Broken Bones

The sunshine feels nice nowadays.  A walk in your favorite park on a pristine afternoon, the rays of heat combining and melting together with the cold breeze of the wind tracing your face in a dance that is as soothing to imagine as it is to embrace.  You hear rumblings from afar, but think nothing of it, as you’re enjoying the picturesque timeline set upon in front of your moving feet.  All of a sudden, the chill gets chillier, you turn around and see a deluge of rain coming towards you at a fevered pace. With no umbrella to shield the incoming attack you’re destined to get wet, and grovel in the ruins of what was once great.

Welcome to my experience with Backbone.

Backbone is a neo-noir narrative adventure following the less-than-great days of Private Investigator Howard Lotor. As a raccoon born among the lower-class citizens of the alternate universed dystopian city of Vancouver, Howard helps others in petty crimes that need more finesse in tipping the scales of justice: no case is below Howard, because Howard doesn’t get a lot of cases.  Working with an otter named Odette, Howard goes out into the cold rainy night to discover the potential marital wrongdoings of her husband, whose recent late nights and off smells have driven a stake into what was once was a promising family.  But when Howard starts to dig too deep he uncovers a plot that has the ramifications to change the city, himself, and the chosen few that surround him.

Above all the things that Backbone does right, developer EggNut takes the vision of a Vancouver ravaged by class warfare and created one of the prettiest games of the year.  From the high-n-tidy highrises and museums, to the damp dark and dingy crevices housing the broke and luckless: each 2D cityscape is sardine-packed with detail and life.  A good portion of my game took me walking the streets and breathing in the world that was made for Backbone, and it’s a fresh breath of air.  Residents of different size and stature fill the streets, but you’ll notice certain predators are suspiciously omitted from casual life.

Enter the political and racial divide of anthropomorphic Vancouver.  While lions, bears, and apes have a presidential-like power over the city and outside its borders, the rodents and animals we humans believe to be pests are treated just the same.  Clubs that only allow dogs and cats in, bouncers calling your character “striper,” and women being treated terribly only flip a few of the sodden pages of the city’s history.  When these are combined with Backbone’s overarching plot, the tale of Howard’s descent into the criminal underworld and its rather disgustingly nefarious attempts at power, you’ll get sucked in and not want to get up.

But that is where the blessings deplete and the curses form.  While trying not to divulge too much of the game’s total plot, Backbone takes a creative freefall in the final third.  What starts with an enticing and attention-demanding deepdive mystery into a cannibalistic mob mastermind plot to shift the balances of power in Vancouver turns into something completely different so quick it’ll give you whiplash.  While the final act could’ve maybe worked, Backbone gives this new chapter no room to breathe and grow, as the game’s 4-5 hour campaign leaves no room for extra lore or explanation.  There are some interesting ideas, but so much is left either unexplained or just brought up and expected to be understood.

The narrative adventure takes another hard hit with the addition of multiple lines for conversation, but the omission of multiple endings, branching arcs, and flags.  With Backbone having only one ending, it becomes noticeable that whatever text is used to shape Howard’s personality through the story does zero to affect the main narrative and no matter how snarky, affectionate, or grounded you are: your story will end the same way.  What really makes this even more prominent is that Backbone’s first act is so ridiculously well made.

Seriously, what happened?  Act I gives a nice paced journey into Howard and the people around him.  You learn about the city and it’s ways; Howard has some walking simulator style platforming combined with a small stealth scene with some humor into how he gets past his problems.  Hell, there’s even a particularly good head-scratcher of a puzzle that had me aha’ing at myself when I finally figured it out.  You get the big twist in what the main plot will be about, and you see how far Howard is in the dumps with his engraved internal depression that puts him on the verge of a complete surrender of care.

But as each act moves forward, the steam starts to dissipate and EggNut seems to be unsure how to stick the landing.  Puzzles disappear and the pace runs on auto-pilot, the aforementioned options of text do little to nothing to change the emotion of you or the characters spoken to, and what started as a promising point-and-click neo-noir adventure becomes a slightly more involved visual novel that clearly ran out of time and was left with a list of failed promises like a too-good-to-be-true Kickstarter campaign.  By the time Act V comes along, you feel like you’re playing a completely different game and then it just…ends, and you’re left with this conjoined feeling of confusion and frustration.

It’s not only disappointing that Backbone ran out of gas during the course of its rather short campaign, but the car also exploded and slapped your mom at the end.  If anything at all, Backbone ranks among the top of what I’ve played this year in terms of graphics and world building.  But the lack of focus on its plot to stay on course and the lack of meat to really immerse yourself in this beautifully crafted world hurt this title beyond repair.

Above all else: if your demo is better than your full release, it’s back to the drawing board.

A Steam code was independently purchased for review.