Backbone Review – A Grim Gumshoe Tale

    Title: Backbone
    Developer: EggNut
    Release Date: June 8, 2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Raw Fury
    Genre: Adventure

Many of us don’t really think about what happens each and every day. We sift through the stacks of mundane tasks as we struggle to move forward in life. Yet, we tend to forget that life can change in an instant. And that instant can last forever. This premise sheds light on the story of Howard Lotor, the protagonist of Backbone. Developed by EggNut, this dystopian detective adventure features a strong narrative and breathtaking pixel designs of an alternate universe where the inhabitants are animals.

In the now walled-off city of Vancouver, Howard lives his life as a private investigator. His day-to-day consists of simple PI work–nothing but meager cases. Yet, a new simple case turns his whole life around as he explores the deep intricacies of the city’s corrupt sociopolitical infrastructure. What starts as a case to find out about a strange-behaving husband leads you to a dark truth surrounding the livelihood of those in this city.

To bring the narrative of this world into perspective, Backbone has a mixture of complex characters and a well-written script, albeit a bit too dialogue-heavy and cliche. From the design to demeanor, the various characters present an in-depth look into the dysfunctional dystopia. They range from power-hungry apes to broken-down rats, giving the city a lively and vivid essence.

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On top of that is a rich dialogue full of witty banter and colorful exchanges. You get to learn a lot about each character based on the conversations you partake in with them. The lines are intricate and do well to depict a noir setting. There’s enough strong detail about the bleakness that exists within the current lives of the city folk. There’s also a glimpse into the internal thought processes for the protagonist, ranging from comical to surprisingly existential and philosophical. I thoroughly appreciated the different dialogue options you come upon as you shape the tone and emotional impact some of the discussions have.

With regards to impact, the narrative of Backbone does great with its subtle social commentary. The structure within the city is greatly classist, and the script also touches on the unfortunate effects of bigotry, such as the sexist power dynamics in politics or the racism in different neighborhoods. Though the story’s main focus does not dwell too much on these issues, it’s prevalent enough to add more clarity to the bleak setting.

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While I had fun reading the narrative, I wish the pacing of the story could keep up. There was a noticeable inconsistency in terms of how quickly the narrative moves forward. Some instances are lengthy and drawn out, filled with ongoing chatter, while others have you jumping from one plot point to another in short periods. In fact, the story’s conclusion felt quite rushed, which may leave a bad taste for some people. I think a bit more timing and depth to the outcomes of certain situations would flesh out some details and drive the message home. Regardless, the plot provides the player with a solid immersive story.

Outside of the superb script and the diverse cast of whimsical characters, the creators implemented many details into the environment to paint you a contextual portrait. The cityscapes and rooms all have bits and pieces of information scattered throughout to show you the disparity in lifestyles between certain neighborhoods. You’ll be able to tell which areas cater to the wealthy and which areas are left forgotten. What’s most impressive is how it’s done in such a limited scope, as there aren’t that many environments in itself. Yet what does appear speaks volumes about the societal situation.

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To emphasize the environmental detail is the quality of the art. The pixel graphics are phenomenal and stunning. The use of dynamic lighting and cinematic 3D effects add a powerful punch to the tale. It’s as if the lighting is giving context to the city. While dystopian Vancouver’s circumstances are dreary, there is some light in the midst of the darkness. The team at EggNut must have spent copious amounts of time putting together this spectacle. Whether it be the bright neon signs, the immensely realistic water effects, or the volumetric fog, the high-resolution visuals enhance the story and set the scene impeccably.

I wish I could say the same about the musical soundtrack. The jazzy soundscape is wonderful in some instances but empty and lackluster in other moments. When you hear certain songs playing in critical moments, it feels so atmospheric and satisfying, especially any tunes with vocals. Yet other times, it’s just ambient noise as a backdrop to character conversation. These moments happen a bit too often for my liking.

It’s especially noticeable during immense dialogue-heavy scenes where it sounds almost too quiet. These lulls in these spaces felt so prolonged and desolate; I had my fair share of moments where I struggled to keep my eyes open as I kept reading line after line. While so much of the game immerses you in the setting, these instances genuinely take you out of it.

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The gameplay is mainly in the realm of a point-and-click adventure. You travel to the necessary areas and gather information about the setting and your objectives. There are some other elements throughout the game, but it’s unfortunately pretty barebone.

I was disappointed that the puzzle-solving aspect is mainly in the first hour of the game. I was looking forward to solving more puzzles as I progressed through the story, but the only other elements present were the exploration and a bit of stealth. The stealth aspect is profoundly minimal and incredibly simple to perform, not presenting any challenges whatsoever. Not that a greater difficulty is required, but a bit more pressure would have certainly improved certain intense interactions. It also doesn’t help that the controls were wonky and unresponsive, as I had a plethora of instances in the game where I had to repeat the control inputs. It’s a shame that the gameplay couldn’t delve deeper into any other mechanics outside of exploration.

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Backbone dwells into the dark reality of a dystopian world full of corruption and injustice. Though the game has some gameplay issues and the story isn’t as long and well-paced as I had hoped, it brought a gorgeous cityscape with a comprehensive narrative. The dialogue is well-written, and the plot is greatly engaging, as it keeps you desiring to know what could happen next in the life of Howard Lotor.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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