Maybe Six Lives Lost
Before this review, I was vaguely aware of Blacksad. A French comic series starring an anthropomorphic cat that solves gritty crimes, I was always interested but never found the chance to read the comics. When Blacksad: Under the Skin was announced, I decided it was finally time to jump on. I read and loved all the comics, and now I've played the game. I just wish I loved it to the same extent.
You play as John Blacksad, a private detective and World War 2 vet living in 1950s New York City. Just as he finishes a job, an old friend and a woman enter his office asking for his help. The woman's father, the owner of a gym, has committed suicide and his champion boxer is missing right before a big money-making fight. Blacksad needs to find him and make sure that the fight happens. There are various twists and turns along the way as the mystery continues to deepen. Soon there's a profession-wide scandal rocking the sports world.
Cats and Dogs Living Together? Madness.
There's a bit of a question of where exactly Under the Skin takes place in the comic (if I had to guess I'd say between volumes 2 and 3 at least), and it has been straight-up called non-canon. Still, there's quite a lot of love for Blacksad's lore here. From little references and background details (I noticed a businessman had one of Sergei Litvak's paintings in his office) to minor characters making cameos and even playing important roles. It captures the source material perfectly, and it really appealed to me as a new fan of the comic.
There's plenty of characters that you meet as the mystery unfolds. Some are right from the comic, like police detective Smirnov or nosy reporter Weekly. Others are original characters for the game, with professional boxer Bobby Yale and victim Sonia Dunn being a pair that really stand out. Each character is fantastic, and the little interactions between them and Blacksad really make things click. One segment, where Blacksad and Smirnov are sitting around a hitman waiting for him to come to, takes a hilarious turn when he starts to stir and Smirnov quickly jumps up like an excited dog (since, you know, he is a dog) and asks Blacksad if he wants to be good cop or bad cop.
Like many story-driven adventure games, you'll be making choices as to how Blacksad responds to the situation. Often he's given a few different responses, and characters would react in kind. Quite early in it's pretty obvious that there aren't really divergent paths in the game. Under the Skin has one story, and at most you'll just be picking how Blacksad reacts to it. You can't miss clues or find hidden scenes based on what you say.
This can work just fine if the game does a good job hiding it. However, Under the Skin makes this far too obvious. One example comes when Blacksad runs into a gangster named O'Leary, who offers to help Blacksad with the case. He brings Blacksad to the missing boxer's apartment and asks him to share anything that he finds. After I searched the apartment I found a rather major clue, when I noticed I could leave either through the door or the window. I figure this was the game's way of picking "tell O'Leary what you found, or avoid him." I chose to go through the door because I wanted to be honest with O'Leary and keep in his good favor for now. However, upon leaving, the narration promptly took over and Blacksad decided for me that he wasn't telling O'Leary anything.
The Only Choice is No Choice
As I played, incidents like this kept happening. Another section saw Blacksad watching an interrogation. You're given the choice to just watch, knowing the interogge will probably be killed, or to step in and try to save him. Should you choose the latter, the interrogator promptly shoots Blacksad, resulting in a game over. At one point Blacksad talks to a drunk rich dude who suddenly falls over and begins to choke on his own vomit. You're given the choice to try to save him or let him die. If you choose to save him you'll continue the story. Should you choose to let him die, you get an instant game over and have to go back to save him. Why even give choices if there's no effort to respect the player's wishes?
When you're not making choices you'll be investigating crimes. A large chunk of investigations is done by simply looking for a point in the environment that you can interact with and hitting a button. Sometimes this will lead to zooming in and seeing multiple options. The problem is that, often, these sections are hard to find and usually mean you're pixel hunting. It's simply not fun walking circles around an area hoping to stumble across the interact button. Sometimes smaller objects are placed on top of or overlapping with other objects, and this always means difficulty in getting the correct one.
It's especially bizarre when special care goes into making mechanics out of Blacksad's apparently superior sense of hearing, smell, and sight. Occasionally, when talking to people, you'll cut into a mode where you can zoom in and pick up on minute details that a normal human would never notice. The mechanic is fine and makes sure to tell you where to look so you don't end up pixel hunting too much. But why couldn't this also be used to, say, highlight objects you can interact within the environment? While it never gets as bad as some classic point-and-click adventure games could, it's still often a frustrating waste of time.
As you learn more about the characters and discover more clues, you'll gather hints that go into Blacksad's mind. At certain points, you can open up Blacksad's mental thoughts and combine hints to give him a better idea of what to talk to characters about, or where he should go next. The system is fine, but a few times hints don't really match up in a way that makes sense. I know at least one segment where I literally tried every single possible combination to find the right one, and I still don't get how I matched the two together.
How to Lose One of Nine Lives
I know all of this isn't really sounding great too far, but I'll admit I found Under the Skin compelling in a weird sort of way. Sure, I was often annoyed or confused, wandering areas looking for a single interaction point, but I was so into the story, setting, and characters that I didn't mind it. Each new location is frustrating, giving me new ways to get lost, but equally compelling and gives me new little interactions to explore.
Occasionally, someone decides it's time to stop Blacksad, and a fight breaks out. Like many adventure games in this style, the fights are just quick time events. There's nothing wrong with this, and they work well enough. Many of the fights are a bit iffy animation-wise, and they look clunky. A few creative ones really manage to stand out from the crowd though. One fight, which has Blacksad jumped in an alleyway by two thugs, has the whole fight highlighted by shadows against one of the walls. It's clever, fits with the theme well, and is fun to watch.
There's one hurdle the game clearly can't pass, and that's the glitches. Simply put, Under the Skin unquestionably needed more polish time. In my original impressions piece, I noted how Blacksad was forever trapped in a basement. The name of this article was almost "Help, Blacksad is forever trapped on a forklift" because I almost ran into another of these situations. A segment where I had to drive a forklift around caused the game to crash every time I tried a specific interaction point. Thankfully, I figured a way around it. Besides total game-breaking issues like those, Under the Skin is full of weird minor stuff. Voice lines are clearly missing, subtitles display at the wrong time, scenes seem to linger on nothing for 5+ seconds, characters sink into the floor or use weird out of place animations, lines are obviously not lip-synced to the characters. It just looks and sounds awful at times.
This is a shame because when it all works I was really digging Under the Skin's audio and visuals. The voice acting is a bit all over the place, and Blacksad mostly sounds tired and old, but it seems to work in a cohesive and genuinely good way. The art feels true to the comic, right down to Blacksad's weird chin. I have questions about that chin, but we'll save that for later. There's a wonderful jazzy soundtrack that fits the game perfectly, putting you in the mood for gumshoeing around 1950's New York one moment and erupting into a chaotic drum and horn-filled mess during fight scenes.
Blacksad: Under the Skin Review | Final Thoughts
Honestly, I wish Blacksad: Under the Skin was better than it actually is. I love the story, setting, and characters so much, and was always enthralled by my time in the world. On the other hand, the investigation has too much pixel hunting, the choices are all obviously fake, and there's just an obscene amount of glitches. If you're a fan of the comic, or just looking for a gritty detective noir story with anthropomorphic animals, this should scratch that itch just fine.
TechRaptor reviewed Blacksad: Under the Skin on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Fantastic Story and Characters
- Loves the Source Material
- Great Jazzy Soundtrack
- Choices Never Matter, Often Lead to Game Overs
- Too Much Pixel Hunting
- Tons of Glitches