinister plots that could imminently bring down the hierarchy of the society or prop it up forevermore.
Howard is no hero that is clear but he reasons that if he does not stand up for what is right in his world no one else is going to.
The game is designed as a point-and-click adventure using high resolution pixel art. By utilising 3D effects such as neon lights, dynamic lighting and pouring rain the developers have been able to conjure up a visual style that just drips noir. It was a joyful moment for me when I noticed that drops of rain were actually sticking to random areas of the camera as I explored the city. During cut scenes spaced out among the main acts of the game we are also sometimes treated to beautiful pixelized portraits of the main characters. Combining these visuals with a sometimes jazzy, sometimes claustrophobic but generally unease generating soundtrack by Danshin and Arooj Aftab creates an atmosphere that is perfect for the intriguing mysteries being uncovered by our protagonist.
Gameplay is generally based around having conversations with other characters. Some quite complicated conversation trees frequently come into play allowing you to dig deeper in the search for information but there is always a rude get out option if you don’t want to bother conversing with someone. You can decide to comfort people or be a totally rude foul mouthed racoon if that is what takes your fancy. I noticed that I was rewarded with achievements several times during my playthrough for being supportive to distressed characters although having said that I also got an achievement for being ruthless with the truth towards some children on another occasion.
Studying your environment allows you to solve fairly easy puzzles as you work your way around the different areas of the city. I only found one puzzle that took a bit of working out in the whole game and I think this has to be considered a wasted opportunity as it was cleverly designed and quite fun to solve. In a similar vein, as well as your unique running style (which I suggest everyone checks out) there is also a crouch mechanic that allows Howard to hide in the shadows and sneak past enemy characters, but again this was only needed two or three times in the entire campaign which seems wasteful.
Backbone is a game that is hard to discuss too much without giving away spoilers but a standout section for me was a very trippy carnival sequence about two thirds of the way through. It had a very nightmarish quality but seemed to not only reflect on what Howard had been through in the past but also seemed to be foretelling his possible future.
At various moments while sheltering within the lower levels of society you get a real sense of community. To give one example, conveying a feeling of peace and hope while a racoon plays along on a harmonica as a mouse plays a tuba certainly must take some thought but the developers have managed to pull it off here. Towards the end of the game a communal meal also has the same kind of effect on the player but you sense that it is really only the calm before the storm to come.
The most interesting concept for me was the fact that all of the main clever and powerful characters within the game were female rather than male. Turning this standard Noir trope on its head was obviously done intentionally and was certainly very refreshing. It is not an everyday occurrence for a down on his luck private investigator to meet a lady (actually a white rat) called sooz who rather than being cast as a gangster’s moll turns out to be the gangster’s hired muscle and gives him a good kicking in a supposed safehouse location.
After completion it appears to me that Backbone is more of a story telling experience than a game as not much actual gaming i.e. Stealth, Puzzle solving etc. is required to progress through it. Conversation is king in this title so it is almost like reading a book or watching a film at times. The story is complex and goes from simple to intriguing then after a certain point seems to lose its way and come to an abrupt ending. The finale did not make a massive amount of sense and left many of the interesting plot threads hanging with no sense of resolution. I must admit that I was disappointed by this as the world that I was exploring had me hooked and I was ready for far more hours of gameplay than the roughly four and a half hours that I actually got.
In Conclusion, while the game is stylistically great with a setting that is a joy to immerse yourself in, it is let down by a story that builds to a point then goes off the rails at the end. If a deeper message is in there somewhere the finale makes it difficult to grasp but Backbone is a haunting experience all the same.
Newly available on Game Pass for PC, subscribers can do far worse than spending a few hours with this gumshoe and his friends just to soak up the atmosphere. On a side note, If anyone finds out what a ‘Wolfjob’ is after being offered one by a dapper wolf in a luxury apartment building feel free to let me know as I passed up his offer.