Blacksad: Under the Skin is an adventure game set in 1950s New York where all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. It’s based on a gritty comic book series created by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, but you don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the game.
There’s a definite film noir style going on here, with stylishly moody lighting, an intricate plot, and plenty of malevolent characters in a sleazy setting. The titular character John Blacksad is a gruff and world weary private eye whose latest case will have you investigating a missing person before getting caught up in a murder mystery.
While many of the characters you meet are a little clichéd that doesn’t mean that they aren’t entertaining. In fact where the game really shines is with some of those that only play minor parts. At one point you’ll have to impersonate a Texan gambler in a poker game with a bunch of criminals. The game does a really good job at fleshing out a backstory for pretty much everyone you meet, and these guys are no exception. Hearing about their colourful pasts will leave you wanting to take justice into your own hands.
While you are kept on a fairly tight leash in terms of what you can investigate, the game does try to give you the illusion that your choices make a difference. There’s an early part of the story that lets you decide whether to out a cheating husband to his spouse, and how you decide to handle it can have ramifications later on. Although for the most part many of your choices will only have very minor impacts on the story.
If you’re a fan of the point-'n-click genre or any of the Telltale games then you’ll be familiar with how this one works. You can walk around, investigate objects, and talk to people. Like a lot of adventure games there are also plenty of quick time events where you’ll need to react fast to avoid a painful end for poor Blacksad.
During conversations you’ll only have a limited amount of time to decide how you’re going to respond. Occasionally it feels like the time limits are a little too short considering the amount of text you need to read. We’d occasionally end up making choices that we probably wouldn’t have done if we’d had a bit longer to think it over.
Not everything is put up against a time limit, though. You’ll be able to investigate and sniff out new clues with the aid of Blacksad’s ‘cat senses’, which allow you to zoom in and use his heightened sense of sight, hearing, and smell. Piecing together different clues to make new deductions makes you feel like quite the perceptive detective.
Voice acting can make or break a game like this and thankfully Blacksad doesn’t disappoint. Every voice actor does a brilliant job at encapsulating their character, which makes it a bit of a shame that the lip syncing is not particularly great. While a lot of work has obviously been done to make sure that Blacksad looks the part, many of the other characters fall short. Sure, it’s probably quite difficult to capture a talking rhino's mouth or an eagle’s beak in a way that looks natural, but when their lips sometimes keep flapping even after they’ve finish speaking, it’s a bit distracting to say the least.
Sadly, poor lip syncing is not the only issue that this game has. Textures are all over the place, either suddenly popping in, or failing to load at all. There was one point where we were supposed to be sneakily taking photos of a couple of suspects, but nine big black boxes obscured most of the screen, leading us to repeatedly fail the objective. What's more, most of the time when using our ‘cat senses’ to zoom in and find clues, a grey haze would obscure everything, making it a really frustrating experience.
There were also issues with temperamental subtitles, which sometimes refused to appear unless we rebooted -- but the game crashes so often that you probably won't notice it too much. It becomes really tedious having to constantly replay whole sections of the game because it's crashed yet again, or is refusing to load the next conversation properly.
The state that the game is currently in is genuinely disappointing. When it works it’s a really entertaining adventure with its deliciously gritty film noir style setting which is filled to the brim with seedy larger-than-life characters. But in its current buggy state, it feels like a real slog to play through.
Even if you’re not familiar with Blacksad’s previous adventures, fans of games like L.A. Noire or any of the Telltale adventures will find something to like about Blacksad: Under the Skin. It’s a real shame, then, that the game is so buggy on release. Numerous technical issues really spoil what would otherwise be a very entertaining whodunit.