As I’ve said before, I love a good mystery. Noirs are some of my favorites, and lately, there’s been some interesting noir adventure games popping up on the indie scene. Backbone is technically a “post noir” detective adventure, but has a lot of the hallmarks that bring me to the genre–that gritty feel, the big mystery, and the smoky, backlit cityscapes that so often feature in them. But it’s more than a tale of intrigue and instead offers commentary on issues of class, race and societal wrongs.
Backbone is another gorgeous game, too, with beautiful high def pixel art and a fantastic custom soundtrack. In Backbone, you’ll play as Howard Lotor, a raccoon detective hired by Odette Green, an otter, who is trying to figure out if her husband is having an affair. In typical noir style, he’s a no goodnik who is also abusive and distant, and though she still has feelings for him, she’s ready to file for divorce and just wants some proof of his philandering. So, you’re off to The Bite, a velvet roped, dimly lit bar you find out he frequented.
Gameplay in Backbone is served up two ways–some light point and click adventure mechanics and a branching narrative where the choices you make can heavily affect what happens next. At first, Backbone’s story seems pretty par for the course in any noirlike tale. You’re a rough and tumble guy, she’s a damsel in distress, and you’ve gotta go exploring the seedy underbelly of some City to find out what happened to her husband. Dames. It’s always dames.
Pretty quickly though, even before the prologue closes out, you find out there’s a lot more to the story. This is no regular city–aside from its rampant racism and classism issues. There are rules, and the stratification is intentional. You live and die by what your Kind is, and that determines what social tier you can reach. The haves and have nots are predetermined here, with an insidious religious undertone to the rules that serves to help make people comply. There’s far more at play in Backbone than the mystery of a cheating husband, and you’ll soon be wrapped up in something way bigger than an infidelity case.
One thing Backbone does really well within its narrative is set up characters that are interesting and help define its world. Along the course of your investigation, you’ll have to talk to all different kinds of folks, and be given the option to chat with plenty more. Backbone’s city is alive with all different sorts of animal folks, all with intricate backstories, many of whom might just end up proving useful or become enormous obstacles. There’s more than one way to crack an egg in Backbone but most of the time kindness is key if you don’t want to end up in a pickle.
Without spoiling the story the most I can say is that it takes a few turns, and leans into sci-fi over standard noir pretty heavily. It’s also heavy on social commentary. This is true from the beginning, but by the fourth and fifth act, it’s almost all Backbone is about. There’s some really great moments, like having the experience of consenting to a romantic relationship from both sides of it, and the way it abandons harmful stereotypes about everyone from addicts to homeless people and folks with disabilities, and without too much self-congratulation for it, at that. However, it begins to take precedence over the story, and by the time you reach the final moments, it’s become more philosophy paper than game, and focuses less on the fantastic characters and intriguing mysteries of its world than making a chain of “important statements.”
While I enjoyed about 80% of my time with Backbone, its final acts were a true letdown. After all my time exploring the city, meeting people and wondering how it’d all pan out, it just…didn’t. It almost felt like the devs had run out of time to bring things to a satisfying close and went off on a tangent instead. And while developers promise more from the world of Backbone, I was so put off by the non ending I’m not sure I’d want to dive back in, which is a real shame, because so many things were done right, too.
Backbone is available now on Steam with a planned release for Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch sometime later this year.
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