REVIEW: Tails: The Backbone Preludes is the missing piece to the Backbone saga
Early on in VGG's life and streaming career, we played a little game called Backbone. It featured a racoon detective, deep noir vibes with a pitch-perfect jazzy soundtrack, and a wholly original animal-centric world. To put it plainly: it called to us. But at some point in the game, things drastically shifted. The tone, the gameplay focus, the story. It was bold, but it went against everything we were expecting and left us cold. It felt like so much was missing... like things came out of left field and surprised us. I think I found the missing piece with EggNut's latest — a vignette-focused, choice-driven prequel to Backbone that makes everything they did in the first game retroactively so much better and stands on its own as one of the most effective story-driven games we've played here at VGG.
Let's dive in.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: Feb. 2, 2023
Review key provided by Sandbox Strategies.
EggNut made a splash with their debut release Backbone, getting placement in a ton of indie showcases and having its demo featured in one of the first Steam Next Fests, right as the pandemic started. That's how the studio first caught our eye, and now, just two years later — presumably with the heavy work of building their engine and tools out of the way — EggNut is back with a more than worthy sequel-prequel.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes tells four short stories set in its animal-driven dystopian Vancouver, telling the tales of four people with direct connections to Backbone in short vignettes delivered in linear succession.
First comes Clarissa Bloodworth, the daughter of a mob boss looking to make a name for herself, whose story starts at age 7. Her Kind (the stand-in for race in Backbone's world) are bears, and their calm ferocity comes through in their depiction as a family of string-pulling mobsters. Her story shows her "getting into the game" piece by piece, before reaching the eventual "force to be reckoned with" status that she's achieved by the time players meet her in Backbone.
Then there's the eventual hero/protagonist of Backbone, Howard Lotor, who dons a sweater vest instead of a detective's trench coat. We watch his growth as a photography student in college, and more importantly his friendship with Larry, a fellow raccoon who keeps him sane throughout the college years. The insular nature of college life and the ephemeral "our lives will never be better" feeling prevails over Howard's mostly low-key adventure, but it sets up so much of the juice that awaits in Backbone.
There's Renee Wilson, a fox-y... fox journalist whose passion for uplifting the downtrodden through her writing bites her in the ass, dropping her into dangerous situations in Backbone and causing marital stress in Tails. After covering a string of controversial cases, culminating in one especially difficult building fire, Renee finds her professional and personal lives butting heads in ways she never expected, bringing into question her ability to set aside her beliefs in both areas.
And lastly, there's the story of Eli Abbas, the one brand-new character in Tails whose story was probably most sorely missed in the original Backbone. Eli is a scientist who — along with his partner Jorge — is "beyond the walls" of this dystopian Vancouver city, studying a frightening sentient sample found deep in some bunker in the wastes. Everyone in the city has been told that everything "beyond the walls" is dangerous and not worth exploring, and yet these two seem to be on the verge of a fantastic scientific discovery. The uncertain nature of their discovery and how it will be accepted by their overlords back at HQ makes their story the most stressful of the batch.
Each short story is packed with emotion and bears surprisingly high stakes, even when you know some of these characters make it through the circumstances and show up just fine in Backbone. And even for someone new to the game's world, without any preexisting emotional connections, there's deeply relatable storytelling at play in Tails. Not knowing what life after college will be like, standing up to your father who is stuck in the past and bringing his family down with him, sticking to your beliefs even if it hurts someone close to you, and making hard choices for the betterment of everyone — even if it means you might get left behind.
Seeing just a snippet of each of these lives, cutting off at some intense emotional punctuation mark or powerful cliffhanger, before continuing on with the next story in the line... it creates this anticipation for when you cycle back and excitement for the story you're reentering next.
Backbone's greatest narrative issue was the feeling that it abandoned its roots and ideas for surprise and shock. Tails avoids that by telling four distinct stories and keeping your expectations in line for what each story has in store from the get-go. Tails serves the original game amazingly, offering up backstory and emotional depth to each of the major players in Backbone while setting up the science-driven mystery that the original game kind of just springs on you. It accomplishes so much with so little time and the writing is stronger in some of these vignettes than in some full-length releases.
"Sticking to established traits and ideas while attempting to give players agency in building up a character in a prequel is a hard tightrope to balance, but EggNut pulls it off."
It isn't all perfect though. Some stories feel rushed to their conclusion in order to set up the characters where they need to be for Backbone — particularly Clarissa's, which is disappointing because her depth was a great addition.
