Blacksad: Under the Skin review
Adventure Gamers Awards
The hard-boiled noir detective – that broken, mythical creature who dwells in a demi-monde of hazy lights, double-dealing femmes fatales and glistening knives in darkened alleys – is an old mainstay of the adventure genre. The archetype of the smooth-talking gumshoe has been in turn lampooned, reinvented and played completely straight in many games, resulting in a cavalcade of memorable characters like Manny Calavera and Tex Murphy. Pendulo Studios' latest offering summons up yet another tragic sleuth to darken our doorways: Enter John Blacksad in his first interactive mystery, Under the Skin, an excellently designed debut for our feline protagonist, if somewhat flawed in its execution.
Unlike many private eyes who star in their own video games, Blacksad is already an established figure. The joint creation of Spanish writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido, his adventures are published in Spanish and French by the Franco-Belgian Les Éditions Dargaud. The graphic novel collection has received two Eisner awards over its nineteen-year, five-volume run (with two more volumes due to be released soon). Over the years, the series has garnered a great deal of positive attention for its engaging storylines and elegant, textured watercolor art, as well as for choosing to tell mature noir stories through anthropomorphic animals whose species reflect the characters' respective personalities and social roles.
Blacksad: Under The Skin immediately presents the player with a chiaroscuro vignette in which the silhouetted corpse of a lynx hangs from a noose, swinging eerily over a dimly-lit boxing ring, ominous music creating a tense atmosphere and a sense of expectation. A blurry cleaning lady enters the gymnasium background and, not noticing the body right away, walks off-screen. The inevitable out-of-shot scream that follows is as satisfying as it is de rigeur in this type of narrative. We are in unmistakable noir territory, moody and melodramatic.
It turns out the unlucky stiff is Joe Dunn, the owner of the gym, and his death is ruled a suicide by police. But if he killed himself, why has Dunn's star boxer gone missing only a couple of weeks away from a very important fight that could save or ruin the gym? That's a mystery that Dunn's daughter, Sonia, wants unraveled and which provides the jumping-off point for our lantern-jawed feline protagonist to join the tale. As is common in any noir detective fiction, an apparent suicide is never really a suicide, and a seemingly open-and-shut case inevitably turns into a lurid, tangled tale of betrayal, conspiracy and murder.
Since Blacksad stories have a tendency to slow burn in the graphic novels, Canales's writing often provides plenty of opportunities to flesh out characters and acquaint the reader with them so that when the pace starts picking up, every new development alters the web of relationships that links most of the cast. Pendulo has recreated this approach rather faithfully and the game's script does not disappoint, delivering plot twists and revelations while constantly expanding upon the motives of those involved.
Each character has their own distinct personality, and interactions with them take the form of dialogue trees where important decisions are made. These choices vary in impact, but they do change the shape of the overall narrative. As an example, early on you are presented with the option of whether to lie to a client and hide her husband's infidelity after said husband promises he will mend his ways (alongside a hefty bribe for our sleuth's silence), or to reveal the affair. If you choose to keep the matter hidden from your client, you also have the chance to accept or decline her husband's bribe. Each of these decisions changes variables in the story and the availability of certain allies and resources, adding to the game's replayability. Giving some well-intentioned advice could even result in getting an important supporting character killed off much later on.
The game makes a point of illustrating how choices influence not only the plot but also your character, keeping track of how he is being roleplayed and displaying those results in a screen titled "Your Blacksad." There you will see whether you've been loquacious or taciturn, idealistic or pragmatic, clumsy or swift, and even if you are making decisions that will leave the protagonist with a profitable case at the end or whether he'll end up searching for change under the couch cushions at the end of the month. Between Blacksad's malleable demeanor and the variability of plot detail through branching choices, the game shows a welcome level of thought applied to its narrative design.
