The world of the detective noir is somewhat intriguing; a place where I’ve always wanted to spend some time. I think it’s the idea of owning a private detective agency, going on mysterious cases, smoking cigarettes, wearing a hat, and self narrating my own adventures that are of the biggest appeal. Thankfully these can all be lived out in the neon-noir, Backbone. It’s here where you play a down on his luck P.I.. but instead of falling into the life of a standard human, you are a raccoon, in a hat, smoking a cigarette. In fact, the world itself is full of clothed animals – from mice to foxes. But you know what? That isn’t the strangest thing about this game. Let me explain further.
Backbone is a game that is immediately interesting. What really surprised me though was how strange the game can be. In fact, the way the game adds so many different threads to its storytelling and narrative will maybe put a lot of people off. I’ll admit to being confused as the conclusion was reached, but I’m still not sure whether that confusion is a good thing or not. Let us start at the beginning.
You play as a raccoon, the private eye Howard Lotor who is not a hero, definitely not special, and not a particularly good detective. In his office/home, he gets a case from a client, focusing on a wife whose husband is suspected of having an affair. She wants Howard to prove this and find out where he has gone. Howard hunts the man down, tracking him to a nightclub called The Bite, and it is here where he discovers a terribly disturbing secret – one which turns his world upside down…
The story is a bit of a tale of two halves. In the first half, it all plays out like a true detective novel, taking you on a journey as you go about trying to solve a case. You meet a bunch of treacherous people and a case unfolds that is bigger than you once thought; delivered via a story full of intrigue and mystery. In the second half of the narrative, that story turns into an extreme sci-fi or fantasy tale; it is here where I lost the thread, all as it becomes something much more complicated.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely admired what the writing was trying to do and it’s very clever and interesting, but I’m not sure it is entirely successful in the delivery. However, the dialogue and characters are great and well-formed with funny and strange outcomes and I’ve very much relished the world-building, taking in different animals in a human world. This alone is both interesting and dynamic.
The gameplay works like an old-fashioned point and clicker but is much simpler than a normal game of this type. You collect items around the levels, but it’s quite light in terms of inventory management; there isn’t ever the need for any complex combining and you certainly don’t need to gather items all the time to progress the story. Instead, most of the adventure is spent chatting to people, following leads in regards where to go next. And whilst the dialogue trees offer many different choices, they do often lead to the same outcome.
There are little puzzles to solve in Backbone too, but none are as complex as you might normally find. These are complemented by the use of a crouch button and this means there is some stealth to be had in certain sections. What this does mean though is that if you are a fan of the gameplay mechanics of a normal point and click affair, then you might find the lack of options here to be a bit disappointing. I personally found the narrative drive the most interesting part of Backbone, so wasn’t concerned by the gameplay itself; the story alone pulled me through the five hours or so needed to complete.
Visually, Backbone is stunningly, employing a form of pixel art style that is wonderfully full of colour and imagination. But it’s when the game comes alive in the street scenes where we see the 2.5D effect used most wonderfully, as the living, breathing, neon city unfolds. The character design is good as well, pretty inventive in what has been created, whilst the soundtrack comes with some attractive moody jazz tracks and brilliantly original music sections. There is however no voice-over to be had in Backbone, and personally I feel this is a bit of a shame; it would have added a lot more depth to the game.
It’s certainly enjoyable to spend some time in the world of Backbone. It’s a place of imagination, noir detective thrills and of animals wandering around in human clothes. Point-and-click fans may get frustrated at the ease of the gameplay and whilst the narrative is good, it does get a bit confusing towards the end, trying too many things. But at the same time, the inventiveness of trying something different just has to be applauded.
If you’re looking to fulfil some private detective fantasies, you can’t go too wrong with Backbone.
Backbone is available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S via the Xbox Store
- Inventive world building
- Dialogue and characters
- Visuals are stunning
- Narrative tries to pack too much in
- Ultimately, a lack of gameplay
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Raw Fury
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 28 Oct 2021
- Launch price from - £20.99