It’s hard to believe that Backbone was a year and a half ago. My memories of it are suitably hazy outside some key scenes, but I remember the visual appeal, its interesting setting, and the fact that its narrative came so damned close to being satisfying and just falls slightly short. The important thing is I wanted more, so I was excited when Eggnut announced their next game would continue the series.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes is exactly that: a set of four short stories that flesh out Backbone’s characters. While it gives more context to what goes on in the narrative of Backbone, what I feel is more important about it is it’s another excuse to descend into the discomforting, roiling pot of pitch-noir narrative that the series is going for. Tails: The Backbone Preludes doesn’t disappoint, but there are a few caveats to that claim.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes (PC)
Publisher: Raw Fury
Released: February 2, 2023
The four stories you’re presented with are all structurally different. You consume them one act at a time, with it alternating between each one until the end. You have Clarissa, the mob boss from Backbone, which follows through her life and rise to power. There’s Howard Lotor, the protagonist of the original title, as it explores his college days and friendship with Larry. Next, we have Renee, a struggling reporter with a commitment to the truth. Finally, there’s Eli, a scientist trying to make sense of his employer’s motives.
This is all set against the backdrop of post-apocalyptic Vancouver, British Columbia. All the characters are anthropomorphic animals (except the geese for some reason), and they struggle beneath a ruling class of apes. Vancouver is held tightly behind sizable walls, beyond which is a wasteland.
While the outside world was kept shrouded in mystery for Backbone, it plays a key role in Tails: The Backbone Preludes. I’m really not sure which should be played first. While Tails is helpful in strengthening the backstory of the characters before going into the central narrative, some of what is shown may weaken the revelations made toward the end of Backbone.
Chasing your tail
You make a series of choices throughout each narrative that somewhat affect the tone of the stories. While it seems like each story is inevitably going to reach the same end in a way to preserve its adherence to Backbone, you have a lot of sway in what truly motivates the characters, how much empathy they show, or how selfish they may be. It’s a bit like Kentucky Route Zero, where many of the choices are more flavor, though there are some where you’re deliberately attempting to convince a character of something.
The art style used in Backbone is still just as captivating. While it uses a pixel art aesthetic, it’s built on a 3D plane. At times, it looks like just clever use of parallax layers, but it’s enhanced by fog and environmental effects. It doesn’t necessarily replicate the feel of older titles, but instead uses pixel art for its own means.
And like Backbone before it. Tails: The Backbone Preludes makes great use of a heavy atmosphere, both through the graphics and the writing. The fact that these characters are all oppressed by the upper class is prevalent, regardless of how empowered they are or their status in life. Despite being distinct narratives, they all feel thematically united. In a lot of ways, the story is a lot more even and better executed than it was in Backbone. While I could rate them on which I found strongest and weakest, they’re all enjoyable, thoughtful experiences.
One area where Tails: The Backbone Preludes disappoints is when it comes to gameplay. It’s clear that its primary focus is to be a visual novel sort of experience. It does make efforts to tie in some sort of interactivity, it just doesn’t do it particularly well. Sometimes you’re just walking. Sometimes there are simply puzzles to solve. Then there are situations where you’re just dragging objects around. They are all used for narrative purposes, which means it isn’t wasted effort, but they are undeniably weaker facets of the game’s design.
The audio design is improved from the first game. Most notably, there’s a lot more music, and it’s executed in striking ways. As a scene progresses, it almost seamlessly transitions to become more intense as the atmosphere calls for it. It fits so well with the scenes that it greatly enhances the texture of the game. This is a huge improvement to the too-often silent situations of the first game.
Standing on its own
The biggest, hardest-to-ignore caveat to all of this is that Tails: The Backbone Preludes feels like it relies heavily on Backbone. While each of the stories is interesting in its own way, they are clearly here to supplement the narrative of the first game. They don’t really succeed on their own, they work far better in allowing you to connect better with the world and characters of the series. It is very successful in that regard, but going into it, you should probably understand that this is a package deal. While you don’t necessarily have to play Backbone first, you should probably go into Tails with the intention of continuing on.
It’s a complimentary piece to Backbone, which can stand before or beside it but shouldn’t be set apart from it. However, in context, it’s a terrific addition to the series. While it isn’t as compelling or fully featured as the first act of Backbone, it is a much more solid experience. The series, as it is currently, is a lot stronger with the inclusion of Tails: The Backbone Preludes. It’s a great collection of fiction. But without Backbone, it completely lacks the ability to stand on its own.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]