Review

Blacksad: Under The Skin Review - Dog Days

  • First Released Nov 5, 2019
    released
  • PC

A solid lead and decent detective work are let down by a lack of style.

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It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called "Progress." Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.

It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series--created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.

Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.

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In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not--the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.

The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.

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Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.

Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.

The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, "just the facts, ma’am" set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.

Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin's opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.

Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.

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What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.

Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society--and by implication, modern America--but they're just that, a gesture. There's no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they're just set dressing.

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It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.

Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it's a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you'll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.

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The Good
John Blacksad is a compelling protagonist, and you’re given plenty of choice over how to role-play him
The "Progress" comic book perfectly summarises your story to date, and it’s fun to flick through to refresh your memory
The way you can combine clues to deduce new information is very satisfying
The Bad
It’s painfully slow to play, with slow walking, slow animations, and slow unskippable dialogue
A disappointing lack of style in the visual direction.
5
Mediocre
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

David Wildgoose owns two cats, one of whom looks a lot like John Blacksad. He solved the case in around 10 hours.
13 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
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iX-gamer

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call of cthulu 5 blacksad 5 wildgoose sure loves the number 5

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kazuariusz

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Sounds good, thanks

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Gelugon_baat

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Edited By Gelugon_baat

Really, Blacksad actually got a game? Of all the furry detective comics to pick, it just has to be Blacksad.

Can't it be Granville instead? At least all of the characters in that one have actual animal heads rather than lazy replacement of noses with nostrils and fucking whiskers tacked onto an otherwise human-shaped head.

Also, Granville has a hulking anthro-badger who dual-wields steampunk gatling hand-cannons. Yes, you read that right.

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RogerioFM

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@Gelugon_baat: Dual wielding steam punk gatling guns, NICE!!!

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Gelugon_baat

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@RogerioFM: Granville also has sleuthing. The protagonist happens to be a Marty Stu hybrid with outrageous physique and considerable brains to complement that.

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RogerioFM

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@Gelugon_baat: That makes it less entertaining since noir for me was never about OP protagonists, but still, the art for what I googled is very good at least.

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Gelugon_baat

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@RogerioFM: Oh man, you might not like Granville then. LeBrock is a very overpowered protagonist.

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itchyflop

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An original concept which i always like.

Worth a look if you want a break from the mainstream.

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RogerioFM

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Edited By RogerioFM

I for once love the art style, it's not the typical noir where it's all black & white, but they managed to make a cool e colorful style that still fits the themes, the story is well told with some nice twists and turns, some expected, others not so much, but none too obvious. The voice acting is simply amazing, I simply love Blacksad's voice, but none of the cast disappoints.

Now there are problems, first yes, you walk way too slow, that can make things a chore a little bit, then what could have been a plus if implemented right are the hotspots, it's nice that you have to be close for them to be visible, it removes the hand holding of the genre and forces you to explore, the problem is that they sometimes do not register right, you can be on top of something and still not trigger it so you have to keep wandering on top of it for a few seconds to register, finally the voices not matching the scene, not sure if it's because either the cutscene or the audio loaded first but a lot of times the audio will not match the action which can be distracting and VERY mood ruining.

In conclusion, if you go expecting a good story with great art style you'll get it, but it's not a polished product, the audio syncing problems and some gameplay elements can get in the way, but they in no way ruin the fun.

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MashedBuddha

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@RogerioFM:

Seems like some of the least favorable elements could be improved and fixed with updates. I'll wait a while and check it out in the future to see if that happens.

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RogerioFM

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@MashedBuddha:

Yeah, its smart to wait a while, maybe they already patched it, I know that the worst for me was the audio syncing problem, nothing worst than having a dramatic moment ruined because the audio and the animation doesn't match.

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ConsoleHaven

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I’ll give it a shot despite the low score very few Catective stories out there. So CreATive of them.

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Blacksad: Under the Skin More Info

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  • First Released Nov 5, 2019
    released
    • Macintosh
    • Nintendo Switch
    • + 3 more
    • PC
    • PlayStation 4
    • Xbox One
    A dark corruption scandal in the heart of the New York City's underworld for charismatic detective John Blacksad!
    6
    Average Rating1 Rating(s)
    Please Sign In to rate Blacksad: Under the Skin
    Developed by:
    Pendulo Studios
    Published by:
    Microids, Anuman Interactive
    Genre(s):
    First-Person, 3D, Adventure
    Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
    Mature
    Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language