If you’re at all interested in solving mysteries or exploring a post-noir, dystopian world, you’ll love playing Backbone. It has elements of a visual novel, but you actually move around the world and have to interact with things and solve puzzles to progress the story.
You play as a raccoon named Howard Lotor, a private detective in a bizarre version of Vancouver. There are zones within the city and a division between animal species that just screams dystopia. Through Howard’s observations and experiences, you come across quite a few stereotypes about people living in certain zones of this post-noir Vancouver and even yourself as a raccoon.
I don’t remember how long ago I initially came across Backbone, but I was browsing through Steam’s free games or prologues and trying to find something to fill a lazy afternoon. After I played Backbone: Prologue, I was hooked. I wanted more of the game as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I had to wait quite a while for the developers to finish working on the game and had to make do with their hilarious Twitter feed that’s full of raccoon memes.
I checked my Steam wishlist and found that I added Backbone to my wishlist in October 2019, and the game didn’t release until June 2021. When the game finally released almost two years later, I didn’t buy it. After seeing quite a few games released with high expectations from the public only to be a disappointment (*cough* Cyberpunk 2077), I was hesitant to buy it before seeing reviews.
Then, the reviews were mixed, and I just kept finding excuses not to buy Backbone and eventually forgot about the game until I saw it on Xbox Game Pass. After finally playing it, I can only say that if a game looks interesting to you, just play it. Critic reviews and user reviews aren’t everything, and your opinions on a game will pretty much always differ from any other individual on Earth.
Backbone starts just like the prologue, with Howard meeting a new client and deciding whether he wants to take on her case. Odette, pictured below, is worried about her husband, who’s been missing for quite a while. It’s up to you to figure out what happened to him and report back to Odette once you solve the mystery.
When I initially played the prologue, I thought the game would be a series of these individual cases, kind of like Sherlock Holmes’ cases. Instead, the entire game spirals from this single case. Howard just keeps finding more and more information, uncovering secrets from all sorts of people while trying to solve this single mystery.
In the game, you can walk from side to side and occasionally climb when you need to. As you’re walking around the world, you’ll see yellow icons pop up if there’s someone you can talk to or something you can interact with. Although the game’s ending is set no matter which dialogue options you choose, your choices make a difference in what you learn throughout the adventure and the perspective you have at the end.
If Howard says something that a character doesn’t like, the conversation usually just ends, and there’s no way to go back and undo your initial choice. So you have to be mindful of what you truly want to say or how much you want to push people for information, at the risk of being shut down or found out.
You have to solve a few “puzzles” to move forward, but they’re pretty obvious. For example, there’s one instance where you need to climb up a building, but the ladder is a bit too high. And then, wow! There’s a tool close by that you can pick up and use to pull the ladder down. These elements of the game were nice, albeit simple, because they kept you immersed in the experience.
It’s definitely a short experience, but all in all, I’m glad I played it. Obviously, I’m not going to give away the ending, but I’ll say that I can understand where the mixed reviews came from. Just like the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, though, you can’t throw away a really awesome thing just because you don’t like the ending.
If you have Xbox Game Pass, you can try out Backbone for free right now. If not, you can buy the game on Steam, Xbox, PlayStation, or Epic Games. Or, if you want to see if the game is up your alley before spending any money, you can play Backbone: Prologue for free on Steam. Backbone is coming to the Nintendo Switch, Apple devices, and Linux systems later but isn’t ready quite yet.