HIGH The voice acting.
LOW Instant fails.
WTF Drugs. It’s always drugs.
For those coming to this review with no idea of what Blacksad: Under the Skin is about and simply clicked on it due to seeing a funny-looking cat in a trenchcoat, have no worries — you’ve come to it much the same way I did.
Blacksad is based on a comic of the same name set in an alternate version of 1950s New York populated by anthropomorphic animals. Despite my ignorance, the game (an original story based in the same universe) makes a compelling argument for its existence, and also for investigating its inspiration.
This game is a 3D third-person adventure. The player takes control of John Blacksad and is required to find clues, talk to people, make decisions and complete Quick Time Events. There are also key events when John has enough clues to enter a ‘deduction phase’ that allows him to line up two (or more) pieces of evidence and come to a conclusion that advances the plot. For example, Blacksad knows that a certain person is single. However, he observes that they had two glasses of wine at their table, and there’s a woman that refers them in an overly-familiar fashion. The logic then suggests that they were potentially intimate.
The story involves Blacksad being hired by a friend to investigate the suicide of a boxing gym owner. His star pupil vanished a few weeks before a big fight, and there are suspicious loan sharks lurking around. Things develop from there, twisting and turning while drawing in more characters, but it’s never trite and feels totally in line with the ’50s hard-boiled detective films it is clearly inspired by.
The English voice acting is superb, especially the central performance by Barry Johnson who conveys Blacksad’s world-weariness with aplomb. There are a few dud lines in the script, but he sells them. Sharon Mann (playing the deceased’s daughter) and Akil Wingate (playing Blacksad’s sidekick) also stand out.
Unfortunately, Blacksad as a game is flat-footed (yes, I am doing puns now) in significant, ways.
One huge issue is the pace. Blacksad is content to throw the player into instant-fail scenarios that happen during timed flashbacks — I assume they’re meant to ramp up tension, but failing them multiple times just leads to irritation. These situations pop up too often and cause moments of unwelcome friction.
Also frustrating is that Blacksad’s deductions must be completed correctly before things can proceed. Of course it makes sense that a detective would need to figure things out to move a case along, but I never felt smart when I matched every clue with every other clue until I brute-forced a solution from seemingly-unrelated hints. In other instances I knew what an answer was but had to wait for an arbitrary event to happen before I’d be able to combine the necessary clues.
Blacksad‘s technical performance is bad with jittering scenes that cause some QTEs to be missed, or sometimes the QTEs don’t appear at all. Worse yet, I also experienced hard crashes and technical hangs that stopped my progress.
It’s unfortunate that Blacksad: Under the Skin fell prey to these foibles because it offers a story worth seeing to the end, even if a lack of optimization gets in the way. With a little more technical polish, these great characters in a great setting will be able to shine.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Pendulo Studios and published by Microids. It is currently available on PS4, PC, Mac, Switch, and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO-X. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, and Strong Language. This is another game that earns its M rating — throats get slit, a father and daughter are burnt alive, there is talk of sex trafficking with mentions of underage kids being forced into sex work, and a fair amount of swearing too.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the game for about 2 hours without sound and did not encounter any puzzles or moments that would not be playable without sound (except for when there are bugs). Text cannot be resized.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.