This game is the true definition of squandered potential.
In Backbone, you play as the downbeat private eye, Howard Lotor. After a worried wife asks you to spy on her husband, you uncover a huge case involving drug kingpins, political corruption, and fantastical elements in this dark mystery game.
I played the prologue in June 2020, and vastly enjoyed it, with some promise for interesting puzzles, traditional stealth mechanics, and a story-rich experience that would put our raccoon gumshoe through a hellscape of trouble.
Except it didn’t deliver.
The best thing Backbone has to offer is the art. Each individual pixel is rendered beautifully, each character that appears in the background doesn’t appear again, and you can tell that they looked at old noir movies for inspiration. There’s a loose art deco style and it runs with it in the right direction.
Take a moment, just look at the details here.
The soundtrack is also wonderful. A nice twist of traditional noir-esque music with some modern vibes thrown in for a little flavour add to some of the warm moments. A particular favourite is a song that plays while you sit and watch Howard eat with his friends. It’s a nice touch.
The worldbuilding that went into this game has to also be respected. The hierarchy of each anthropomorphic mammal, and then reptiles, birds, and fish still being their real-world selves is very interesting. It can lean into the stereotypes a little, with some of the criminal characters being rodents, and our PI himself being a raccoon seems to be a subtle nod to digging through rubbish to find clues in old adventure games.
I personally really like Howard as a character, he even inspired one of my longstanding characters for D&D. He has the right amount of cheeky charm to get an A in my book.
The writing leaves a lot to be desired. It dabbles with armchair philosophy without delving deeper, it jarred me when I saw the snappy noir dialogue mixed with modern terms like “big brain”. Even the actual noir-style writing isn’t what you’d expect, as it’s littered with swearing and doesn’t carry the same feel as anything Raymond Chandler had written. Howard isn’t a Cole Phelps type, even though he has a more interesting design to say the least.
The gameplay is harder to find than Howard is here.
The gameplay is almost non-existent. There are no puzzles to be found after the prologue, and the stealth mechanic only returns once more in the story, at a part which was distinctly easier than the first time it was used. Instead, the player is given dialogue trees with lots of branches, many of which carry the same tone with only slightly different words used. As stated above, the writing did this game no favours.
The story has a lot of interesting twists and turns, as any noir should. However, the twists and turns aren’t really addressed again at all. The initial intrigue around the mysterious Mrs. Bloodworth doesn’t really show its head again, what’s actually going on in the relationship between Renee and her mysterious employer is only mentioned at the very end, and even then it takes some mental gymnastics to put it together.
The ending is not satisfying. It’s abrupt. I was half-listening to a stream whilst I was playing the game, and I jumped in to sing Backbone’s praises. The stakes were ramping up, you were at the hero’s low point, ready for the ascension like traditional story structure suggests should happen, but then the game just ended. The streamer looked visibly shocked when I told him my thoughts, and how it was a complete U-Turn.
You can tell a lot of work went into Backbone, and Eggnut Studios deserve credit for making a game of its kind look as beautiful and visually interesting as it does. That cannot be understated.
However, the poor writing really knocked the game down several rungs of the ladder. This universe they made is deep, interesting, and full of lore waiting to be explored, but they wasted it. I think that was the biggest crime in Backbone, and there was actual murder. That is how I’d summarise it best; “wasted potential”.
Reviews are mostly positive on Steam, and I can really understand why people like it, but for someone who waited a year for the full game after the promise of the Prologue, it was really disappointing. Please, Eggnut, if you are reading this, take Backbone down from Steam and spend a good few months rewriting aspects of the story. There is so much potential here!
I really, really wanted to like this game.
Overall it just wasn't enough.
This might still be the game for you, if you did want to give it a shot, you can pick it up from Steam here.
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