The Blacksad series of graphic novels has a very interesting multinational story behind it. From the minds of a writer and artist duo in Spain, it is a series written initially in French about America in the 1950s, but anthropomorphic animals take the place of humans. Having been translated into several different languages over multiple volumes, the series is highly regarded, as evidenced by the several Eisner Award nominations and wins it has garnered over the years. Thanks to corporate ownership, Microids was able to convince the comic publisher to do a game adaptation, and with the help of Spain’s Pendulo Studios, Blacksad: Under The Skin was born.
Blacksad is set in some time after the second volume, and you play the role of John Blacksad, a troubled youth and former soldier in World War II who’s now working as a private detective. The game opens with you being ambushed by a rhino that’s trying to get back at you for taking pictures of his affair with another woman. After that confrontation is over, you’re met by Sonia Dunn, the daughter of boxing gym owner Joe Dunn. It turns out that Joe hanged himself at his own gym, and the gym’s top prospect, Bobby Yale, has gone missing. It’s only two days before the scheduled fight in Madison Square Garden, and the gym faces closure if they forfeit. Your primary goal is to find the whereabouts of Bobby in time for the fight, while your secondary goal is to learn if Joe was a victim of foul play.
If you’re already a fan of the graphic novels, the game is considered non-canonical. Even though the writer/artist duo of the series was involved in the game’s plot, everything here has no connection to anything after the series’ second volume. The story is good due to the characters involved. Most of the cast is original, and they’re believable in their roles, while the comic mainstays play out as authentically as possible. The story may take on familiar twists, but everything comes together well enough that you’ll be compelled to go through the game’s double-digit running time multiple times to see all six endings.
Blacksad may be classified as an adventure game, but it isn’t played out like the typical point-and-click adventure. Instead, the core mechanics are something of a modification of the Telltale formula but with an emphasis on interaction over cut scenes. You can directly move Blacksad to an area, and that’s the only way to interact with things. The actions are context-sensitive, so the game automatically knows what to do with something once you choose to interact with it. The title is very light on puzzle elements, so there isn’t a proper inventory system, but there’s an emphasis on dialogue and dialogue choices.
As with the Telltale system, you have plenty of chances to choose a response or a question, but there’s limited time to do so. Early on, you learn that each choice ultimately affects the rest of the game. Denying the rhino’s request to keep mum about his infidelity leads to you getting beaten up later on. Comply with his wishes, and you’ll get a reprieve when the time comes. Aside from quick time events for some actions, the game also provides a chart about whether your Blacksad character is clumsy, nimble, silent or talkative. Unfortunately, that’s only good for your own enjoyment, as there’s no way to compare your version of the detective against others online.
One new additional wrinkle is the deduction system. Almost every interaction with objects or people yields a new mental clue, and once you’re prompted, you can delve into Blacksad’s mind to see if the clues link together. Failed links don’t do any harm, but successful ones open up more avenues for questioning and puzzle solutions. Nothing is too obtuse, so you’ll feel smart for figuring out the solution without a guide.
The systems lay the groundwork for an adventure game that feels different but new, but there are some design decisions that do a better job of dampening the game’s overall fun. The first has to do with the tendency to take things too slowly. There’s no run button, so Blacksad is always walking at a leisurely pace. Some locations have long patches without anything of interest, so this can feel tedious. The same goes for some conversations, where there are long pauses before a new dialogue choice appears or before you can put down the clue you’re analyzing to move on to the next point of interest. This laid-back pace can make the game feel like a slog, which is tough in a genre that’s already slow.
The other issue stems from the hotspot detection system. At least half of the time, the prompt to examine something appears right away. That works for larger areas, but for smaller ones, the game requires precision for those areas to activate. Move a step away from where the game wants you to, and the hotspot disappears. A number of these smaller areas contain something vital, so you’ll spend a great deal of time trying to get a prompt to appear rather than doing something more important for the case.
On a side note, Blacksad is packed with tons of collectible stickers. They’re neat since you can see the animals participating in pro sports, but they’re only good for achievement hunters and collectors, since they don’t have any real effect on the game. That also means you might be annoyed by their presence due to the aforementioned delicate hotspot detection system, so it can be annoying to fiddle around in an area to get another sports sticker.
Graphically, the game looks fantastic at first glance. The environments pop out wonderfully, with tons of details scattered throughout. The game always seems to have something floating in the air, whether it’s dust, leaves or smoke, and it works well for atmosphere, even though it seems like the team wanted to show off. The character models also look rather nice, provided you’re already good with the comic’s art style. Some of the people look quite odd with this style, especially most of the felines. The models lose their luster once they speak because the mouth either isn’t animated, or the movements don’t match the dialogue — even for the main character. Also, the game seems to have issues with the frame rate. A 30fps cap is disappointing, especially for those running with above-average hardware, but it’s a shame that the frame rate can sometimes dip lower than that.
Like the graphics, the audio is mostly good. This is the first time that the characters have voices, and most of them seem to fit pretty well. There are a few odd choices, but nothing is too off-putting, and the performances are done well enough that you’d like to see the same cast return if a future game is made. The music fits in with the detective noir style, while the title screen’s more grandiose track sounds so good that you won’t mind that it doesn’t fit well with the other pieces. The sound effects get disappointing, as they either don’t play or lack the expected impact. For example, during the first scene you get beat up in, the sound of the club hitting your face isn’t there, while the sounds of a boxer hitting the bags later on is muffled.
There’s a shimmer of something good in Blacksad: Under the Skin. Even though it is standard detective noir material, the story remains engaging enough that newcomers to the series might be encouraged to seek out the original graphic novels afterward. The core gameplay mechanics work well, since they feel like an upgraded version of the formula established by Telltale Games. Issues like slow movement, pregnant pauses, and finicky hotspot detection deflate any enthusiasm the game may foster. If you can live with this sort of thing, then Blacksad is a good adventure game, but others who mind these issues might want to wait for future patches to address these concerns.