Unless you have a moustache and wear garlic in place of jewellery, we’re going to assume you’ve never heard of French graphic novel Blacksad. A favourite among furries, the dark detective series has spawned five volumes, and is actually the work of a couple of Spanish lads – proof, perhaps, that the European Union is still alive and kicking on the continent at least.
Fittingly, the game is being developed by Madrid-based studio Pendulo, although assistance is being provided by YS Interactive, a small team located in Valenciennes. This is the first interactive adaptation of the series, and it plots an original tale, meaning that newcomers will have little difficulty picking up on the anthropomorphic yarn set in a noir 1950s New York. There are, however, returning characters and Easter eggs to please faithful franchise fans.
As part of a trip to Paris this week, we got to play a whopping 90 minutes of the detective adventure, and we came away relatively impressed. The development team – perhaps best known for PlayStation 4 point-and-click adventure Yesterday: Origins – clearly has a knack for producing slick, narrative-driven experiences, and while this isn’t breaking many boundaries, it’s engrossing to say the least.
The demo opens with an over-the-shoulder shot of deceased boxing club owner Joe Dunn, as he hangs ominously over the gym. The plot sees protagonist Blacksad – a kind of cat in Colombo’s clothing – hired by the dead proprietor’s daughter Sonia to track down Bobby Yale, a rising star of the ring who’s scheduled to fight at the famous Madison Square Garden in a matter of days. With a no-show sure to result in financial ruin for the remaining Dunn, the opening moments of the campaign introduce a plot wrought with suspicion and subterfuge.
It’s the perfect backdrop for a detective adventure, then, and the gameplay – which primarily includes interrogation and investigation – supports this confidently. While many of the moment-to-moment interactions mimic boilerplate Telltale game design, there’s more going on here than, say, The Wolf Among Us; Pendulo has also looked to franchises like Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes for inspiration.
This is perhaps most noticeable when you’re able to stop time in order to examine individuals. Paying attention to small details such as their attire or even handwriting can open up new clues, and there’s a deduction matrix which allows you to mix and match different discoveries in order to determine additional information. Being a feline, Blacksad can also use his superior sense of smell and hearing to pick up on fresh details.
It all makes for a compelling gameplay loop, with QTE-based fight sequences and player choice thrown in to add interest. You can shape the protagonist in the way that you deem appropriate, and you can observe personality traits in a menu when you pause the game. This, according to the developer, will all have an impact on how characters respond to you – and will also lead to six different endings.
The environments are densely detailed, and there’s a lot to interact with, though it can feel a little linear at times, with certain staircases inexplicably locked away while others can be climbed without issue. The art style gives each corner of the world a vibrant, comic book flavour – although we’re not overly keen on the character models, even if they are faithful to the source material. Personally, we can’t really get past the whole animals in pinstripe suits thing, but whatever turns you on.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is a thing of beauty; it’s heavily influenced by the time period, so it’s all smoky piano melodies and thunderous horns. There is a theme song which has a more modern flavour, but we quite like this contrast between 50s arrangements and contemporary sounds. The voice acting, it has to be said, is similarly strong – a problem, sometimes, for games with this kind of budget.
It’s dark as well: the developer’s touching on delicate subject matter, like racism and sexism. Naturally this will require a deft hand, but from what we’ve seen of the script so far, it appears to be tackling the issues relatively sensitively. Still, it’s worth pointing out that despite the comic book style, this is a particularly mature plot, with murder, suicide, adultery, and more all taking centre stage in the opening act.
Perhaps our biggest concern thus far is that the gameplay can be cumbersome; getting the whiskered gumshoe to interact with certain key objects can take several seconds of tedious positioning, while the pacing is glacial if you hit a brick wall. The build we played also had some serious audio issues, but it was a pre-release demo and we’re confident obvious bugs like that will be ironed out by release day.
As newcomers to an already established universe, though, we came away intrigued. Like its subtitle suggests, Blacksad gets under your skin, and we’re genuinely curious to see where this story goes. Pendulo is borrowing gameplay elements from a variety of different developers, but it’s blending them in a gripping manner, with good production values to boot. If the story can remain strong over the course of the campaign’s running time, then this could very well be a case worth solving come 26th September.
This preview is based on a trip to Paris, and the publisher paid travel expenses. Will you be taking on notes on this title in your casebook? Purr like a private eye in the comments section below.