Backbone Review

It’s late in the year, and by now most people have a good idea of what they’ll look back on as their game of the year. While there’s still one more big title to consider, it’s no secret that the indie scene has thrived more this year than ever before, at least in my eyes. While I’ve still a lot of deliberating to do when it comes to GOTY ideas, as of now I have one more title to add to that list: Backbone.

There’s no one thing that made this game stand out to me; rather, the sum of it’s parts far outweigh the whole. Sure, plenty of games have done the noir setting (even with anthropomorphic animals as the cast), the branching dialogue trees, and stunning pixel art. But somehow Backbone brings these elements together to make a game that is as addictively moreish as the drugs being sold on its streets, but far less hazardous to your health. I found myself absolutely hooked from start to finish, sucked in as I was by wonderful writing, music, visuals, and intrigue galore.

Backbone is a stunning looking game, but these still screenshots don’t do the wonderful animation and lighting justice

The story is naturally best discovered by the player, but allow me to set the scene. We play as Howard Lotor, a raccoon PI who is tasked with tracking down an abusive husband by his wife after she suspects him of infidelity. She hopes to use the evidence gained to file for divorce, and hopes that Lotor will be able to provide the goods. Naturally, being a post-noir tale, things soon spiral far beyond a simple case of a cheating husband. The twists and turns throughout were interesting, well written, and constantly engaging. Yet despite the potential to become a confusing mesh of names and places, Eggnut have masterfully crafted a narrative that keeps us in the loop at all times. Again, no spoilers here but this tale forms what I’d consider one of the three pillars that make Backbone essential playing.

The second of which would be the audio visual mastery on show. I’ve always been fond of the noir setting in various media, but Backbone‘s is probably one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. The way the 2D pixel art characters animate is incredible, but even more impressive is how the background and lighting interact with them. We play on a 2D plane, but there is a sense of depth to the world, with the bustling streets of this alternate Vancouver full of life and colour. Shop fronts emit glaring hues of light, while neon signs and street lamps illuminate Howard and the other citizens perfectly as they walk past. He cast shadows on objects in real time, and the sense of atmosphere in every room of the game is just incredible. Eggnut have done a superb job of bringing the world to life across the board. Audio is much more sparsely used, but in just about the best way to help sell the world as a living, breathing place. While the humdrum of the city is spot on, it’s a various moments in the story when some excellent music kicks in that truly shine: think along the lines of Red Dead Redemption‘s Mexico scene and you’ll be on the right track. Not only are we treated to wonderful music, but these moments also allow us to reflect on what has happened, and what’s to come. If you only need one reason to check out the game, then this audio visual treat should be the main take away – though I’d expect the fantastic story and gameplay to then keep you hooked.

It’s not all neon soaked streets; these moments offer a view of the city from a more muted perspective

That gameplay is the final third of the equation, and while it may be fairly straight forward in its approach, it also feels like the perfect match for the other two pillars. Each of the areas we get to explore are small, but have just the right amount of interactive elements – not so many that we get overwhelmed, but not so few that the space feels empty. Some of these will be simple world building observations or comments, while others will be characters we need to speak to, short side missions, or key elements to progress the story. Each are clearly labelled, and it pays to click on each one as we move past thanks to there often being a benefit later on, be it already having an item, or knowing where to look next.

A bulk of the time we’ll be engaging in conversation with characters, be it short asides or long, story heavy sections. Each interaction is wonderfully written, and offers us several responses to choose from at almost every turn. This isn’t some Telltale-style affair though, with plenty of exposition and filler but little in the way of choices. Oftentimes, trying to lead the conversation one way will just end up with us back at the predetermined ‘correct’ choice, just with a different flavour on it. Despite this lack of being able to shape the tale, I still found myself weighing my choices carefully, and trying to pry as much info out of every character as possible. A stealth mechanic is introduced early on in the game, but other than a matter of two or three moments shortly after it is not revisited. A shame, but then again I’m only now realising that this was the case as I write this. The rest of the game was so enjoyable anyway that this is a non-issue.

Dialogue choices are heavily featured throughout, though most offer more world and character building as opposed to ways to alter the narrative. Even so, the writing is never less that superb

Conclusion

Putting all three of these pillars together, we get a title that has the looks, story, and gameplay to really stand out. Backbone isn’t an overly long game, maybe 5-6 hours at most, but what it does in its trim time frame is craft a world and characters that we care about, a narrative that is constantly intriguing and surprising, and offer us just enough interactivity that we can progress almost without having to worry about any challenge. It’s a marvellous example of what the indie game space can do, and a title that everyone with – or without – a Game Pass subscription should check out.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.

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Good
  • Immaculately presented story with interesting characters
  • Looks and sounds absolutely stunning
  • Masterfully uses story and player choice to keep us hooked
Bad
  • Choices don't seem to affect the narrative
9.6
Excellent
Gameplay - 9.5
Graphics - 10
Audio - 9.8
Longevity - 9
Written by
I've been gaming since Spy vs Spy on the Master System, growing up as a Sega kid before realising the joy of multi-platform gaming. These days I can mostly be found on smaller indie titles, the occasional big RPG and doing poorly at Rainbow Six: Siege. Gamertag: Enaksan

2 Comments

  1. This is one of the best well-written reviews I have ever read. Looking forward to playing the game!

    Reply
    • Thank you Rob, I really appreciate it! Been a while since I felt so confident in writing about a game that I really, really enjoyed. 🙂

      Reply

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