THE name Blacksad didn’t mean anything to me when I first saw the e-mail pop up in my inbox.
The fan in my office cast a rotating shadow against the glare of the computer screen and the ice in my whiskey clinked in the summer heat, a siren song telling me it was time to play another computer game.
The details I saw piqued my interest – noir thriller, 1950s setting, a detective mystery – and so, seduced by the thought of being able to unironically wear a proper fedora while working, I decided to take the case – er, I mean review.
I have to admit I am a big fan of the hard-boiled detective genre; full of flawed protagonists who drink, smoke, have ridiculously square jaws and don’t go out without a Colt M1911A1 or Smith & Wesson Model 1917 handgun in their trenchcoat pocket.
Blacksad: Under The Skin is based on a Spanish-French comic series (Blacksad), set in a 1950s New York inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.
Developed by Pendulo Studios and YS Interactive and published by Microids for PC Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, Blacksad: Under The Skin opens with the manager of a boxing gym found dead by apparent hanging suicide and his star athlete missing only a few days from a very important boxing match.
The gym owner’s daughter Sonia hires you, John Blacksad, to solve the mystery and from there you leap into a world of corruption, sex, bribery, murder and cool 1950s fashion.
As you explore settings in the game world you talk to people, highlight clues, add information to create deductions, and then act on that information to advance the story – all pretty standard stuff for the genre.
One of the things I really liked about the game was how it wasn’t afraid to show some of the less sunny sides of the era. Racism and sexism are overtly present, and pretty much everyone smokes. Indeed, John Blacksad himself goes through cigarettes at a rate which would impress Don Draper.
The story is excellent, easily on par with some of the best hard boiled thrillers I’ve read, with spot-on writing and dialogue. While John Blacksad isn’t Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, he is very much of the same ilk, being a tough character with his own moral compass and demons from his past to deal with while doing his best to sort out the mystery in front of him in the present.
The music is spot-on too, perfectly fitting the setting and really adding to the atmosphere, and Blacksad is a particularly self-aware detective who is well acquainted with pulp detective novels and the like – and often makes reference to this in the game.
There are moments of action in the game too – in the form of quicktime events – and some of the decisions you make can have ramifications later on in the game. Indeed, the decision for your very first dilemma you face will reappear unexpectedly much further down the track.
Sadly, Blacksad was let down by performance issues, graphical and audio glitches, and a few bugs in the PC version I reviewed.
The game really seemed to struggle at times on my gaming PC – with an i7 processor and Nvidia RTX 2060 processor, both considerably more powerful than a game of this type should need – and the audio would occasionally glitch out in places too, leaving me wondering if Blacksad was just staring at an item for a long time to draw attention to it, or if there was some exposition or internal monologue I was missing.
Turning subtitles on help as much as I’d hope, as they didn’t always display.
The actual interface was quite clunky too, being mostly keyboard orientated – the mouse controlled the camera but wouldn’t let me highlight clues or deductions or conversation choices, which would have made the game more accessible. The game doesn’t always explain what you need to do to progress and it’s not always logical; in one section it turned out I needed to use a telephone to call a different part of the same building, but there was no indication I knew the number; or even that using the phone was the solution to that situation.
While I really enjoyed the story and the game overall, I thought the third act felt far too rushed, introducing some elements I thought needed to be explored much further but not being given the opportunity.
If you can overlook the graphical and audio issues and the clunky interface, there’s a really good 1950s detective story here. Sure, it’s not LA Noire, but with a bit more polish it could have been something even stronger than the essentially indie detective game it currently is.
I really like the John Blacksad character and would love to see more of him and his world in games – although hopefully next time they’ll have the polish and technical improvements needed to do the character and the setting the justice it deserves.