Blacksad: Under the Skin Review — A Mystery Not Worth Solving
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a twisty whodunit that is unraveled by more bugs than you can count.
John Blacksad is a hard-boiled private eye who lives in the grimy streets of 1950s New York City. He is also an anthropomorphic cat. The comic book series is a gritty, noir-styled look at America in the 50s, with storylines covering racial segregation, nuclear war, Communism, and much more. On paper, the series is ripe for adaptation. Unfortunately, Pendulo Studios’ adventure game Blacksad: Under the Skin doesn’t do the excellent source material justice.
Under the Skin is a typical, post-Walking Dead adventure game. You play as the titular Blacksad in this murder mystery surrounding a boxing gym owner. Gameplay consists of you flipping back-and-forth between sections of choice-based dialogue and free-roaming exploration. The choices don’t seem to change the outcome of the game much. Instead, they just let you decide what kind of Blacksad you’ll be playing. Will your Blacksad focus on profit above anything or will he help his client out of the kindness of his heart? It’s all just there for flavor.
When it works, the game part of Under the Skin is, at best, serviceable. Unfortunately, the game is kind of a technical mess in its current state. I quickly lost count of how many bugs I saw during my 10 hours with it. And the list of bugs really runs the gamut. Dialog drops in and out in the middle of scenes. Text will pop up on the screen that is obviously supposed to give you important details but instead just reads as different error codes. Background noise is oddly not present in many scenes. Heck, there was even a section where my Blacksad turned invisible for five minutes before magically appearing back on screen.
I never thought I’d say this about a modern adventure game, but Blacksad: Under the Skin makes the Telltale engine look like a technical marvel. Even putting aside the bugs, the game has problems. Outside of Blacksad (who obviously got the most detail work), all the animals you interact with are extremely wooden. Their mouths move and the words are interesting, but it feels more like talking to a board than an animal person.
None of this is game-breaking. The game didn’t once crash on me. In fact, for the first few hours, it was just kind of comical. However, over the course of the game, the bugs started to wear on me. Pendulo does claim to have a patch on the way, so when you’re reading this, some of this could be ironed out. Unfortunately, for me, the overall experience was tainted by how messy Blacksad: Under the Skin is in its current state.
And even when the bugs do scurry under the bed, the video game part of Under the Skin leaves much to be desired. Everything feels so sluggish. Blacksad obviously took a dip in the molasses pool. Seriously, even my 90-year-old grandmother is walking behind him in the mall wishing he would get the heck out of her way. And every time you interact with an object expect the game to linger on the text much longer than necessary. I’m sure a ton of time was spent writing that single sentence of dialog, but I don’t need a minute to read twelve words. In a game where inspecting things in the environment and walking around are two of the three biggest forms of player interaction, Under the Skin made me wish I could just skip all of that and get to the story.
Sadly, the bug-ridden, mostly bad gameplay is a wet blanket on what could be a solid adventure game. The story doesn’t tread much new ground, but it is a twisty tale of intrigue that kept me engaged throughout. While it might not have anything to say about some of the things it presents – topics like racial segregation felt more like callbacks to the comic series than anything else – it does present a whodunit full of curveballs. So, while it doesn’t reach the heights of the series it’s based on, I found the story worth playing through. It was just a slog to get to the good parts.
Some of the voice acting work is also worth praise. In particular, I thought the actor who plays Jake Ostiombe did an admirable job of bringing the character to life. Jake plays a minor role in the comics, but they really flesh him out in Under the Skin. His role as the wise-cracking, New York tough guy might be my favorite part of the entire game. O’Leary and Cassidy also have fun turns as Blacksad’s main antagonists.
And, while the game is filled with bugs, the interactive deduction mechanic is a clever twist for the genre. At the very least, it breaks up the monotony of QTEs that the game is full of. Basically, as you gather clues, Blacksad is able to put them together to form new deductions. Of course, you can just mindlessly link things until a new deduction pops, but when you engage with the mechanic it’s actually quite ingenious. I don’t think it makes up for everything else in the game; however, I would love to see it expanded upon in the future. At the very least, it adds a little more interaction into a genre that could use it.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a tough game to recommend in its current state. The property the game is based upon is beloved and the developers have done a worthy job in translating the atmosphere of that world. The story, while less ambitious, fits right into what Blacksad is all about. The setting feels unique in the video game space and I would love to see it explored in more depth.
However, when Under the Skin becomes an actual video game, it mostly fails. Sure, bugs are correctable and a potential patch could clean a lot of those issues up. That said, what we have right now is a bug-riddled mess that is teetering awfully close to being broken. Whether you can put up with that or not, will largely form your opinion of the game.
Personally, I’m willing to put up with a lot of jank, meaning Under the Skin was mostly worth it for me. However, I fully recognize I’m likely in the minority. Blacksad: Under the Skin will probably only appeal to fans of the comic or anyone looking to jump into them. This is too bad because the developers had a chance to bring a whole new audience to Juan Diz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s excellent series about a street-tough cat detective and his universe of interesting animal pals.