Howard Lotor is a smart raccoon. He strikes me as a charming and self-assured type of fella. But, Howard is also content with the abuses of the authoritative regime in power and compliant with the systemic inequality that permeates his anthropomorphic society. One day, a woman comes into his office, suspicious of her cheating husband. A string of leads stacks one after another and Howard’s entire worldview is put to the test.
This is the premise of Backbone, a noir-inspired detective adventure that offers a refreshing spin on the point-and-click genre with its emphasis on stealth, immersive dialogue and puzzle-solving. Set in a beautiful, dark, dystopian Vancouver, the side-scrolling streets are filled with clues to uncover, mostly from the people you meet amongst the streets, restaurants or shopfronts. As a private investigator, Howard is determined to follow every new lead behind volumetric fogs and under neon lights in a sprawling city.
Navigating through the city is relatively straightforward. There are visual prompts which indicate whether you can interact with items or people, all done through a point-and-click system. Sometimes this feature felt a little clunky, but it’s hardly a dealbreaker for a game that has so much to offer. As you progress through the game, you’ll incorporate stealth mechanics and solve light puzzles to find your next clue or safely escape from not-so-friendly individuals. Getting caught isn’t so bad though, as you’ll retract by a minute or two saving yourself the frustration.
Backbone is a 2.5D pixel world and is lovingly rendered with such detail and luscious lighting that it’s amazing how alive the city feels. Bustling restaurants, full taxi cabs, sky-rise apartments with tenants busy in their digital worlds; Backbone’s recreation of Vancouver brings vivid sensations of the nightlife. But, it’s the characters that Howard meets and their unique stories that take Backbone to a level of immersion found in more in-depth RPGs.
It’s no surprise that Egg Nut draws inspirations from classic CRPGS as you can see the investment in building believable experiences through fruitful dialogue. Dialogue is broken into trees for you to choose, and conversations are funny, tense and suspicious. You’re encouraged to choose your tone in a lot of your dialogue and can sometimes lead to your demise or a seamless path to the next clue. For example, it’s probably not a good idea to threaten the bouncer outside the nightclub you’re trying to get into.
But in other scenarios, I enjoyed understanding the issues that the people in Backbone deal with. I feel empathy for Larry as he shamefully admits his addiction to drugs. I sense the aggravated fear in a squirrel’s voice as he tries to threaten you for poking into his secretive business. It’s the careful detail to their personalities and experiences that allows Backbone to compete against games that are known for their rich dialogue such as Divinity: Original Sin or Pillars of Eternity. I wanted to hear more from the people I spoke to. It’s a rare achievement, and Backbone has a lot to say.
The soundtrack is simply breathtaking with its original jazz tunes and bebop and cinematic soundscapes. It could almost serve as the perfect soundtrack for studying or focusing on tasks. The ambience is also crisp and fits perfectly in each scene; rain patters on pavements, dishes click together in the sink or cars honk along a busy street.
All of this was enough to captivate me for one hour. Backbone is a window into a gloomy Vancouver, but pixelled with enticing secrets (especially after that cliffhanger) that I can’t wait to discover. The citizens of the city are intriguing, and the gameplay promises an engaging experience. There is no mistaking the passion that was poured into Backbone, and this is a game you need to keep an eye out for.
Backbone: Prologue is available on Steam now. Backbone is set to release in 2020.