As you advance, the decisions you make are recorded in the form of a menu-accessible comic book, where each page contains panels that portray particular choices. This is a feature I wish more games would implement, as it is an excellent way of catching up to where you left off after some time away. The comic book also serves another purpose, allowing you to return to a scene where a choice was made and play on from there, trying out a different path and perhaps seeing a different outcome. This is the only way to do so as unlike many adventure games where you are allowed to explore conversation trees to completion, dialogue choices here cannot be revisited in context after being made, prompting you to think carefully about your responses in order to best impact your relationship with a character. Sometimes there is only a short window of time to reply, while letting the timer run out has Blacksad maintain a stoic silence. These features help to ratchet up the tension in conversations in a realistic manner, as they take place in appropriately dramatic situations.
While the writing is excellent, it is in the realm of mechanics where the game encounters its first snags. Keeping the console market in mind, Pendulo opted to eschew the traditional point-and-click interface in favor of handling Blacksad via directional controls. Unfortunately, both on keyboard and gamepad the handling is rather sluggish and imprecise and can lead to frustration in navigating our eponymous detective, especially since he needs to be close to a hotspot in order to interact with it. It is very easy to overshoot the hotspot's active location, requiring you to backtrack and maneuver, which is rather clumsy. Compounding this is the fact that there is no command to see all active hotspots on the screen, which can lead to the player performing figure eights across a scene to make sure no piece of evidence has been left undiscovered, especially since some hotspots only activate if Blacksad is facing them at the correct angle.
There is no inventory and therefore no inventory-driven puzzles per se. If John acquires an important item, he will use it at the appropriate time if the right conditions are met. Most of the puzzles are character-driven, with Blacksad gleaning information through interrogating characters, rummaging through their personal possessions and sticking his nose where others might say it doesn't strictly belong. Our PI keeps track of all relevant information through dossiers that include photographs of the characters and any tidbits of information that have been unearthed.
In order to advance in your investigation, it is not enough to rifle around in the physical world; John also needs to put his little gray cells to work (as Poirot would say) and establish causal links between pieces of information. A simple keystroke puts Blacksad in 'Deduction Mode' where, striking an appropriate chin-tapping introspective stance, he gazes off to the side while the world around him turns black and the screen becomes populated by bits of information and details that are currently relevant.
In Deduction Mode, you are expected to string multiple facts and observations together which, when successfully done, will produce an "A-ha!" moment that will unlock new dialogue options, characters, locations and revelations. The game lets you know when you have new deductions waiting to be made, and also kindly displays the number of deductions remaining with the information at hand, so that you do not waste your time trying to establish tenuous links with incomplete information. It’s an entertaining mechanic and gives you the feeling of being an active participant in the detecting process instead of being a passive observer while the on-screen gumshoe ties all loose ends together without any other input.
At certain points John will also make use of his ‘cat senses’ for puzzle-solving. Time slows to a crawl and you get to identify sources of information in the area that can be divided into visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli. The game helpfully tells you how many of each type of clue are left in the scene before you discover all of them. The way this is implemented in the story is done quite well a few times, my favorite example having Blacksad realize that one particular type of smell is being used to hide the presence of something else, at which point you have to figure out how to get rid of the offending smell.
Another unfavorable blow to the game, however, is the inclusion of Quick Time Events, a few of which come at you with little warning and particularly in one case can happen so quickly that it's very easy to fail by sheer virtue of being unprepared. Most of these sequences take place during brawls, and the game does reset you to the beginning of the encounter should you happen to die, but there are a few that cannot be repeated and will adversely affect the outcome of the game.
Graphically, Under the Skin manages to evoke a well-realized 1950s New York City. Pendulo was faced with the daunting task of adapting Juanjo Guarnido's masterful watercolor art into a gaming medium. Telltale managed to solve a similar problem by using textures heavy with line art that mimicked the more traditional comic aesthetic of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, but Blacksad's art would require a much more detailed and labor-intensive approach to fully recreate. Instead, the team opted for a three-dimensional style with a more realistic look. The realism works for its intended purpose, with locations rendered in decent detail and establishing a good sense of atmosphere. Many locations, including John's office (familiar to readers of the comic) are reproduced with loving attention to detail and strewn with Easter eggs. Over the course of the adventure you will also visit the gym, a diner (of course), several characters’ dwellings, a hospital, and the obligatory warehouse, among other locales.
