Detective games can be an unpredictable sort. Their quality often comes down to A) how engaging the core mystery is, and B) how well its mechanics blend with the traditional features of their chosen genre. At their collective best, Telltale and LucasArts really nailed this delicate balance, but some of the recent Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games are a reminder that it’s just as easy to lose track of what makes a fun interactive whodunit. Spanish developer Pendulo Studios has been making graphic adventure games since the mid-’90s, so we headed into this review of Blacksad: Under the Skin with a great sense of expectation.
Drawing inspiration from one of the most popular comic book series to come out of Spain, you’re cast as John Blacksad, a gruff, trenchcoat-wearing private investigator who just so happens to be a giant black cat. He’s your classic Raymond Chandler-esque antihero, with a sardonic outlook on life and a penchant for dealing out violent justice when it’s needed (especially when the money is good). And when an angry rhino bursts into his predictably smoke-filled office and attempts to take Blacksad’s head clean off, it’s clear Under the Skin isn’t serving up the storybook fairytale its anthropomorphic 1950s setting might suggest.
The game itself follows the usual modern adventure game template, with its action split between cutscenes and dialogue filled with the occasional QTE, and explorative sections where you’ll examine a scene for clues. The visuals Pendulo has opted for – something between the vibrant comic panels of the source material and a more semi-realistic aesthetic – make every gangster-filled speakeasy and crime-filled alley jump off the screen with a sense of atmospheric personality, although Blacksad’s unwieldy tank controls are far less attractive. Tank controls didn’t ruin the likes of Grim Fandango because they were an accepted feature of the time, but 20 years on developers really shouldn’t be employing clunky control schemes in their games.
While its fixed camera scenes and controls are very much stuck in the past, its deduction system is far more streamlined and modern. Inventories can often prove to be the bane of a game like this, but there’s no need to worry as Pendulo Studios has completely removed the need to collect and combine items in the vain hope it’ll solve a frustrating brain teaser. Instead, you’ll focus on sniffing out clues, which you’ll collect in your very own feline mind palace. It’s a very simple system, and often doesn’t require a huge amount of deduction to draw reliable conclusions (unless you’ve missed a key clue), but it works well enough if you’re happy accepting that not every conclusion makes actual sense.
And, quite fittingly for a character who looks like a furry cosplaying as Knightmare Batman, Blacksad has a few of the Dark Knight’s detective tricks up his sleeve. Being a cat, you can call on your feline senses to pick out clues from a particular scene in true 'Detective Mode' style, such as picking out suspect footprints or bullet casings. One scene, for instance, sees you being roughed up by a bunch of thugs, but you’ll have an opportunity to slow the scene down and inspect your assailant for clues that open up new dialogue choices. Some of these prove useful, and can sometimes lead to important new clues, but the wildly inconsistent quality of the vocal delivery (Barry Johnson as Blacksad himself is the strongest of the lot, thankfully) and issues with overall performance can often make these sequences a little tedious.
While we can’t comment on Blacksad’s performance on other platforms, the Nintendo Switch port does struggle in places. Animations to tend to chug quite a bit, especially when the camera is swooping through elements in a scene, while loading times can sometimes become excruciatingly long. One example saw us return to Blacksad’s office while his desk phone was ringing – a ringing that continued on for what seemed like an eternity as we stared at a black screen and loading symbol, unable to answer the god-forsaken thing.
As we’ve mentioned, Pendulo has done some incredible work bringing the dark and brooding world of Blacksad to life. From the quality of its slow jazz soundtrack to the collectable Hall of Fame boxing cards you can pick up throughout the city, you can see the painstaking work that’s gone into this adaptation, but the sheer amount of blurring and rasterised assets that have been employed to get it running on Switch is jarring. As you can see from the screenshots, some areas will have you rubbing your eyes in an attempt to banish the blurring, but sadly it’s an unfortunate byproduct of the porting process that’s become the norm for multi-platform releases.
Overall, Blacksad: Under the Skin is both a faithful adaptation and a frustrating example of modern adventure game pitfalls. Fans of the original comics will enjoy seeing Blacksad himself brought to life so accurately, but some inconsistent performances in the voiceover department and some frustratingly unresponsive controls make it a far less enjoyable experience. There’s a really intriguing mystery to unfold and solve, but with some technical problems and a little too much blurring for our liking, you’ll have to grit your teeth if you really want to crack this case on the go.