If you haven’t read the Blacksad series of graphic novels, then you really should. An intoxicating fusion of film noir, detective thriller, political commentary and anthropomorphic adventure, Blacksad is the best thing I’ve read in comicdom for years. Spanish authors Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido have created an incredible world, dealing with difficult themes and wrapping them up in some of the most beautifully and intricately detailed artwork I’ve ever had the good fortune to see.
Having devoured every volume of Blacksad currently available, I was understandably excited to see Pendulo Studios would adapt this into video game form. Could Blacksad: Under the Skin possibly meet my insanely high expectations?
John Blacksad is a private detective, a war veteran and a humanoid panther. He also can rock a trench coat so well that Humphrey Bogart would be proud. As you start investigating the suicide of a boxing gym owner, Joe Dunn, and the mysterious disappearance of his star pupil, it quickly becomes clear that this is a graphic adventure very reminiscent of the work of Telltale Games and the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games. John will explore locations, acquire clues, question suspects, then piece his thoughts together in order to create new lines of enquiry.
John does this by activating a literal ‘thinking mode’. Here all the clues you’ve discovered can be seen and it’s up to the player to then link the relevant and complementary pieces of information together. This system mostly works well and proves effective, though on occasion you’re either ahead of John in what’s going on and waiting for him to catch up, or you’re having to make leaps of logic that don’t really add up.
Just as John Blacksad often takes a beating or two (or five) during his investigations, it’s perhaps entirely appropriate that Pendulo Studios took a drubbing over an unintentional early release of Blacksad: Under the Skin on the European PSN store. Unfortunately this led to reports that the game was broken and virtually unplayable and a hasty patch followed to try and fix the problems, though much of the damage in the eyes of prospective players was already done. Fully patched up, I sat down to play the game after its intended launch, reasonably expecting most technical issues to have been fixed. I was sadly mistaken.
Let’s talk loading times. Good god, those loading times. The environments in Blacksad are definitely on the smaller side, but you wouldn’t know it from the percentage loading indicator, as it painfully and lethargically lurches its way to 100%. The opening sections of the game that see John travel between the boxing gym and a nearby café lose any pace or agency thanks to the frequent black screen of boredom that appears every single time he ventures to a different location. Seeing as you’ll frequently have to travel between the two locations to gather clues, it starts to feel as though the developer is actually trolling the player.
Then there’s the crashes. Oh, the crashes. In my first three hours of playing Blacksad, the game crashed five times. There I was, about to link together a line of enquiry and trigger a dramatic flashback, when John was forever frozen in his eureka moment. After I’d reloaded the game, I thought I could pick up where I left off thanks to a relatively modern autosave function. Oh no, my optimistic but very naïve reader, that was most assuredly not the case. The game just reloaded at some random point. I then spent more time trying to figure out where I was in my investigation than I did finding clues to solve it. I was not expecting such a meta narrative to emerge.
Worse still, I then had to replay through several sections, only for the game just for it to crash again at the exact same point. Finally, on the third attempt, I made it to the other side, but the crashes would remain an all too frequent part of my playthrough. In a further ridiculous twist, the game actually tracks your storyline progress in a comic book for the player to refer back to. In a moment that made me both laugh and cry, the comic book was telling me I’d made all this progress, only for the game itself, like a cool, calm and horribly smug murder suspect, to resolutely deny any such events had ever happened.
If the loading times and crashes weren’t enough – and they were more than enough for this mild mannered video game journo, believe me – then there’s also frequent glitches and graphical issues. Background NPC’s pop into existence and change their clothes, and often entire identities, without a hint of embarrassment. Also, characters slide through solid matter better than Kitty Pryde could ever dream and demonstrate incredible ventriloquism skills by talking without moving their lips.
Character animation throughout is really lacking. The art in the comics did an incredible job of making the emotions of an animal so easy to read thanks to their clear facial expressions and body language. Here, everyone you meet is so blank faced that no emotion is conveyed at all. The camera hovers for a few seconds after a dramatic moment, clearly meant to be capturing some emotional outburst, but all there is to see is a zombie eyed ferret staring off into the middle distance.
The really, really annoying thing about Blacksad: Under the Skin is that under all this nonsense there’s a good adventure game waiting to be discovered. The story, after a slow start, really picks up pace and weaves a compelling yarn. There’s twists and turns and, every so often, you actually feel like a proper private detective as you piece together a particularly vexing part of the mystery. Then the game breaks again and all that good work goes to waste.
The developers even manage to fumble an interesting new addition to the Telltale formula. John, being a cat, can scan the environment using his heightened senses to discover clues and ascertain the emotional state of characters. It’s a nice feature, but is entirely undermined due to a glitch that covers everything you see with a layer of lurching pixels. Finding anything under that graphical mess was just down to dumb luck.