Character models are solid and designed faithfully in accordance with Guarnido's originals. Guarnido often draws male animals with exaggerated animalistic features, while his female characters are more human-looking with a few animal features tacked on, which can be disconcerting to those not familiar with his style. The only flaw here overall is that the character animations in general are not as smooth as they should be and can be a little stiff and awkward at times.
Juan Miguel Martin's smooth jazz soundtrack is perfectly calibrated to underscore the action and the characters, many of whom have their own musical leitmotifs to highlight their appearance. The main theme that opens the game was composed by Emmy award-winning Israeli-American composer Inon Zur, and it is quite an epic noir anthem full of moody strings, wailing brass, relentless low-key percussion and a plaintive chanteuse vocalizing nightclub existential despair with wild abandon. It is a theme that evokes images of trenchcoat-clad lost souls wandering penumbral cityscapes under dark and indifferent skies. The rest of the sound design is quite apt, with every scene sporting the requisite ambient noises.
All dialogue is voiced in Under the Skin. Accompanying you through the many narrative twists and turns is an expansive cast of over thirty new characters alongside series regulars such as the canine police chief Smirnov, Weekly the tabloid weasel, and Jake Ostiombe the retired gorilla boxer-turned-bodyguard. Barry Johnson's delivery as Blacksad is note-perfect, his voice able to reflect the required world-weariness present in the character's monologues as well as display a good range of emotion without stepping outside of his more laid-back cat detective center.
Sharon Mann's turn as Sonia starts off distant, but you soon realize that what initially may have come across as an overly restrained performance was, in fact, the character still experiencing shock. Sonia maintains a careful emotional detachment at all times, but she also occasionally opens up to John, and Mann's delivery manages to convey the constantly shifting openness and to portray Sonia as a sympathetic character. Akil Wingate's Weekly toes the line between endearing and grating, which is true for the character, and David Coburn's Chief Smirnov is believable as the long-suffering associate of Blacksad, a by-the-book police dog who relies on John to round up those who are out of reach of the long arm of the law. His interactions with our private eye are couched in a tone of age-old familiarity that is equal parts respect and resignation.
Unfortunately, the game was still not bug-free when I played. I noticed significant drops in frame rate and stuttering at times, along with the occasional popping textures and missing sound effects. For some reason my subtitles kept going away, regardless of which option was chosen in the game menu. While I experienced no massive game-stopping bugs, I did encounter a scenario where, upon descending from the gymnasium rooftop and back into the building, Jake and Sonia – the characters that had been there a few seconds earlier – were nowhere to be found. I took this as an intended opportunity to snoop around Sonia's desk, but when no new hotspot appeared I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes making no progress until I was struck by the notion that perhaps Sonia and Jake were not meant to be gone after all. Indeed, a quick reload of the game confirmed that Sonia and Jake were meant to occupy their customary positions, with Sonia even having some new topics to discuss with me.
My first run through the story took me about twenty hours and it is a testament to the quality of the narrative experience that despite my frustrations with performance and the less-than-ideal controls, I couldn't really pull myself away. The mystery occupied my imagination as it deepened, and I genuinely started to feel remorse about some of the choices I had made that had led to unexpected repercussions. Although marred by some bugs and technical issues, as well as some poorly-implemented Quick Time Events, the charm of this world, the fantastic writing and acting, and the skill in translating the property from the page onto the computer screen are enough to overcome those shortcomings.
The game is still being patched by the developers in order to fix issues as they are reported, but for now the end result is a little like John Blacksad himself: very good on the whole, but rough around the edges and a little shaken, yet ultimately not too much worse for wear. Hopefully Pendulo has learned some valuable lessons that can be applied to the next installment, should there be one, and thus make the flawed but highly promising Blacksad: Under The Skin just the start of a whole new flagship series.