NEED TO KNOW
What is it? Game noir with a detective cat, an unhinged fox, and an untrustworthy walrus.
Expect to pay $40/£35
Developer Pendulo Studios, Ys Interactive
Reviewed on GeForce GTX 1650, AMD Ryzen 5 3550H, 8 GB RAM
Link Official site
This should have been a brilliant game. In fact, it is—in bursts. How could it not be? You play as a cat called John who looks like Batman wearing Columbo’s coat; a cat with his own detective agency. This is a noir thriller set in 1950s New York that dutifully hits the notes you’d expect. In the biggest 'however' you’ll come across all year though, thanks to the comics this draws from, every single character is an anthropomorphised animal.
I can not stress enough that Blacksad: Under The Skin is essentially a 9-hour fever dream. This fact is key to almost every compliment and criticism that can be hurled at the game. The story opens with a rhino angry that you’ve got photos of him cheating on his wife with a fox, for goodness sake!
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the animals haven’t just been given human shapes and clothing. Many of them are also somewhat sexualised. I’ve interviewed an unnervingly buff Rottweiler lying in a hospital bed, desperately tried to ignore the cleavage of a buxom cheetah secretary despite the game’s best efforts, and had to process the sight of a sexy cat in a short tennis skirt. I feel like I have, as L.V. once sang, been spending most my life living in the furry’s paradise.
Desperately claw away at the surreal surface, and you’ll eventually find an adventure game that combines a Telltale-style dialogue system with something akin to the Mind Palace in the Sherlock games. Although you’ll have to do plenty of environment combing for documents and other clues, there’s no inventory. Instead, you’ll be told when you’ve gathered enough info to make at least one new deduction. You then adopt a thoughtful pose, and have a think about which two (or more) facts or theories to combine in order to reach a new conclusion. This is rarely challenging, but that helps keep things going.
It’s possible to die by making a bad decision, but the game generously allows you to reload almost immediately to rectify your mistake. You’ll occasionally be called upon to use your cat senses to pick up on small details, something that is so straightforward as to be arguably superfluous. Blacksad is, generally, a smooth experience. When I get stuck, it’s because I’ve missed a vital but poorly placed item, or—on one occasion memorable for all the wrong reasons—because of an awkward and unexplained QTE.
Things start off so well. The unfaithful rhino charges into your office, there’s a bit of action, and some interesting choices to make. The client that drives the story then makes an appearance, the daughter of a leopard(?) who apparently died by suicide in the boxing gym that he ran. Needless to say, things aren’t that simple, but the experience begins to drag just as you start to pick up on suspicious details. There’s a lot of trudging around the same few locations, and talking to the same few people. The story picks up again afterwards, but this stop-start pace continues throughout.
The two obvious options with this game were to either play everything for laughs, or double down on the noir aspect, and make a bravely gritty animal crime thriller. Pendulo Studios appears to have chosen the latter, but it doesn’t quite work. I get a glimpse of what could have been when I first meet tennis star Helen Moore, whose withering sarcasm constantly deflects my attempts to probe for information. The norm however is a story that would be much less interesting with humans instead of animals, and patches of painfully exposition-tastic dialogue.
While the use of sexy animals makes some flaws invisible or easy to forgive, it often leads to unintentional hilarity, which can weaken the experience. I laugh out loud at the sight of a cat driving a forklift, especially because the cat is me. More damningly however, the line "Do you know what it’s like to kill a friend for the sake of the mission?" doesn’t have the emotional impact the writers think it does when it’s spoken by a horse.
Somewhat unwisely, the script now and again dips its toes into the murky waters of racial issues (one of your first discoveries is misspelled racist graffiti). Trying to process an issue as powerful and important as racism through a fantastical lens is difficult even for the most gifted of writers. Here, at best, it falls flat—but thankfully doesn’t play a significant part in the story.
Blacksad’s enjoyable (both intentionally and unintentionally), and I must confess to being devastated at not reacting quickly enough to save the life of a character at the very end of the game. Still, it’s not the game it could—and should—have been.