You could describe My expectations for Blacksad: Under the Skin as measured. In terms of concept, this new take on the classic gumshoe detective story has a lot going for it. But, high ambition and limited budget rarely make for an exceptional experience. With the bar set, I was ready to give myself over to all my Philip Marlow fantasies, but the gum on this shoe often breaks you out of the game, leaving you scratching your head, wondering how certain elements made it into the final product.
There is always a level of hesitation with games that we generally label AA. Developers make sacrifices for the sake of hitting a release window. Reviews withheld till after the game’s release. With that said, there are many elements of Pendulo Studio’s latest game that deserve mention. Whether positive or negative, well, let’s find out as we review BlackSad: Under the Skin. Spoilers for the game follow, so read at your discretion.
Set in the mid-1950s, you play John Blacksad, a New York private detective whose career has taken a slide. Forced to accept cases of cheating husbands to get by, the future looks grim for any chances of advancement. As if a gift from heaven (or hell) the case of a dead gym owner and the disappearance of his star boxer is brought to his desk by the gym owner’s estranged daughter. Within the first few minutes, you’re keenly aware that you’re playing a game with a fondness for the classic black and white adventures of Sam Spade. Dialogue is thick with detective movie cliques, including the gloomy self-monologues common to the genre.
So far, so typical. But Blacksad has a massive trump card that changes the feel of the game, though not to the extent the developers may have hoped. The world in which these events take place is both ours and not ours. Anthropomorphic animals inhabit the world of Blacksad: Under the Skin. It sounds gimmicky and is, for the most part. It’s disorientating for the first hour of gameplay, and not being overly familiar with the French graphic novel series that inspired the game, I had to suspend my disbelief. The jarring feeling subsides as you grow to accept that all of “human history” was the doings of humanoid animals.
Integral to the narrative of Blacksad is the player understanding that all the prejudice and paranoia of that era still exist in this animalistic world. The red terror is a real (imaginary) fear, as is racism, corruption and sexuality. I’m still not sure how I feel about this. I appreciate the developers wish to convey hefty issues through allegories animals skin, but the handling is far from deft. Animals with a darker complexion are black, with almost all others portrayed as white, especially those racist alsatians, the KKK of the animal world. If things weren’t questionable enough, Pandas are? You guessed it! The owners of Chinese restaurants.
As the narrative progresses and John probes deeper into this suicide turned bet fixing conspiracy, involving the seediest characters in New York. An ex-Nazi scientist even appears! Adapting to the TellTale style of decision making, Blacksad fails to reach such heights. Pendulo makes sure to have you follow their story, not yours. One mistake and you’re dead. Mission failed. But, is that inflexible story worth ten hours of your time? Maybe. Despite its problems, the narrative will appeal to old school detective movie fans and point n’ click adventure gamers.
There’s a lot of issues. On several occasions, I questioned whether I wanted to continue playing. The game feels as if it held together by flimsy string. I’m not new to dealing with frame-tearing, but I’ve rarely seen it in such rapidity. If you dare to enter a pause menu, the game may, and does, crash. Textures regularly disappear, making plot points unintelligible if that newspaper with relevant info doesn’t load properly. Equally unfortunate is the lip-synching which never once appeared to fit the voice actors oration. It may be a pet peeve, but I hate it! As much of the gameplay involves talking to people, it’s impossible to ignore.
When not speaking out of time, you’ll be exploring a cornucopia of locations stripped right out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Dirty alleys, dive bars, etc. Though many of these locations appear dishevelled, almost everything evokes a clue, memory or red hearing. Collectable sports cards with famed athletes (in that universe) are everywhere — these collectable cards go into a book, located in the pause menu. The protagonist, a cat by species, lacks any of the feline grace of a real pussy cat. Movement is tank-like and will have the calmest gamer shouting at the screen, lamenting not being able to sprint. Instead, you’ll spend your time strolling around often littered locations, clipping onto furniture.
The gameplay is the foundation of a game. If playing feels like a chore, no engrossing narrative can save it. This is a game that teeters on the line of mediocre and barely playable. Quick-time events are a necessary evil in this specific genre, but some of these QTEs are broken. Time limits are merciless and fluctuate scene by scene. Sometimes, these button prompts don’t even register! One stage involves you escaping from a smoke-filled air duct. Surviving requires you to press the button for approximately fifty seconds repeatedly. On the first try, this prompt didn’t recognise my input, not because my controller didn’t work, the game didn’t.
Blacksad: Under the Skin has fundamental issues that make the game unenjoyable. The only consistency is in the constant stuttering, dropped frames and abysmal lip-synching. Whatever engine the developer is using, they need to burn it, pronto! It’s a shame that the gameplay impacts on the story to such a degree that you play till the end to prove endurance, more than anything else.
Graphics & Sound
Blacksad: Under the Skin is the definition of a mixed bag when it comes to graphics and sound. Graphics vary between muddy and vivid. Close up, pictures and text are blurry, usually accompanied by clearer boxed text below. Nothing is outstanding here; everything is merely passible, without being memorable. Lacking some of the more expensive lighting techniques of AAA games, it can’t make the most of its setting. Interestingly, there is no black and white mode available; another oversight that could’ve smoothed over the apparent flaws seen in the regular version. Overall, graphics aren’t where the value is in this game.
An actor can only work with the script provided and it shows here. Delivery (for the most part) is lifeless, a dull reading back of static words on a page. I can only presume that all dialogue was recorded in isolation, which removes any chance of complexity within the story’s characters, making them feel two-dimensional. Anger is anger, and sadness is sadness: no nuance and little personality. Except for three or four characters, including the protagonist himself, all other character voices feel like they were done by people who work at the studio.
Far more of the budget must have gone on the soundtrack because there’s a lot to like here. As to add to the period realism, jazz and crooner tunes stream from every radio and record player. Pendulo wants you to appreciate the music, created to fit in with the life of a depressed detective, haunted by his past, and it has the desired effect. There was never a moment where I felt a tune was out of place.