Backbone: Prologue

Backbone: Prologue
Developer: EggNut
Available on
Steam
Price: Free

[2.5D pixel art, outside on a city street in front of a movie theatre. Various anthropomorphic animals are outside with a raccoon in a trenchcoat at the center. Parody movie posters line the brick walls, and the theatre’s marquee says the movies “The Day I Bought a Bike, Citizen Mane, Johny & John, Don’t Drive” are playing.]

The first thing I noticed when I stepped outside in Backbone was how unbelievably beautiful and atmospheric it was. This is exactly what I have been waiting for. This isn’t just pixel art, this is pixel art with layers, dynamic lighting, parallaxing! It’s set in dystopian Vancouver (where the game studio is located as well) at night in the rain, as any good noir should be. I don’t know if that’ll be the consistent weather and time throughout the full game, but I sure hope so! The sound is exquisite in capturing the precise mood: the ambient talking, rain, and even soft jazz in the background helps set the mood so perfectly you’ll start thinking you really fell into this world. There’s so much going on, no detail too small, but it’s not overwhelming either. You can look far up into a window and see different animals just living their lives in their cramped apartments. When you go on a rooftop, the cityscape is just gorgeous. This is some of the best art I’ve seen in a game, period.

This is just the prologue, demo, proof of concept, etc. but this has got my excitement through the roof, and since it’s free I encourage everyone to try it because screenshots don’t do it justice. Seriously. I’m disappointed I missed the Kickstarter for it, but I’m definitely getting a digital copy of the art book. OK! I couldn’t talk about anything else until I gushed over the game’s beauty, but I’m back now.

In Backbone you play as Howard Lotor, a detective who happens to be a raccoon. This is a world of anthropomorphic animals, and from my brief introduction to the world, it seems raccoons are low on the social ladder. He can’t get into clubs and people bully him simply for being who he is—injustice is going to be a prominent theme here. The world is described as a retrofuturistic dystopia by the developer, so I’m interested to see how that will be depicted in the full game. The Kickstarter describes the story being much more than we see in the prologue (enough that I am shocked by the turn the full game is going to take), and I’m sure it will be done well. The glimpse of story and characters we see here are written with the same fine-toothed comb the art was created with.

[Half the screen is the raccoon, Howard, talking to a white dog? bear? in a dress with a beret while she smokes a cigarette. They’re seated at a bar.
The other half of the screen shows Clarissa saying, “You look a little lost.” Howard can respond “1. That obvious?” or “2. I’m exactly where I need to be.”]

Right now Backbone has a mixture of elements where you use both a keyboard and a mouse, which I am not a fan of. See, this is a point and click adventure game and point and clicks are usually played entirely with a mouse. Having to switch back and forth between my keyboard and mouse isn’t something I’m used to when I’m playing a game like this, and it can get confusing and tiresome. I would appreciate if they instead stuck to one method, or at least give us the option to change our controls to that (which I’m hoping they will later) as this is my biggest complaint and an important one.

The gameplay is interesting and has different elements. You start off interviewing the character who gives you a case, but trying to do it without upsetting her to the point where she won’t want to say anything else is harder than it seems. You have different possible paths to solve a puzzle and different dialogue options that can make or break your case. There is even stealth, which usually I hate, but here it actually wasn’t too annoying. The restrictions created by a point and click make stealth much less frustrating than in other genres. This is definitely going to be an ambitious project because I can see from the Kickstarter they’re planning to have some action in the game too. There are many different components to the game that make me curious about what the end result will look like.

[A bird’s eye view of a table littered with various notes, candies, makeup, flowers, magazines, etc.
One note reads, “Darling, could you take a minute to clean?”]

Of course with crowdfunding campaigns developers tend to be more idealistic than they can handle, but from what I’m seeing here I can’t imagine anything they may have to remove or significantly change degrading the quality of the game too far. Even from this simple prologue you can see that Backbone‘s got style.

