EggNut's Backbone describes itself as a "post-noir roleplaying detective adventure". Set in an alternate, dystopian version of Vancouver, Canada, populated by anthropomorphic animals, we take on the role of raccoon private investigator Howard Lotor.
Before the review starts, I want to mention the existence of a very serious bug that reset my progress while I had completed about 80% of the game. Backbone doesn't have a normal save system, which I find unacceptable in an adventure (more or less) game anyway, but only autosave - there aren't even different save slots. So there is a bug that just makes the save disappear and based on community discussions it most often occurs at the beginning of Act IV, as it happened to me. The developers are aware of it, but so far no patch has been released. If someone decides to play Backbone, it's a good idea to keep a regular manual backup of the save, which can be found in the c:\users\username\AppData\local\Detective folder.
What begins as a search for an errant husband, a routine case for any private detective, soon takes an unexpected turn. Almost out of nowhere, Howard finds himself embroiled in a corruption case that reaches to the highest echelons of the political elite, and discovers secrets capable of blowing up the foundations of the society in which he lives.
In terms of presentation, despite a significant shortcoming that will be mentioned later, it's the strongest facet of Backbone. Visually, we have one of the most well thought out and unique cases of pixel art we've seen to date. Combined with modern lighting and shading effects, and excellent use of perspective, they create locations with a sense of depth unexpected for a 2D pixel art game - and this, despite the fact that the movement is done in a strict 2D plane.
Special mention should be made of the cutscenes. They are barely animated, but the distinct, hazy palette works perfectly to create a noir atmosphere. The soundtrack is on the same high level, and will surely feature on lists of the year's best. Melodies, mostly melancholic, fit perfectly with and at the same time elevate the experience of the game.
Very negative, however, is the complete absence of voice-over. Of course, one could reasonably wonder why I am making it an issue for Backbone, a shortcoming that I didn't even mention about Darkside Detective - A Fumble in the Dark. The answer is that in the noir genre to which Backbone belongs, a protagonist's voice cracked by cigarettes and booze, a voice that teeters between extreme cynicism and hopeless romanticism, is a structural element of the genre itself. And here it is missing.
On the gameplay front, it's not all rosy. In the opening chapter of Backbone, there are different methods of approaching targets, there's a stealth mechanic, and there's a fairly tricky puzzle that stumped me for a while. One of the main problems with Backbone, is that after completing the Prologue, all of this disappears, with the gameplay being overly simplified. There's even talk of a bait and switch, since the Prologue has been released separately for almost two years as a demo, and includes mechanics that are absent in the rest of the game.
In the end, after the developers' grandiose plans about a "roleplaying detective adventure" and "a modern take on the classic point-and-click adventure, featuring stealth, exploration and elaborate dialogues inspired by old school CRPGs", and despite the expectations created by Backbone's Prologue/demo, this is a game with such simplistic gameplay from Act 2 onwards that straddles the line between narrative game and Visual Novel.
So, having understood that the narrative is the focus of Backbone, all that is left is to examine the story of the game itself. Unfortunately, there are serious problems here too.
The first half of the game is a detective mystery that keeps the player's interest, although the depiction of the moral decline of the corrupt elite is so grotesque that it becomes graphic. As I was playing Backbone, by the time I reached the end of Act 3 I had made some notes of script points that I considered negative, such as the fact that while we are given control of Howard in a moment of reflection, ultimately the protagonist's predetermined internal monologue precludes us from taking some perfectly reasonable actions, such as alerting the police when we discover a gruesome crime. Why even give the illusion of choice?
I had a couple more similar observations, but ultimately with the conclusion of Act 3 and the start of Act 4, it turns out that so much detail analysis doesn't make much sense. That's because from that point on, the game script makes a turn in degrees that can't be measured in Euclidean geometry, and then performs a triple Axel and double tolup and dives into the void. Many of the threads of the original plot are left untied, the whole Artifact situation makes little to no sense, Howard's questions as to why this is all happening are met with a "you don't need to know", and it's a distinctly negative impression that the very serious issue of gender violence is clumsily brought up in an attempt to absolve morally atrocious killers.
What remains then? A game that made a lot of promises already from its kickstarter campaign, kept the enthusiasm of the audience with its demo, but in the end manages to stand out only in the audiovisual field.