And it's hard to tell if Tails actually does work on its own narratively, without the knowledge of what awaits you (and these characters) in Backbone. The relatability is, of course, key to making this work on its own. But if you are taking in this universe and its characters all for the first time alongside catching up on the backstory, it might be a lot.
I'm inclined to say it works either way, but if you start here rather than with Backbone, your mileage may vary.
One of the reasons the story soars so high this time is Tails's gameplay decisions. Where the first game sets up an initial stealth focus and a "multiple solutions to one puzzle" format in its first half, giving way to a much more linear drive to the finish line in the second half, Tails keeps its focus on choice, consequence, and discussion from start to finish.
Throughout Tails's vignettes, you'll control everything the four characters say and decide, shaping not only how those around them react but how each of their personalities forms. Will Clarissa's rise to power be powered by ambition, cunning, or innate power? Will Howard's drive to eventual detective work be because of an investigative, sarcastic, or social drive? No matter your decision, you'll see some aspect of that reflected in the version of the character you find in Backbone.
Sticking to established traits and ideas while attempting to give players agency in building up a character in a prequel is a hard tightrope to balance, but EggNut pulls it off. I felt like my version of the characters were true to what I wanted them to be but never felt like they'd strayed too far from who I remembered them to be in Backbone.
As you make these decisions, a complex decision web is mapped out, showing your path to the finish line. It establishes that, yes, every character ends up at the same point — because of course they do, with their established start points set up for the narrative follow-up in Backbone — but shows the path there is just as twisty as ever.
This promises tons of replayability (one full playthrough will take you around 5-6 hours), but it unfortunately doesn't make playing through again any easier on the player. There's a New Game Plus option that seemingly just allows you to see what choices you made the last time through, but... nothing else.
You can't jump to major decision points. You can't replay all of one character's storyline in one go. Even looking back at past decisions simply overlays your last run's decision tree, rather than filling out one big one to show what you have and haven't yet experienced across all your playthroughs. Going back through means going back to the beginning, and it's one of the few major negatives I had for a game so built for replayability.
There also remains the issue that some of your dialogue choices feel like they head in directions you didn't see coming and did not intend, but that's an issue with so many games with choice-driven gameplay that it's hard to hold Tails to task for it. But be careful when guiding one of your animal pals down their paths. Because remember... getting the chance to go back and remake your decision means going back through it ALL.
Back on the complimentary side... there are fun diversions amidst all four stories to break up the narrative fun. Each story has its own unique themed gameplay element to break up the walking and talking. Howard puts his degree to use and will take photos. Renee will take a break from writing to organize her busy mind with Unpacking-like organization sections. And Eli has some light puzzle work in the form of... SCIENCE.
Where Backbone introduced mechanics and saw them fade away over time in favor of pushing through its story, Tails is clear with its intentions from the start and uses fun little cutaways to treat its players to something new. If there's anything that Backbone nailed that Tails doesn't bother tinkering with too much, it's EggNut's established artistic style. There's the incredibly jazzy post-noir soundtrack from Nikita Danshin that brings so much life to even the most mundane-seeming scenes of two characters talking. There's the incredibly detailed pixel-art, shading, and animation work that can transform what should be absurd — a wolf crying on a couch, a bear holding onto life on the floor, a painful goodbye between friends who happen to be raccoons — into something so much more emotional.
Add in short little vocal stings from a surprisingly robust voice cast (considering the fact that no actual lines are read aloud), plus the number of unnecessary details added into scenes that are only there if you look for them, and you've got a game filled with so much care by a team that's clearly passionate about the world they've set up.
This is what I wanted out of EggNut all along.
On its own, it's a series of extremely effective short stories about the ways people's lives can change: how one conversation or decision can alter your life's course. How even when you know or can feel what's waiting for you on the other side of any single moment, sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop it.
As part of the package that is Backbone, Tails makes everything better. The first game retroactively increases in quality thanks to this experience, and when taken as a bundle, the Backbone experience becomes a must-play. I can't say for sure, but I felt that if I had just let this run into the original, the whole collection may be one of my favorite things I've played in a while.
At its price point, there's no doubt you should give both Tails and Backbone a try, because EggNut found its way to something real special in the end.
Video Games Are Good and Tails: The Backbone Preludes is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)
+ EggNut's aesthetics thrive, four unique stories with excellent writing and solid choice-driven gameplay, prequel makes the original so much better
- some stories feel rushed in final chapters, options for replaying narrative choices are lacking, might need the context of the original game to work
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