Kathy Rain

Kathy Rain
Developer: Clifftop Games
Available on
Steam, GoG, iOS, Android
Price: $14.99

Warning in the game for discussions of suicide, abortion, institutionalization, child abuse, drugging, and kidnapping. Also a scary moment with a man being very aggressive and misogynistic towards Kathy. General horror stuff too, though this isn’t a horror game.


I had been looking for really good point-and-clicks when I suddenly remembered someone recommending Kathy Rain to me a long time ago. You’d think something with “rain” in the title would have made me want to try it, but that coupled with the title screen didn’t immediately pique my interest. Silly me!

[Kathy Rain title screen depicting a stormy night, "Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born"]
[Kathy Rain title screen depicting a stormy night, “Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born”]

This is one of the best point-and-clicks I’ve played in this retro-inspired renaissance and definitely a new favorite. You play the titular Kathy Rain, a hilariously sarcastic, chain-smoking journalism student. She has choppy dyed hair, wears a leather jacket and boots, and goes everywhere on a motorcycle—my kind of girl. (Funny enough, the Katmobile is a Corley Motors, and I played Kathy Rain right after watching a Let’s Play of Full Throttle so I got the reference just in time!) Kathy takes no shit. She’s closed off to the world because of her traumatic upbringing, but over the course of the game we see her start to grow into who she’s always been. She’s a very cool character and not the kind usually at the center of a video game.

Taking place in the 90s, we quickly learn that after Kathy’s father left her life, her unstable mother whisked Kathy away from the rural town she grew up in. She hasn’t seen or spoken to her grandparents in over a decade. Eileen—Kathy’s upbeat, geeky Christian roommate—finds out Kathy’s grandfather has passed away and tells her. Kathy ends up attending the funeral, where she reunites with her grandmother. That’s when she finds out her grandfather suffered an inexplicable health problem many years before and his death happened under very strange circumstances. Kathy takes it upon herself to find out what happened to him. While it may seem like an “ordinary” mystery at first, it goes much deeper than it’s set up. Kathy Rain directly references Twin Peaks and gives off X-Files vibes, slowly hinting at the strangeness hidden between the lines. You realize nothing is what it seems and the Black Lodge (or something like it) is closer than it appears.

[Kathy in a living room examining an owl statue: "Very lifelike. Contrary to popular belief, I don't believe the owls are more than what they seem."]
[Kathy in a living room examining an owl statue: “Very lifelike. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe the owls are more than what they seem.”]

Kathy Rain has your standard point-and-click mechanics, but it also has an interesting one I wish we got to use more than once. Borrowing your roommate’s scanner and computer, you can scan and analyze images, and clip together voice recordings to make someone say what you need. Having more of these puzzles would have made it more fun while differentiating it from other adventure games. There’s also two things the genre could learn from Kathy Rain. Adding a “think about” option for when you hover over clickable objects, and how when you may be struggling with a puzzle (which is surprisingly rare, although I did need a guide at one point), Kathy gives helpful commentary to nudge you in the right direction without being too obvious.

What I love about the genre is the often beautiful backgrounds and characters we get. Kathy Rain is no exception, the pixel art here is lovely to look at. The locations are immersive with always appropriate ambience. Some are bright with lots of character and clickables like Kathy’s dorm room, and others are dark and bleak, enveloping the screen in black while still giving us the emotion of the scene. There’s detailed portraits with expressive faces that give us something to look at besides the tiny pixel faces that couldn’t show an emotion even if they wanted to, but the full characters are also well done.

