I stopped looking at games to back on Kickstarter quite a while ago as it just seemed to encourage developers to take far, far too long to actually release something meaningful. To that point I’m still waiting on another 5 games that I’ve backed to be released, some of them with expected release dates as far back as 2015. However every so often I do come across another game that just so happens to be raising funds via Kickstarter and, if they intrigue me enough, I’ll chuck a few bones their way so I can ensure it sees the light of day. Backbone was one such game, coming to me via the /r/indiegaming subreddit, catching my eye with it’s incredible pixel art and well realised noir aesthetics. Whilst those things that first attracted me to it are still very much there the developers have been crushed under the weight of their own ambition, the game initially playing extremely well as a noir detective piece before rapidly descending into a mishmash of various story elements before wrapping up abruptly. I’m not alone in thinking this either and the most scorned among the reviewers are the backers who’ve been along with Backbone for its long development journey.
You are Howard Lotor, a racoon kin private detective who lives in a dystopian future Vancouver where all different races of animals live in a disquiet harmony. Your day starts out like any other, a client comes in and wants you to check in on her husband that she suspects of cheating, the usual thing. You don’t really have a choice but to take the job and you set about trying to figure out whether this previously upstanding man has reneged on his vows or if it’s just one big misunderstanding. That sets you down a dark, gruesome path where you uncover just how corrupt and rotten the town has become, leaving only you to try and save it from itself.
The pixel art of Backbone is absolutely top notch, utilising all the techniques from game developers of yesteryear to convey far more visual information to the player than handfuls of pixels rightly should. It’s also blended in seamlessly with a few modern effects as well like the subtle shifting of different background elements as the camera moves around or the incorporation of 3D shaders to give certain scenes a whole lot more depth. I have no doubt that the majority of the development effort was focused on getting these visuals just right and it shows. Of course things don’t look as great when the camera is zoomed all the way in but thankfully the devs knew enough to not do that too often.
Backbone is probably best classed as interactive fiction, given how linear the gameplay is. There are elements of the more traditional point and click adventure genre, as well as some minor visual novel parts, but realistically the game is on such heavy fixed rails that those parts don’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things. That’s definitely a plus for gamers who are seeking more of a casual experience although there’s definitely threads peppered throughout the game that speaks to a desire from the developers to build out a more full featured experience. This, combined with the rather abrupt change in narrative pace and direction in the game’s last quarter, is what has drawn most of the criticism levelled at Backbone and I’m afraid to say I agree with the majority here.
To be sure the base game elements here are solid. The interaction between characters, done in bite sized chunks of dialogue in visual novel style, keeps you solidly engaged with the narrative and makes even talking with inconsequential NPCs pretty enjoyable. The developers also did a great job of building up the initial story, setting up multiple plot lines for you to follow in each section so that, whilst the overall narrative is largely the same, your playthrough will likely differ in small ways which (larger issues aside) would make multiple playthroughs worthwhile. The problem seems to stem from a point where the developers decided they had to get something out and took an axe to their original vision.
Given I had taken my usual low-information diet approach to Backbone I wasn’t really aware of much beyond the first trailers but, going back to them, it’s clear that the developer’s ambitions were for something a lot bigger than what was released. There’s multiple different mechanics shown in that trailer that don’t make an appearance at all and, from what I’ve read on the various forums, the demo that was released was also quite more fully featured as well. Given that I thought that the majority of the game was pretty well fleshed out it likely means that the devs decided that they had to let go of some of the larger goals in favour of actually getting something out, even if it was a year after the planned release.
The main victim of this though is the narrative. It sets itself up extremely well, playing through the standard detective noir tropes but doing it so well that it’s just an enjoyable story to be a part of. The characters are all given ample time to develop and, in good interactive narrative fashion, you have a great deal of control over who you are in the story, but not a lot of control over how events proceed. This then falls down in the game’s later chapters where it becomes clear that a turning point was meant to be an opening to the game’s second major act instead turns out to be its ending. It’s a shame as the game builds up so well until that point, leaving you wondering if you somehow got the “bad” ending without meaning to (pro tip: there’s only one ending).
Backbone unfortunately tells the tale that many Kickstarter backed games do: one of lofty ambition that has to be cut short in the name of actually releasing something before you go broke. All the right ingredients of a great game are right there: amazing art direction, great writing for the core narrative and simplistic mechanics that don’t bog you down between core story beats. However the game’s later moments stumble awkwardly, seeking to rapidly wrap up the game’s narrative quickly without exploring them more deeply as was originally intended. It’s a shame as I, along with many others, would’ve loved to see the story given the treatment that we all think it deserves.
Backbone is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 3.3 hours with 42% of the achievements unlocked.