Backbone: Overview

Relevant for platform: PC

Backbone was created over five years by a Russian-Canadian studio EggNut… Moreover, the overwhelming majority of its employees are Russian-speaking, and at the helm were Alexandra Korabelnikova, main screenwriter and director, and Nikita Danshin, game designer and chief composer. Through Kickstarter, almost $ 100 thousand was raised for the project, and in 2019 a free prologue was released, which immediately and unconditionally made you fall in love with yourself and made you look forward to the release. What happened in the end and why do many gamers and game journalists almost accuse the authors of cheating?

Backbone Launch Trailer

Great start …

In fact, in Backbone there is everything for which the prologue is loved. The game starts off like a typical noir detective story. Only as a private investigator with his not very successful agency here is … a bipedal raccoon named Howard Lotor. We have already seen something like this (immediately, of course, I recall Blacksad: Under the Skin), but it still looks interesting.

And his best friend is a complete hamster …

A pregnant lady comes to our detective and asks to track down her hubby, who disappeared and, as it seems to her, got himself a mistress. Raccoon Howard takes on a case that leads him to a club known throughout the district, run by an influential bear named Clarissa. Sensing that we are not who we pretend to be and are sniffing out something here, she kicks Howard out the door.

Now he needs to figure out how to get back to the club. In the process, we communicate with different characters, somewhere we solve simple puzzles (when, for example, we need to find the numbers of the code, applying stencils to the pictures), somewhere we use stealth.

Stealth is also unpretentious and more like solving a puzzle.

There are even hints of non-linearity. It is assumed that you can get into the club in different ways – through the roof, through the service entrance, where you need to name the correct code words in the “intercom” and impersonate another character. Or seek help from street vendors who want to get rid of each other (we ourselves decide who we get rid of in the end).

All this is accompanied by chic jazz and electronic music and even to songs with enveloping vocals that you want to listen to separately (since there is such an opportunity). Outwardly, the game also fascinates in full – with the help of pixel art, the authors managed to convey the noir atmosphere of an American / Canadian city of the 40-50s of the last century (the action takes place in Vancouver).

The game looks enchanting largely due to the combination of two-dimensional pixel art with full-fledged 3D effects (for example, such is water) and excellent work with light.

Naturally, it often rains here.

Separately, it should be said about the non-trivial and well-written setting. Peace Backbone Is a dystopia about anthropomorphic animals, where monkeys rule. They want to rule everything and everyone and, in order to maintain power, they built the Wall separating the city from the rest of the world. It has its own religion and its own idols, but at the same time science is highly valued – there is even its own Science City.

All this is not told head-on at a time, but gradually comes out and is recognized through conversations, hints, descriptions, excursions in the same Science City and records on a computer. Yes, despite the fact that Vancouver here, judging by the entourage, from the first half of the 20th century, quite modern signs and technologies coexist in it.

Monuments to the leaders? Another sign of dystopia.

… And a strange continuation

But further, beyond the prologue and the first one and a half acts, strange things begin. First, shocking plot twists are rapidly taking the story out of noir and into science fiction, surrealism and delirium. No, of course, the typical detective exercises remain – we find a new partner, or rather a partner – a fox-writer named Rennie and develop a plan of action with her; trying to find out where the girls who worked there disappear from Clarissa’s club; we conduct interrogations with bias, acting out a good or bad cop; we make a break-in into the laboratory of the local “scientific town”.

But the further, the more not noir, but shock, bewilderment and personal author’s statement. Everything was done, admittedly, talented, in some ways even resembles the style David Lynch (David Lynch) and other masters of artistic surrealism. Check out this scene for example:

But the plot itself is slipping, on the one hand, into sci-fi clichés – there are secret genetic experiments, and variations on the theme “Alien in my body.” On the other hand, I repeat, it is shocking, and this was done, it seems, only for the sake of shocking – there is even cannibalism. What the hell is there, noir, jazz and the smoke of menthol cigarettes …

Secondly – and this is the most important thing – the gameplay itself is rapidly disappearing. There really is no stealth, no riddles, and the action promised some time ago on “Kickstarter” only flickers in cut-scenes. What do we get in return? Claims for similarity with Disco Elysium – the authors themselves do not hide that they love this game, and even make references to it.

IN Backbone a lot of characters and dialogues with them. Howard can talk about life and death, about destiny and self-determination, about politics, about whether to love people or not, about loneliness. With everyone in a row – with a partner over a cup of tea, with a homeless person, with girls basking in the sun, with street vendors and even with a goose (not erect, but ordinary).

We also occasionally drink with other characters. Noir seems to be all the same …

All this gives what is happening emotional colors, makes you empathize with the hero. Moreover, both the characters and the dialogues are really well written – somewhere with humor, somewhere with irony. The only pity is that there is no real nonlinearity in these branchy conversations – we, in fact, do not influence the plot. And all this, by and large, has little to do with noir and with the central story.

Talking to the first person you meet about loneliness is quite normal for this game.

Backbone – this is the third recent pixel-noir detective story that has fallen into my greedy hands for review. Compared to Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure and Pecaminosa – A Pixel Noir Game he is the most unusual, but not quite a detective and has a very indirect relationship to noir. Now the authors say that everything was originally conceived – no deception. And that, in general, this is a personal statement on topics of concern to the authors.

In this I see cunning and a good mine in a bad game. Obviously, a slightly different game was originally planned, but in the end we got a beautiful, enticing free sign (prologue), behind which was hidden something completely different – it did not fold into an integral picture (unlike the same Disco Elysium) a set of ideas and elements. There is an interesting setting and a good setting for a cool noir story, which then rolls into something incomprehensible. There are well-written, but existing in themselves characters and dialogues, illustrating the “author’s statement”. There is great style and atmosphere. There is no gameplay. Either there was simply not enough resources here to pull out the plan and connect everything, or I didn’t really want to.

I want to believe (after all, people are talented!) That taking into account this experience, the team will succeed in the next project – it is already known that this will not be a sequel Backbone (here, too, many have questions and bewilderment), and a new game based on the same universe.

Pros: non-trivial, well-written world; colorful characters; great dialogues; chic visual style; cool music.

Minuses: there is practically no gameplay and non-linearity; the detective is also not enough; the story turned out to be, to put it mildly, strange, short and not at all noir in the end.

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