[Kathy talks to her grandmother in a cemetery: "Have we met, hon? You look strangely familiar..."]
[Kathy talks to her grandmother in a cemetery: “Have we met, hon? You look strangely familiar…”]

While I have a lot of love for Kathy, the other characters don’t feel as fleshed-out as they could be. We have a grumpy sheriff, a delusional guy who’s homeless, and a creepily “nice” priest clearly hiding something. They fall prey to these common tropes, but even so the voice acting is great. When I found out the actors were directed by Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye (one of my favorite game publishers), it made sense. Had I known he put his stamp of approval on it, I would have played Kathy Rain sooner. Arielle Siegel especially deserves praise in her turn as Kathy. She perfectly captures her mixture of snarky wit and thoughtfulness. The music was unfortunately not to the caliber of the rest of the game. I was disappointed with the soundtrack, even finding certain tracks grating, but this is a one-man show not by Gilbert but by Joel Staaf Hästö), so I’m not judging too hard. If I could ever write, program, and design a game all by myself, I’d be very happy with myself and he should be!

Kathy Rain is still a complex, narrative and character-driven game that I enjoyed immensely. Kathy doesn’t really know what to expect when she first arrives in the town of her childhood, but at the end of what starts as a family mystery, she’s able to finally get some closure and learn more about herself, her family, and her traumas. As soon as I finished it, I found myself wanting to be transported back to the world of Conwell Springs. Here’s hoping to a sequel!

[An animated gif of Kathy riding a motorcycle on a road that passes through a field of grain.]
[An animated gif of Kathy riding a motorcycle on a road that passes through a field of grain.]

P.S. There’s now a new game by this developer, Whispers of a Machine!

Donut County

Donut County
Developer: Ben Esposito
Available on
: Steam, iOS, PS4, Xbox, Switch
Price: $12.99

You’ve probably played this game seeing as it was Apple’s top game of 2018 (and how I first heard of it). Donut County is a delightfully weird game with a very simple physics mechanic. You’re a hole in the ground and the more trash you swallow, the larger the hole grows, so you can sink more objects into the depths of the hollow Earth.

[Donut County's title screen: a swan sits on a motorized scooter with boxes of donuts for delivery.
Next to it, a hole in the ground swallows the letters for "county"]
[Donut County’s title screen: a swan sits on a motorized scooter with boxes of donuts for delivery.
Next to it, a hole in the ground swallows the letters for “county”]

With a quirky game like this, I’m sure nobody would expect a storyline discussing the disastrous effects of capitalism and gentrification on a city (in not so many words). Donut County was once a place filled with a variety of anthropomorphized animals and at least one human. Raccoons moved in and once they did, they started getting rid of everyone that lived in the city and all their buildings and belongings until only raccoons were left. This game takes that pushing people out of their homes literally and has you do it all by making them disappear into the center of Earth.

The game is short and sweet—I finished it in a couple hours—but it has a surprising amount of dialogue, which I found to be excessive. Most of these interactions are funny and cute, but sometimes it felt like there was a lot less puzzle in comparison to the amount of dialogue. I’ll admit I did enjoy texting as different characters and spamming them with the duck emoji though.

Each chapter begins with a character sharing how their homes were taken from them, leading to a flashback of you doing the deed. The levels start out as basic as can be, but as you progress simple puzzles are introduced. For example, the hole can become full with water so you can’t consume anything else. To clear it out, you move the hole near a bird who drinks it all up, leaving you free to destroy lives.

Donut County‘s concept has a lot of potential with an adorable art style I can’t get enough of. I would have loved to see it taken further. This isn’t to say Esposito didn’t get creative and have interesting ideas (because the very concept of the game is), but the game could have expanded on some of its later mechanics, like the frog and catapult. As I played, it seemed like there would come a time for the puzzles to become more elaborate and require more strategic thinking on my part, but it never really achieves that height.

[An animated gif of a level: someone's backyard in the desert is filled with pots and a few assorted items.
A hole in the ground swallows a chair and a fireplace.]
[An animated gif of a level: someone’s backyard in the desert is filled with pots and a few assorted items.
A hole in the ground swallows a chair and a fireplace.]

But as simple as the game is, it’s just fun. There’s something satisfying about being a hole in the ground consuming everything in sight until there’s nothing left.