Backbone, a 2021 adventure game, was one of the hardest games I've ever had to review. The concepts, the artwork, the music, the atmosphere were all right. Not just good—they felt correct. Those pieces of Backbone fit together so elegantly it felt like it was bound to be one of the best indie games of the year. A demo promised a proper murder mystery where you'd solve puzzles and make choices to determine the fate of the world around you. But the full game was nothing like the demo, and to this day the Steam reviews of Backbone are complex and confused.
The taupe word "Mixed" still lingers on the Steam page, but the review section is one of the most considered and eloquent I've seen on Steam. None of them are bashing the game or getting on their knees and praising it. They're on a knife edge where we all understand that Backbone's good elements such as the music and art are offset by a the final act that goes so off the rails that it's only going to appeal to a very particular person. And to recommend that experience to someone could go well or terribly wrong.
A big spoiler warning if you're interested in Backbone: skip the next paragraph.
A key part of Backbone is that the more it progresses, the less choices you can make. This eventually spins into a situation where your protagonist is deathly ill in what could have been an entirely avoidable situation. He strays from the path I would have picked for him and feel helpless as he puts himself in harm's way. It's a meditation on determinism, but going from that involved puzzling gameplay to just letting the worst shit ever happen to the main character… it felt unfinished. It felt like it was missing something.
I was always annoyed that I didn't like Backbone's ending, despite loving its world. Yet while being annoyed, it's always lingered on my mind as an unsolvable conundrum. Why didn't that ending work? Why did it stray so far from what the game began as? That made me all the more interested in the new prequel to Backbone—the story of the people (er, animals) in Backbone before they met and found themselves in that dire situation, and its demo (opens in new tab) is available in the Steam Next Fest right now.
From the very beginning, Tails' vision seems clearer. Though the demo is short, it's cut into four pieces telling the stories of four characters—Renee, Eli, Clarissa, and Howard, the protagonist from Backbone. They're all leading very different lives in very different times in these moments, but there are clear decisions for me to make with each one. You get to choose a mental attribute for each character that determines how they can respond to stimuli later on. For Renee I choose 'logic' over 'care'. For Eli I choose 'realism' rather than 'pessimism' or 'optimism'. I wonder if this way of shaping each character's reaction to the world is the result of Disco Elysium's influence.
The art and music are still stunning. It's pixelated but intricate so it feels more stylised than retro. The noir setting and vibe is carried well by golden lighting pouring out of apartment windows, sunlight tricking through greenhouse glass, and dust plumes sliding over junkpiles. I cannot overstate how beautiful Tails is. Every moment is a screenshot I could use as a screensaver for months. The music is similarly atmospheric and moody, sparse enough to let me think, but present enough to get me in the right mindset for the mysteries and miserable business that could lie ahead.
The strongest section of the demo, by far, is Renne's, a reporter fox that you also meet in the original Backbone. Her environment is the most inviting: I was envious that I didn't live in her rooftop apartment myself. But her section is also the most involved as you have to convince her partner that something about a police report isn't quite adding up. Shuffling through the report and thinking critically about what is missing is the most detective-y I've felt in a game for quite a while, and the right answer wasn't as obvious as I'd expected. Oh, and she's got two little Unpacking-esque moments in which you can clean up her apartment, which is nice.
Now that I've played Tails' demo, I'm getting a little bit of deja vu. Backbone had an excellent, intriguing and clever demo that it struggled to live up to. There was a puzzle I loved in the Backbone demo, and even a stealth section, but those elements didn't rear their heads again in the rest of the game. I don't think Tails will make that exact same mistake again as the decision trees already woven into the game suggest there are more choices to be made and puzzles to solve. But I'm still worried the full game will squander this setup.
I'd give Tails: The Backbone Preludes a go if you're into noir detective stories. Tails' demo at the very least is a good sub-hour romp around one of the prettiest pixelated games I've ever played—and if it ends up like Backbone, you might be better off skipping the rest.