In 2021, Egg Nut Games and Raw Fury showed us that the world of animals was even more gritty and complex as our own with noir pixel art game Backbone. Following raccoon P.I. Howard Lotor, players were thrown into a world of intrigue and conspiracy and were left with some questions hanging in the air. 2 years later, they return to share how it all began with prequel Tails: The Backbone Preludes.
Tails takes place years before the events of its predecessor, showing the beginnings of its key characters. Backbone protagonist Howard Lotor returns, as does reporter Renee Wilson and mob boss Clarissa Bloodworth. Joined by newcomer Eli Abbas, four stories of growth, discovery, intrigue and danger paint a picture of Vancouver’s past. What is beyond the city walls? How did a don’s granddaughter make her mark? What are the authorities hiding?
Slick and Silver-Tongued
The game unfolds in four acts for each of the characters, taking place at different points in their lives. Howard is navigating university life and a budding friendship with his roommate Larry. Renee is pursuing a story that oozes corruption while maintaining her strained relationship with husband Lukas. Clarissa is the young heir to the Bloodworth crime family, stepping out from under the iron fist of her father. And scientist Eli and his colleague Jorge make a discovery outside the city that could shake its already rocky status quo.
Unlike Backbone, Tails takes a much more visual novel approach with very minimal puzzles and more dialogue/interaction. Each conversation gives the player the opportunity to make choices that will impact the story in various ways. And naturally replaying to choose differently and see the outcome is a big part of the Tails experience. This focus showcases Egg Nut’s flair for writing. Each interaction feels natural but charged with currents of ambition, unease, tension and fear. Renee’s sense of justice at odds with trying to save her marriage is both painful and absorbing. Clarissa’s loyalty to her grandfather mingling with the grisly side of the family business is powerful. Also, the ever-present undercurrent of class divide and corruption working its way into the fabric of society is palpable in places.
Hit In The Feels
Those who played Backbone will doubly feel the weight of particular exchanges. That’s not strictly to say you HAVE to play Backbone first, but some of the dialogue has more of an effect from doing so. As three journeys are ultimately predetermined, Eli’s gives you the most control over the outcome. It is also the most tense. Getting a certain outcome for him is quite a challenge, but to say more would ruin the nerve-wracking tension of his final act.
Although dialogue is the focus, there are times when a puzzle is subtly worked in. In Renee’s first chapter, you’re tasked with looking through police reports for her article. Afterwards, you’ll talk it through with Lukas. With visual novels and adventure games, you’re often tempted to just power through the conversation to get to the important bits. Here, however, the finer details are key and you’ll need to do your homework—literally. A particular highlight for me and I was eager for more. But sadly it pretty much stands alone.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The more visual novel style approach will certainly appeal to fans of the genre, but adventure game fans looking for more puzzles will be left somewhat wanting. I myself prefer my adventures with a fair dollop of puzzling thrown in. Aside from looking through the reports with Renee and a later section with Eli, the item interactions—rather than puzzles per se—are mostly optional and a little extraneous. One scene simply involves walking from one end of a location to another and back, only interspersed with sporadic conversation. While there’s no denying the quality of the visuals and writing, it still feels very empty.
Also, having replayability as a core aspect can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Returning and making different choices will influence the scenes, but the main storyline is very short to complete, roughly 3 – 4 hours. The overall pace also makes it seem much shorter, aside from one rather obtuse section with Howard that is time-consuming. Upon completion, New Game Plus mode will allow you to see the paths you took previously. However, there is no way of selecting chapters or revisiting specific points; the entire tale must be played through again. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. But given the number of branches (some characters more than others), many separate saves are needed to experience them all. Again, not particularly a niggle in theory; it pads out the playtime a little more and the branches are certainly worth seeing. But each story ends a little too soon with many things left untouched. Some end right at the most pivotal moments and endings explained in summaries could merit more exploration. Ultimately, it can feel as though replayability is being relied upon a little too much.
With Backbone, Egg Nut showed off their prowess with pixel art with stunning visuals. Tails takes it to another level. Delicate art, parallax scrolling and exemplary animation make for a first-class combination. The attention to detail is superb and transparency and weather effects are used magnificently, as are the lighting and shadows. Some are so smooth they defy the very nature of the art style. Composer Nikita Danshin works her magic once again with a splendid mix of slick jazz and haunting ambience. Original songs also work their way in there, making an all-round delectable post-noir score.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes is a worthy expansion of the Backbone universe with stellar writing and exemplary visuals. But with its shorter play time, reliance on replays and more text-heavy approach, it feels like an add-on rather than an adventure standing on its own. Having to replay the entire chapters each time can be a little repetitive and some story arcs build only to end too quickly. But the different choices are worth seeing through and well-penned – Eli’s most of all.
If you’re a Backbone fan and love a good read, then Tails is definitely worth further investigation. Howard would approve.
A sturdy Silver Award for this dystopian anthropomorphic anthology!
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.