Review for Tails: The Backbone Preludes
With any game that has a choice-based structure, there are usually two ways that decisions affect gameplay. There are games where a choice influences an outcome and has rippling effects afterward; for example, determining if any characters escape a dangerous situation. The second type of choice system makes a minimal impact on the story being told, with branching paths that add significant replay value, but the overall outcome is the same. Tails: The Backbone Preludes exemplifies the latter, integrated to support compelling and relatable storylines and anthropomorphic characters.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes is a prequel to Backbone, both developed by EggNut and published by Raw Fury. The plotline takes place within an alternate version of the city of Vancouver, centered around four characters: Clarissa, a polar bear heiress of a mafia crime syndicate learning how to deal with the changes after her grandfather’s death; Howard, a raccoon who is maneuvering through college life and bonding with his roommate and friend, Larry; Renee, a journalist fox who is balancing her work life with her relationship to her husband, Lukas; and Eli, a scientist who discovers a secret within the wastelands outside the city that puts his trust in his Headquarters to the test. The player experiences all four of the characters' storylines, which do not intersect with each other. This game being a prequel, it is setting up the characters so that first-time players will want to know what happens next. For those who have played the original game, Tails serves as contextualization for the events and characters, revealing how they got to where they are when Backbone begins.
The four narratives are quite engaging. Howard and Larry’s engaging friendship is topped by Howard’s journey to discover what kind of person he wants to be. Renee’s struggles with her police husband are very tragic and gut-wrenching, striking at the heart of what causes a relationship to sour in the first place. Clarissa provides a window into the city’s underworld and portrays how a life of crime affects family relationships. Eli’s expedition is probably where choices feel like they have the most weight and his experiences provide detail for the city’s outer wasteland. Each character and story has its own set of themes, stakes, and world-building, covering everything from the religions of the Shepard and the Goddess to the lore of the criminal mafias and even the college dorm where Howard resides. It makes the environment you explore seem like an alternate reality that actually could exist.
There is also some great world-building in the presentation. The whole game is in 2D pixel art but every environment looks smoothed out and stunning. Most of the levels use the same backdrop, but what makes them feel unique each time is the lighting and shadow effects. Created via the Unreal 4 engine, known for pushing the envelope when it comes to graphics, it is amazing to see just how a simple alteration in lighting can change a locale’s atmosphere, not to mention the shadows affecting the visibility of character sprites. Most of the background music serves to evoke different moods; for example, rock and roll while relaxing in a college dorm or haunting Gregorian chants in a dark underground cathedral during a funeral.
The main elements of both story and gameplay are the stellar writing and dialogue choices. There are multiple occasions where a dialogue option will have ramifications for certain outcomes, even if these alternatives are mild. After every level, there is a tree with branching paths showing what results you have earned. Even if most choices lead to the same outcome, the alterations make choosing your words carefully feel paramount, especially in Eli’s sections. There is a save system, so if you feel that you are unsatisfied with a result, you can try again (though previous saves seem to cut out after a certain number of autosaves). The unique aspect of this choice system involves the “traits.” Traits give exclusive dialogue options that pop up occasionally and are fun to toy around with to see what they can do in terms of modifying the story. For example, you can make Howard “investigative” which will open some observations about characters that you wouldn’t otherwise find. Or giving Renee “caring” can make her more affectionate towards her husband or sympathetic towards the plight of others. This adds replayability because you can only choose one trait, so assigning characters another on a second playthrough will change things up a bit. However, there is no voice acting apart from some occasional grunting, so that means a lot of reading, which, without voices to further enhance the characters, may make the story less engaging for certain players.
The rest of the gameplay is pretty standard. You walk left and right on a 2D plain and click on objects to observe them. There are a few puzzles, one of which is nightmarishly difficult early on only because it is not entirely clear what is supposed to be done to complete it. After that, however, the rest are quick and easy. What you need to do at every level is straightforward most of the time, but there is one section where you can get a bit lost because there is no way to check if your objective is complete. However, this is a minor inconvenience.
Tails: The Backbone Preludes is one of those games that is comparable to a cake. The strong characters and their stories are the main baked good and the choice system is the icing on top of it. While the choices can range from somewhat impactful to just defining a character’s personality, it is in service to the engaging, individual plotlines and a world that feels surprisingly real, even if it is a world inhabited by anthropomorphic characters.