Note: Steam review code supplied by Microids
Title: Blacksad: Under The Skin
Studio: Pendulo Studio
Published By: Microids
System: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Genre: Noir Detective
Released: November 14th, 2019
Blacksad: Under the Skin is set in New York City during the 1950s, and takes place chronologically between Blacksad: Arctic Nation and Red Soul. Its story begins when protagonist John Blacksad is approached by Sonia Dunn, daughter of a boxing club owner who has died suspiciously. She asks Blacksad to investigate the situation and locate the club’s star fighter, who has been missing since her father’s death. According to Pendulo Studios, the game will contain 30 unique characters and five previously from the Blacksad comic series: John Blacksad, John Pierman, Jake Ostiombe, Weekly and the police chief. The game is set to contain six possible endings.
When I saw that this game was in development, I was immediately excited. If you’ve read my review for Blacksad Volume 1, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the comic series. As such, a chance to control the titular detective in his noir world was something that sparked my interest. Having now played through the game once though, I do feel it’s worth noting that you don’t need to be a fan of the comics to enjoy it. There are things that enjoying the source material will help with – such as seeing familiar faces like Weekly – but the core game itself is strong enough that newcomers will also find plenty to like. I’ll go into why as we go along.
I’m going to preface this with a content warning though. Being set in 1950’s New York, the game deals with some pretty harsh subjects. Racism is a running theme throughout and comes up time and time again as you investigate the case. Murder is also prevalent, and even presented on screen, and the topic of suicide is also brought up. Meanwhile, the criminals you encounter range from those running an illegal gambling ring to a pimp that specializes in twelve-year-old girls. In short, this is dark, and the themes presented are not pleasant. You do have some control over this though and are given opportunities to alter how things play out. For example, when meeting said pimp, one branching choice you can make results in him being killed there and then.
If the themes don’t put you off, then you’ll be happy to know that the darkness is used to support an excellent noir tale. John Blacksad has always been a great example of the hardboiled detectives of pulp fiction, and he is beautifully imagined here. From inner monologues to old school sleuthing, the whole thing would seem like a perfectly good, if standard, detective story if the characters weren’t anthropomorphic animals.
But therein lies part of the bigger appeal of the game. The characters’ animalistic qualities are not simply there for aesthetic purposes. Blacksad himself being a cat means that he has ‘cat senses’. This is a mechanic that comes into play during questioning scenes and sees you scanning the area for clues. You have a heightened sense of smell and hearing, as well as good eyesight, and pinpointing specific points in a scene allows Blacksad to pick up on vital information that a human would miss. From hearing someone’s heart rate to detecting faint scents, it really adds to the experience.
The questioning itself is decent too. Each line you follow opens up more and more options, and the answers you give has a direct effect on your relationship with different characters. For example, when you start the game, you get attacked by a rhino. Why? Because his wife hired you to find out if he was cheating on her. He was. After a scuffle, he pleads his case, and you’re left with a choice as to whether to cover for him or not. What you do will affect how he responds to you later on. In turn, those choices will alter the stats in the ‘Your Blacksad’ screen, which measures whether the character is profitable, noir, swift, intuitive, romantic, and so on. These stats and decisions then play into which of the six endings you get. In that regard, this is a game that can be played in several different ways, and how you choose to play has a genuine consequence for how it turns out.
Another nice touch is the ‘intuition system’. All the while that Blacksad is collecting clues, certain points are added to a menu that can be accessed with the click of a button. Selecting two or more clues together then allows Blacksad to form a conclusion regarding part of the case, and in turn, opens up more possibilities for investigations and connecting characters and events. It’s a fun mechanic that makes the art of clue finding and mystery-solving far more interactive than simply having the character automatically put the pieces together.
Action scenes are dealt with via a QTE system. This is as straight forward as it needs to be, with a mix of prompted button presses and some quick thinking as you decide which way to push the analog stick. It’s not as clever or original as the cat senses, but as a system, it works well. It should also be familiar to gamers, which helps make this an accessible title. At the same time, some of the actions require legitimately quick reflexes, so it has some challenge too.
If you want additional content, the game features some short side quests that can help progress things too. There’s also the ‘Hall of Fame’. Throughout the world, you’ll find collector cards of in-universe sports stars. Pick these up, and you can stick them in your hall of fame collectors book, and even turn them over to read up on facts about the sporting heroes. It’s a fun little distraction that breaks up the darker moments quite nicely. In much the same way, as you progress the game, you also unlock comic book style pages that summarize key events that you’ve played through. This was a nice way to tie it into the source material.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the game is very good too. The move from 2D comic art to a 3D environment has been kind to Blacksad, and Pendulo obviously spent a lot of time ensuring that the characters emote properly. Having the comic creators, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, act as consultants undoubtedly helped here. The team also clearly understood that the move from 2D to 3D would mean not being able to capture the feel of the comics perfectly. Rather than get caught up in this, they’ve created something with a similar enough feel to work for fans, but also built to be functional within the game style. The soundtrack is a good fit for the noir tale too, and the voice cast does a great job with the characters, injecting some real life into the performances.
Given the setting, you’ll also get to see some familiar sights popping up. The advertising billboards are so wonderfully like those of the era for the example. There’s a Sinatra equivalent seen on a poster. And at one point, you see a photo of a boxer named Sean Thornton. That, I suspect is a reference to the 1952 movie ‘The Quiet Man’, which star John Wane as a retired boxer named Sean Thornton. Little things like that show the attention to detail that Pendulo gave to the setting. And let’s not forget that if you want the physical collector’s edition, it comes with a nice looking art book and resin figure!
Now, even with all those points, the game is not perfect. A good chunk of your time will be spent walking around scenes and looking for prompted spots to investigate. The problem is that this can be a little slow at times. Once a subtitled piece opens, such as a sign on a wall, it can take a while until it lets you move back from the screen and look elsewhere.
In a similar way, while most things are prompted, not everything is. When wandering in a dark cellar, you use a lighter to provide some light. If you don’t notice that using the right analog stick moves his arm up and down, you may well miss some items in the room. The reason you’d miss it is that this is not an action that was usable prior to this scene, and if you get used to being prompted with what you can interact with, you may simply not think of doing something like this.
Finally, the camera is a bit hit and miss. You can’t rotate it to give you a different angle on your surroundings. While it can take a while to get used to, it’s not game-breaking. For the most part, the auto-rotation as you move works well, but you will find some moments where it’s a little slow to follow, meaning you risk walking into something slightly off-screen.
Overall, Blacksad: Beneath The Skin is not only what I hoped it would be, but more. There are plenty of nods to keep fans of the franchise happy, but at the same time, the core game is so well imagined that newcomers will also be kept engaged. It may have a few flaws, but nothing that makes it unplayable. In all, this is a fine balance of dark, gritty storytelling, interesting gameplay, and replayability. This gets a 4.5 out of 5 from me.