Not since Discworld Noir have I been so enraptured by a moody game detective spitting out poetic, prophetic musings.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a solid detective mystery. It’s got a sharp opening, a compelling plot, intriguing characters and, for the most part, strong dialogue. And why shouldn’t it? The game is spun off from a beloved comic series with some excellent writing.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when the game’s performance holds it back from its true potential. If it’s not lagging cut-scenes, it’s absent textures, random lines missed, QTEs going unregistered and worst of all, corrupting your save file right at the death so you don’t get to see the very end. Yeah, that happened.
Look, I really liked Blacksad and it does bear a lot of similarities to a Discworld Noir or a Frogwares Sherlock Holmes mystery, something that’s right up my street. But I put up with a lot of technical hiccups all the way through, only for the game to lock up, start me back at an earlier point with a persistent camera issue and nowhere for my character to go. I retried multiple times. Cold boots, different approaches and combinations. Nothing worked. My save game is completely tanked.
It’s a grand failing when an adventure game relies on a single save file. Because now my only choice is starting over and I can’t bring myself to do it right now because I’m angry and frustrated.
So no, I didn’t see the ending, but I saw everything right up to that point and caught up on the rest elsewhere. I’ve played plenty of the game to know what it is and how it works and there’s a really compelling case spun throughout with some smart ideas. Like Blacksad’s mind palace which sees you piece together clues found in the investigation in order to work out your next lead. For instance, matching footprints or characterising a certain smell.
Clues can be discerned from conversations you have with suspects and colleagues, but also from Blacksad’s heightened cat senses which let you close in on someone’s eyes or an object of interest. This can help you find ways to break down their defenses or discover a weakness to help you make the most of each exchange.
QTEs do play a part here, but they’re never very intrusive and the game is quick to let you retry if you fail. Which is a good thing as Blacksad can die a lot out on the New York streets. Gunshots, random muggings, falling out of windows. This is a cat that makes use of every last one of its nine lives.
I suppose that’s what happens when you take on a dangerous case like the mysterious death of a boxing club owner. Joe Dunn is found hanging at the beginning of the game, but after some detective work, Blacksad isn’t sure if he’s dealing with a suicide or a murder. Hired by Joe’s daughter, Sonia, Blacksad learns more about the backstory of the gym, and a huge fight set to take place between the reigning champion and the gym’s own Bobby Yale.
Between all of it, something doesn’t add up and it’s up to Blacksad to put the pieces together and learn the truth about Joe Dunn’s death, his relationship with his daughter, and the fate of an important Heavyweight Title fight with a lot riding on it.
The developers have tried to keep things interesting throughout, mixing up the action in different ways. One time, you need to find a source of light before your lighter fluid runs out, and another time you need to pretend to be a Texan Buffalo at a Poker Game and alternate between events in the past and present. It certainly keeps the tension levels up. Though some of the real-world issues it tries to tackle are handled quite clumsily and aren’t given the real thought and attention they require.
For the most part, though, I was really impressed by the ambition of the game and how it mostly achieves it. Sure, some of the plot points are a bit lacklustre and the direction choices are occasionally … odd. Like focusing on a series of seemingly developing photos for two minutes with characters talking in the background and how Blacksad suddenly seems to teleport from one side of a dockland area to another. Despite that, the game does get a lot of things right.
Blacksad seemed to come out of nowhere for me and it’s a game I mostly enjoyed. But it’s also a game that made me sad because of how much it allows itself to be broken down by bugs and glitches. In a more polished state, this had a real shout of being one of my Games of the Year. As it is, I find it difficult to recommend anything that can break so easily at a critical point in the story and regularly suffer from poor performance.
Perhaps when I’ve cooled down, I’ll dip back in to see if the developers have actually made the necessary fixes. Sadly, I’m just not sure if it’s on their radar.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is now available on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch
Reviewed on PC, supplied by Microids.