At a time where others are busy catching Pokémon and using the Force, it feels oddly cathartic to be a cat-person detective investigating the murder of a boxing coach. November 2019 really has offered a broad spectrum of gaming delights.
Blacksad: Under the Skin plays its cards openly – the graphic novel that serves as its basis paints a picture of an extremely pulpy detective tale set in 1950’s New York, with detective John Blacksad struggling to make ends meet as he traverses all manner of seedy crime lords and thugs to figure out what happened to a famous boxer after the death of his trainer. Blacksad himself, and all of the denizens of these mean streets are anthropomorphic animals that exhibit all the stereotypical mannerisms of the creature they are based on, with Blacksad the cat enjoying the constant threat of his own curiosity possibly getting himself killed.
Enter Pendulo Studios with the colossal task of adapting this rich aesthetic into an interactive experience that remains faithful to those familiar with the series – but still generating appeal to curious newcomers. So how does it stack up?
On the trail of the purr-petrator
The result is a gritty tale of intrigue and mystery; rich with interesting characters that all have a tale to tell, secrets to keep and motivations to uncover. Investigate environments for clues, encounter people to interview and perhaps take the odd punch to your gut from those who want you to back off. As a whole it works beautifully – but once you get *cough* Under the Skin, you can’t help but run into occasional development blunders that work to hamper your overall experience.
Over the 10ish hours that encapsulates Blacksad’s narrative, I routinely encountered a couple of rough points that were hard to ignore. The most prolific was definitely the embarrassingly low framerates. These I am willing to forgive to an extent, as the game’s developers have offered an explanation that a patch is to come that should drastically improve them – however there was no mention of the audio issues that also cropped up. Characters would occasionally speak with no audio whatsoever – lending a great deal of importance to subtitles – and at times would even repeat some of their dialogue unprompted. With the incredibly focused nature of character interactions, these moments served to drag me out of my detective fantasy as they reminded me, fairly harshly, that I was playing a game – and that the game had issues.
What a lovely paw-trait
Another point of contention that deserves a mention is the differing levels of quality throughout the game’s visuals. Blacksad himself is beautifully modelled and animated, giving a proper feeling of life and gravelly personality to his struggle on the streets of New York. This is directly put to contrast by the animation quality of other characters within the game, creating a noticeable disparity that unintentionally serves to clue the player in to which characters may play a reasonably big role within the narrative. That thug that animates like a wooden doll? Likely never going to see him again. His friend, with the wild eyes and detailed lip sync animation? Expect to encounter him again any second now. It feels like a division of labour that likely made sense from a development standpoint – but serves to spoil the experience to a small degree.
Blacksad is not a title that has squandered its potential, rather it just hasn’t fully realised it
This is reflected in the game’s environments as well – the art style of the graphic novel is beautifully reproduced across detailed locations like seedy boxing gyms, diners, street scenes and apartments – so when you are beheld to a place where the effort is lacking, it shows. Even a base level pass of detail, like clutter on the ground or wall detail in some sections, would do a lot to retain that feeling of fantasy as you navigate the world – but instead you end up scratching your chin and wondering if they ran out of time, or simply forgot.
Now, I have to clarify. I have mentioned a lot of negative points so far – but I need to communicate that based on the pedigree of the development studio, these feel far more like honest mistakes than malicious laziness. To my knowledge, this is the second 3D title they have ever produced – and the achievement is worth recognising. Blacksad is not a title that has squandered its potential, rather it just hasn’t fully realised it.
Blacksad can leverage his feline senses to better scrutinise characters and environments, offering insights you could otherwise miss
The gameplay itself can be compared to titles from the late Telltale’s series of games. To the developer’s credit, it’s hard to reinvent a wheel when that wheel is detailing the ability to navigate environments and interact with items. Going into the game I felt a tiny degree of concern that simply due to the nature of a detective-based game I may struggle to identify the elements that would be necessary to solve the mystery, but I ended up praising the environment design for how it would draw my attention to clues without feeling like I was being handheld to each discovery. There is a point to be made regarding how the game plays like a point and click adventure game, with Blacksad serving as your cursor – but in the interest of actually experiencing the game world it’s important that you actively feel like you are in Blacksad’s ‘gum’ shoes.
Insert joke about being ‘Horny’ here
True praise has to be given to the developers for understanding that when you are working on an investigation game, special care has to be given to making sure the player has enough agency to review their progress. Games like Ace Attorney allow you to look over your Court Record to review evidence and clues – Blacksad allows you to review your journal to consider what you have uncovered so far. There is also a fantastic option to view a ‘Story so far’ section that presents your choices and interactions in the style of a graphic novel, highlighting pertinent dialogue that furthers the story. This is a fantastic way to recall a murky thought that suddenly seems relevant, and is exceptionally clever with how it calls back to the series’ beginnings as a graphic novel. Does a lot to keep a moron like me on track.
Another fantastic note is the voice acting within the game – characters just ooze personality from the second you see their animalistic features, so when they speak it is a true delight to find that the VA work is also of a brilliant standard. Blacksad himself exudes all of the expected ‘hard-boiled detective’ tropes, gruff and raspy as he moves from scene to scene sharing his sarcastic outlook. The immediate cadre of ‘main cast’ characters play beautifully off of his dialogue, offering the occasional shot of levity to an understandably dark story. As someone who has read (and owns) several hardback Blacksad titles, it’s exciting to hear these characters out loud rather than in your head – with vocal characterisation that just works.
You gotta be kitten me
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a title that really should not exist in 2019’s development landscape. At a time where developers are pushing for major IP adaptations and looking for any excuse to create a games-as-a-service shooter, a single-player narrative based on a French graphic novel series about a detective cat-person rings out as mind-bogglingly unique. Pendulo Studios have managed to create something that feels unbelievably faithful to its source material, with an admittedly small number of teething problems that really don’t detract from the overall experience. Well worth a play, and perhaps some quiet optimism that it will be successful enough to warrant a sequel that truly shows what Pendulo is capable of.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher