Spinning an intriguing tale of murder and corruption set against an eye-catching noir background, there’s a lot to like about Microids’ Blacksad: Under the Skin.
You also get to play as a cat. A big, suit-wearing, anthropomorphic detective cat. It’s not quite as weird as it sounds once you learn that every character in Blacksad is an animal of some kind. Wolves, dogs, gorillas, foxes; you name it, there’s a full safari of animals to be found here.
While based on a series of graphic novels of the same name, Blacksad: Under the Skin tells its own story that requires no previous knowledge of the source material. Of course, being familiar with some of the characters and the setting may give you a little more affinity with the game, but it’s very much a standalone experience. You’re in control of John Blacksad, who’s been tasked with investigating the death of boxing club owner Joe Dunn. He was found hanging in his own gym – but it’s no ordinary suicide; it’s a staged murder. Cue Blacksad’s investigation into the dark underbelly of the boxing world, where he’ll come face-to-face with gangsters, wrong’uns, and all kinds of shady characters.
What immediately struck me while playing Blacksad is the quality of the voice acting. For a game far from the reaches of AAA, it’s exceptionally acted. Every character has been brought to life with passion and finesse; there’s rarely a line that stands out as being under-performed compared to the rest, and that’s refreshing. So too is the artwork depicting each of Blacksad‘s characters; they’re a curious bunch, but their designs – from a boxing champion Rottweiler to a shady reptilian doctor – are masterfully executed.
That probably makes it more of a shame that, in terms of graphical fidelity, Blacksad: Under the Skin isn’t much of a looker when playing on Xbox One X. It’s clear the game hasn’t been enhanced for Microsoft’s mid-generation refresh: textures are often flat, edges are rough and the resolution doesn’t appear to be even close to 1080p, never mind 4K. It doesn’t exactly detract from the overall experience, but it’s a shame that the beautiful and mysterious world created here can’t be enjoyed to its full potential.
That’s about the only technical downfall I’ve experienced while playing the game, which is a surprise judging by the game’s rocky launch. Originally scheduled to release on console on 14th November, some kind of “technical error” led to Blacksad releasing two weeks early, devoid of a necessary day one patch. Early reviews of the game suggest it was almost unplayable, but thankfully waiting a month before jumping in has paid off since subsequent patches have seemingly fixed any major issues. If you tried the game in early November and were met with a myriad of issues, I daresay it’s worth giving it another go.
Blacksad‘s gameplay feels like a happy medium between the QTE-driven style of Telltale games, and the investigation-led exploration of more traditional 3D ‘point and click’ games like Grim Fandango. There’s a healthy mix of both, with the player often taking control of Blacksad as he wanders an environment, scouring for clues and talking to key characters. It regularly switches to long-form cutscenes, too, interspersed with quick time events that require you to push a button quickly, tilt a stick or hammer an action. There are plenty of dialogue choices as well, some with short timers, meaning this is a game that requires your attention at all times.
Thankfully, the quick time events rarely feel too difficult or unfair. They’re kept pretty simple, with only one or two inputs required; you’re only likely to fail if you’re not paying attention. Sometimes, missing a QTE has little consequence; other times, it’ll lead to your death. While your choices and inputs don’t have a massive effect on Blacksad: Under the Skin‘s outcome, they can influence some things, such as how other characters react to you. Sometimes, there’s only one correct option (as others lead to death), but occasionally you’re free to make your own moral choices, allowing your version of Blacksad’s character to be shaped somewhat.
If you’re a fan of point-and-click adventure games and have a penchant for gritty murder mysteries, there’s a lot to like in Blacksad: Under the Skin. Excellent characterisation and acting brings this quirky yet dark world to life with gusto, and the game’s narrative moves at a steady enough pace that you’re always kept interested. It’s a shame the graphics don’t look as sharp as they should on Xbox One X, but it’s a small issue in an otherwise unique game.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We reviewed the Xbox One version.
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