Backbone is a game that starts off one way and ends in a completely different way. I know that sounds vague, but stay with me on this. It uses the trappings and tropes of noir detective stories and point-and-click-style adventure games to tell a story that goes into some really cool and really weird directions.
The game begins with you assuming control of Howard Lotor, a raccoon man detective, oh yeah: all of the characters in this game are anthropomorphic animals by the way, who takes on a case to find a client’s missing husband that takes a gruesome turn. From there, the story takes some very swift turns and goes in a different direction from “find a missing husband” and it’s all really interesting to see. As the game goes on, you are introduced to more characters who have their own motivations and goals, balancing themes of racism, class inequality, political corruption among other topics, and even introduces different viewpoint characters towards the end.
All of this is done wonderfully and the one issue I have is that it just sort of…ends as everything is getting good. But that’s primarily because of the aforementioned multiple POV characters and the abrupt ending being attributed to one POV character simply fulfilling their purpose to the story. It has me seriously interested in what other games in this setting are going to be dealing with.
As a game, Backbone works like an adventure game with some limited platform traversal where you talk to the various characters in the world and solve puzzles to progress. The conversation system takes center stage as it is the main way you interact with the world and highlights how efficient the writing is in the game. No word is misused or wasted, everything has a purpose, and it all ties into the aforementioned themes of the story and the investigation Howard is on. There are various tones you can take in conversations to better get the answers you need from those you are talking to and it changes their attitude towards you based on your responses in a way that made it feel like I was committing to and fucking up conversations in a good way, and that's not even taking into account the fact that you can also do the whole “assume a fake alias to make them more receptive to you” bit that’s in most detective stories.
It’s fantastic stuff and while I can’t get into specifics regarding spoilers, there was one bit near the end that ripped my heart out and I’m still not okay. That alone has me genuinely feeling like Backbone is probably one of the best-written games of 2021. Lastly, there’s the music by the duo of Danshin and Arooj Aftab and the art style, both of which do a fantastic job of highlighting and setting the Noir tone of the story it tries to tell.
I finished Backbone two days ago and while writing this, it just dawned on me that it’s probably one of my favorite games of the year. The strength of its narrative and its willingness to subvert itself carry it through and while it has its issues with the abrupt ending, it’s not enough to dissuade me from recommending it. If you like a good noir story that can get weird, give Backbone a try.