STAFF REVIEW of Backbone (Xbox One)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Backbone Box art I agreed to do the review for Backbone for simply one reason; its backdrop is the city I was born and raised in, Vancouver BC, Canada. Because of this, I felt obligated and looked forward to see how my home was portrayed. I of course smiled and was warmed to see specific areas and landmarks that I know in person, albeit with developer Eggnut’s take on specific areas.

Backbone is not only a unique look at my hometown with a dystopian setting, it also showcases an equally unique story and characters with its film noir setting, political and class issues and some dark themes throughout. Oh, and you’re an anthropomorphic raccoon private detective, and everyone else in the city are different animals as well, which isn’t even the weirdest part of Backbone.

You are PI Howard Lotor, a regular run of the mill detective that isn’t really specially in any way. The day starts like any other with a client coming to your office to hire you. This client suspects her husband as cheating, as he’s not coming home, smells weird and has simply changed from his regular habits. You take the case which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, first leading you to popular nightclub The Bite. What starts as a simple case eventually evolves into something much more interesting and unforeseen, unravelling a mystery and something much larger than you expected.

I don’t want to delve much further into the narrative, as Backbone’s core experience is its story, and it’s quite a ride, even if it is a linear affair, but it’s interesting to say the least. My only complaint is that it drastically goes in a completely different direction in the last half, becoming much more complicated, which is fine, but I just didn’t feel all that satisfied with the ending in certain ways. Vague I know, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

Backbone’s core gameplay is point-and-click in nature, having you exploring different districts of the city, searching for clues and people to talk to so you can further your case. When in dialogue with another character you’re given multiple options of responses, allowing you to play your Howard in a variety of different ways. While it seems like the majority of your dialogue choices don’t matter for the overarching narrative, I could never bring myself to being a jerk or threatening someone unless it was necessary. Some dialogues can be a bit lengthy, but this allows you to create relationships with certain characters, like your trusty cab driver friend who you can call on when needing to get across town. Aside from one puzzle early on in your adventure, there’s no real puzzles either. The bulk of your gameplay is simply talking to people to further where you can go and explore or uncovering clues.

There’s a few sections where you’ll need to rely on stealth to get by some shady characters or when you’re sneaking within an area you shouldn’t be in. These sections aren’t very frequent, and I get that as a detective you sometimes do what you got to do to reach the truth, but these sections didn’t really add anything to the gameplay or happen frequent enough to have a dedicated button for. Speaking of dedicated buttons, one of the oddest design decisions I think I’ve ever seen is being able to swap to another language of your choosing in the settings at the tap of the Bumper. Why? I have no clue, but if you’re bilingual and want to swap on the fly, you can I guess? For some reason, my game once started in the secondary language and I wasn’t sure how to change it back until fumbling through the menus, trying each option.

Where Backbone truly shines is with its amazing pixel artwork and animation. There’s an interesting 2.5D effect being used, and all of the pixels are in HD, so there’s quite a lot of detail when it comes to characters, environments, backdrops, lighting, rain and more. Usually games that utilize pixel graphics lose a lot of details in the smaller objects or within animations, but not here. Honestly, Backbone probably has some of the best sprite work that I’ve seen in quite some time. Everything is very smooth in its animations and there were tons of details I could make out.

The soundtrack is equally good most of the time. Being a noir style adventure, you’ve got that typical jazz and sax in the background, completely fitting for many of the backdrops and what’s happening on screen. The OST is fantastic when it plays. What I mean by that is that when a song gets to the end of its track, it seems to simply stop, many times I was playing with dead air and no audio at all, which felt very odd. There’s also no voice work for the dialogue unfortunately, which is a shame, as it would have added more to the characters and situations.

While I enjoyed my time with Howard, unravelling the case before me, I’ll admit, it won me over early on simply for being based in my home town. Seeing a familiar yet strange version of my city was exciting, and while most won’t have the same connection, that’s what drew me to Backbone initially. While some might question the latter half of the narrative, I’m still glad to have experienced it, and since it’s currently available on Game Pass, you can do so too with little barriers.

**Backbone was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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