Blacksad: Under The Skin is based on a long-running series of graphic novels that are popular around the world. It’s about a hard-nosed, down on his luck World War II veteran turned private eye named John Blacksad, who always seems to find trouble (or trouble seems to find him). He gets roped into tough cases that usually force him to deal with police corruption, upper-class privilege, and the seedy crime-infested underbelly of 1950s New York City. Oh, and he’s a cat-man, and the world is filled with other anthropomorphic animal people. Dog-people, goat-people, bird-people, buffalo-people, etc. It’s pretty weird.
While Blacksad: Under The Skin has an interesting world full of compelling characters, the biggest obstacles for our hero aren't femme fatales and hired goons. It's awkward gameplay, shoddy visuals, and uneven writing that put the boots to this sleuth.
The game begins with famous boxing gym owner and fight promoter, Joe Dunn (who is a lynx-man, of course), found hanging above his ring, dead from an apparent suicide. We then join Blacksad who, after a violent scuffle with a rhino-man he caught cheating on his wife, is hired by Dunn’s daughter to find out what really happened to her father. As you might expect from a pulpy detective plot, things aren’t always what they seem, and our feline gumshoe begins to unravel a mystery that goes much deeper than it originally seemed.
The writing is pretty decent, although some of the dialogue can be clunky at times and it starts to lose steam as it goes along. Film noir is a pretty well-worn genre at this point, and Blacksad: Under The Skin hits a lot of the familiar beats. Don’t let the cartoonish animal people fool you. This isn’t some water-downed private eye tale for kids. This is very much an adult story, which means drinking, smoking, fighting, murder, and sex. Having to see explicit photos of a rhino-man and a dog-lady together is definitely one of the more unique gaming experiences I’ve had lately. This game is like catnip for Deviantart.
The voice acting is a mixed bag. Some characters came across as wooden or stilted, which made it hard to be interested in what they had to say. However, the actor who plays Blacksad does a pretty good job with the material, sounding like an exhausted P.I. who’s seen it all, but is still trying to hang on to some small sense of hope in the world. He’s sarcastic, sympathetic, and stoic in equal measure, and he manages to keep the game’s story driving forward with his solid performance.
More Like Tell Tail
This is a narrative-heavy game, so it plays almost exactly like a Telltale title. In each scene, you get dialogue options that shape relationships with other characters and determines the kind of person Blacksad will be. Does he take bribes or does he have integrity? Does he shoot someone in the head or do they get off with a stern warning? It's up to you to craft the kind of Blacksad you want. On top of that, there are also quick time events that occur during fights and while trying to stealth your way into places you shouldn’t be. Your choices do appear to have an impact on the narrative, as characters can die based on your decisions and how quick your reflexes are.
Since this is also a detective game, you gain clues, evidence, and testimonies which you then use to piece together ideas and conclusions about the case. Blacksad has a weird version of Batman’s detective vision where he can analyze people for extra information about who they are and what they might know. You then take everything you’ve gathered and go into a Mind Palace-like space to make connections that’s similar to Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes games or this year’s The Sinking City. As a fan of mysteries, I actually thought the investigative parts were fun, as I always enjoy a good detective story and it goes to some surprising places.
This Cat's Got Flaws
While it plays like a Telltale game, Blacksad’s controls aren’t as smooth as your average Walking Dead chapter. It seemed like there was a hitch in the engine whenever I tried to interact with an object, and trying to navigate Blacksad felt almost like tank controls from the original PlayStation-era Resident Evil game. It's hard to roleplay as a smooth-talking, badass private eye when navigating around a corner feels so cumbersome.
There are also some pretty sizeable gaps in quality when it comes to the visuals. The team at Microids appears to have spent a lot of time working on Blacksad’s design. Every thought and feeling he has is clear and evident by his facial expressions, while his physical animation looks like it has weight and purpose to it. If everything looked as good as Blacksad does, then this would be a gorgeously bizarre little world.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game can sometimes look like it came straight from the last console generation. Locations can lack detail with bland textures and shoddy lighting. Some characters look alright, but there are many who have dead eyes, glitchy robotic animations, or really awkward facial movements that make them look less anthropomorphic and more animatronic. You already have to suspend your disbelief to buy into a world where a German Shepard can be the New York City police chief, but when the game gives you a glitchy bug-eyed weasel-man whose fur looks like it’s made out of plastic, your immersion is easily destroyed.
Blacksad: Under The Skin tries to fill the void that was left behind when Telltale closed its doors last year (although apparently they’re back, but we’ll see how that goes). It has the advantage of being based on a comic series that has two decades worth of backstory to draw from, and it manages to tell a gripping tale that makes you forget about how ridiculous it is that that a cat wearing a trenchcoat is trying to solve a murder. It’s just hard to fully commit to this reality with the stiff controls, uneven voice acting and dialogue, and poor visuals bringing everything down, while it really starts to fall apart in the later stages of the game.
I imagine there are some big fans of the Blacksad stories that will get more out of this game than I did. But for everyone else, it'll only remind you how sad it is that we'll never get a sequel to Telltale's The Wolf Among Us.
A PC copy of Blacksad: Under The Skin was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Blacksad: Under The Skin is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.