Backbone - Logo

Backbone is an incredible game. It delivers a sharp, pitch-perfect gumshoe narrative with a colorful cast of characters and poignant dialogue, all wrapped up in a gorgeous, highly detailed pixel-art package. It is a truly rare game that fires on every cylinder, with only one or two mild shortcomings that are only noticeable because every other aspect of the game is so excellent.

So what makes Backbone a worthy entry on my list of the best games of the year? Well, let’s get into it.

First, the elevator pitch: You play as Howard Lotor, a racoon private eye in a walled-off dystopian version of Vancouver that’s populated by anthropomorphic animal characters. You’re hired by a distraught gopher who wants you to find her derelict husband and hopefully snap pictures of his presumed infidelities, which she’ll use as ammunition in her intended divorce proceedings to claim custody of their children.

This is already a rather heavy start to a narrative that only gets heavier, but that’s textbook for any self-respecting P.I. narrative. As gumshoe fans will surely predict, you won’t be kicking you feet up after successfully accomplishing this seemingly simple task and calling it a day. Instead, you’ll find yourself on the ass-end of an overarching plot involving murder, scientific aberrations, societal-elite-masterminded intrigue and deception, and an ever-increasing body count.


What I love about the gameplay of Backbone is that, while you are meant to go from point A to point B, there is an open-ended nature to the player’s choices along the way, and also a loose approach to just how much you know at any given time. You are very much playing catch-up in this deadly game. Even though Howard is capable enough to wrap his head around most of it, there is a real sense that you really don’t know perhaps half of what you’re caught up in, and you’re only sinking deeper by the moment.

It’s hard to discuss the story without giving too much away, and Backbone is definitely the type of game you will want to go into as blindly as possible. For the most part, this is a very story-driven, dialogue-heavy game with no combat or quick-time elements. There is a bit of sneaking at times, but it’s very surface level and mostly serves the situations you find yourself in.

Early on, you must gain access to a nightclub frequented mostly by cats and dogs — and is very much off limits for a schlub like Howard. There are a number of ways to get in, some of which require more legwork upfront but get you closer to your goal, others require you to silver-tongue your way in deeper and deeper, requiring adept perception to read people and navigate conversations.

And there are minor physical puzzle elements as well, which do take some general fumbling around with if the objective isn’t immediately clear. I had to sit with one earlier puzzle for quite some time before finally figuring it out, but I never felt like I was doomed to a Google search. Trying to sort of hack your way into a missing teenager’s computer using items found around their family apartment was one of my favorite puzzles I came across.


Backbone presents enough clues that, if you are savvy enough, you should be able to piece together the mystery surrounding you. But you’re also able to collect your thoughts, bouncing ideas off your partner while re-examining the evidence you’ve collected, which is a welcome option.

There are chances that you might fail to persuade someone in dialogue, or completely miss a bit of evidence, thus missing perhaps a small chunk of the greater mystery. This is a nice touch that sort of harkens back to LA Noire and those investigation segments where you could miss something small and end up unequipped during the investigation segments. Of course, Backbone is far less rigid when it comes to grilling people based on what you know — sometimes making assumptions or just plain being a dick can get the job done.

I should mention that I am not a hopeless romantic over pixelated art styles. In fact, I oftentimes am turned off by pixel art. But Backbone developer EggNut has crafted a truly stunning backdrop of a world that is absolutely teeming with life and things to gawk at.

This is especially impressive because Backbone is a 2D game that takes place on a left-to-right horizontal plane. But the parallax scrolling of the backgrounds flows so smoothly, and the little touches make it feel as if it stretches for miles beyond your screen. Apartment windows, with their curtains drawn, offer glimpses into the lives and decoration habits of the creatures that call these places home. Steam billows from pipes on rooftops, patrons line up outside the movie theater, and cars drive by in the foreground. Everything is in its right place, giving Backbone so much charm and character. At one point, you can see the shopkeeper of a local bookstore through their storefront window before you encounter them once you enter the establishment. it’s a simple touch, but an incredibly effective one.

And, I mean, just take a look at a screenshot of a random background.


The characters you encounter in Backbone, whether integral to the plot or completely ancillary, also go a long way towards establishing this world as lived-in and alive. Your dopey cabbie friend and personal chauffeur Mortimer is a personal favorite, as is your thrust-upon makeshift fox partner Renee. But the presumed main villain, Clarissa Bloodworth, is also great; she’s just evil enough to stand in as the presumed big-bad, while also being nuanced and enigmatic. Even the local snack vendor — whom you can choose to help by getting rid of his perceived competition, or tell to scram in order to appease the aforementioned perceived competition — is a well-rounded character for the purpose of the narrative.

The soundtrack also shines really brightly in Backbone, rounding out the whole P.I. presentation. An original “doom jazz” soundtrack by Danshin and Arooj Aftab hits all the right notes. Boozy, sax-heavy riffs further add further moisture to the rain-soaked streets, while pulsating, driving electronica gives an added palpable layer to already-dire straits. My biggest gripe is that the foley work leaves a little to be desired, as not every sound effect perfectly lines up with the accompanying action, and in some cases, the canned effects feel kind of flat. But this a small gripe in a game that, for the most part, sounds incredible.


Backbone is a tour de force that has a surprising level of depth and emotion. You really feel Howard Lotor’s internal struggle of inadequacy and uselessness, but you also get the sense that he does want to help and make a positive impact on the world around him. But what would a good detective story be without some bittersweet sorrow?

In a packed year of solid releases, alongside a ton of re-releases, Backbone stands out for me as one of the best games of 2021.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x