A wise man once said, “find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. But the reality is sometimes far removed from our expectations. Take the main character in Backbone, for example. A private investigator without any dreams of making the world a better place. He is just in it for the money, plain and simple. And while he might be good at it, offers aren’t exactly pouring in. If anything, our protagonist is barely scraping by. His next case is a monkey paw type of deal. While it might bring him some financial stability in his life, it will also throw him in a vast net of city conspiracies, gruesome murders, and shady dealings. And as the icing on the cake, he has to do all that and make it out alive while being a raccoon!
To be fair, it’s not like anyone turned him into a raccoon for the duration of the game. The post-noir city of Vancouver in Backbone is full of anthropomorphic cats, dogs, bears, foxes, raccoons, and so on. You don’t stand out and don’t exactly fit in. One night, a client comes to Howard Lotor (that’s our raccoon dude btw) and tells him she suspects her husband is cheating on her. What’s starts as a routine case will soon devolve into something far more sinister, while we juggle between solving the case and saving our life in the end. After all, what god is being paid for our work if we don’t live long enough to spend it properly?
Backbone is your typical point n click adventure, with a touch of stealth, exploration, and extensive dialogue with other characters. There are some puzzles here and there and they’re pretty moderate in difficulty. Usually, the solution is in the same room as you. While the branching paths in dialogue are extensive, in the end, they might only decide what Steam achievement you’re going to get. But it is the character of Howard Lotor that elevates the whole dialogue in Backbone to the next level. Howard is a defeated cynic, somewhat crushed under the weight of the punches that life threw at him. He is stuck in a city that doesn’t like him and the feeling is mutual. All of that is visibly poured into his inner thoughts and interactions with others.
While the atmosphere of the city in Backbone is bleak and depressing, the art style is far from that. I have a confession to make: I have a mild resentment to the pixel art approach in video games. Mild but strong. You could blame it on the oversaturation of indie games bringing that to the spotlight but after a while, I just started seeing it as a lack of creativity. An easy way out and an easy way to make an indie game. At least, that’s how I felt in general until I started playing more and more of Backbone. I think these screenshots speak for themselves but this is the first game where I would often stop just to absorb the visual background and the incredible amount of details that went into every single scene. Each area of the city such as Gastown, West End, Greenery and Granville have their own unique visual identity.
To disappoint you right off the bat, the characters in Backbone are not fully voiced. I do acknowledge that some extra work went into the background music of the game (which will be your companion most of the time, along with your inner thoughts). At the same time, I do consider it a lost opportunity that the soundtrack doesn’t have a noticeable presence of jazz tunes. It would go incredibly well with the post-noir setting of the game. The music in the game is just the right amount so you don’t feel completely alone but not enough to stand out.
Backbone is a game that is a perfect recommendation to someone who is indifferent to point n click games. A recommendation to someone that might a low assumption or two about the pixel art in indie games (I’m subtly talking about myself, in case you haven’t noticed). It might seem funny, but I’m kinda embarrassed how long it took me to finally realize just how much care and love is usually poured into these types of games. But I suppose Backbone was a turning point. I’ve been blind, but now I see. In the end, this is the game that left me satisfied at the end while also made me wish for more. That’s mostly thanks to the game’s noticeably short duration and the ending that comes out of nowhere. Despite all of its shortcomings, Backbone gets a heartfelt recommendation from me.
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