Blacksad: Under the Skin Review – Switch

Blacksad: Under the Skin is a point and click detective game similar to Telltale Games outings like The Walking Dead and most of all, The Wolf Among Us. Like the Wolf Among Us, it is also based on a cult comic book series “Blacksad” which followed the story of John Blacksad an anthropomorphic cat man in late 1950’s America. The world of Blacksad is full of anthropomorphic characters including foxes, lions and reptiles. Whereas The Wolf Among Us would use it’s more fantastical elements as a jumping off point for mysteries and cases, Blacksad uses the species of a character to stereotype and communicate intricate details of the character. The Foxes are cunning and are more likely to be mob bosses and the amphibians are cold blooded and cruel.

In Blacksad: Under the Skin, you play as John Blacksad a private investigator tasked with investigating the suspicious suicide of Joe Dunn, the owner of a Boxing club and the subsequent disappearance of its top fighter Bobby Yale. Immediately you’re dropped into the story which I really appreciated because it caters for long time fans who already have a love for the series and characters but also gives you enough that newcomers to Blacksad are not lost either. I hadn’t heard of Blacksad before I had the chance to play this, but at no point did I feel like I was missing out on crucial information.

The dark tones of Blacksad contrast with the anthropomorphic characters and really helps the series stand out.

The gameplay consists of exploration and dialogue sections that fans of Telltale outings will be very familiar with. While exploring the world and questioning witnesses you will sometimes gather certain clues that when combined allow you to make a deduction. Combining two or more often contradicting or associated clues and making a deduction will allow you to progress in certain situations by either allowing you more options in the exploration sections or opening up more conversation topics in the dialogue sections of the game. The deductions system was a cool idea that allowed Blacksad: Under the Skin to be a bit more cerebral and more of a detective game than just a standard narrative affair, however, often the game makes interesting (and sometimes frustrating) logical leaps with what clues can be used for deductions and at what times. At times I was left scratching my head how two pieces of evidence equalled a certain conclusion and at times when I wanted to explore my train of thought, I wouldn’t have the freedom to choose the clues I wanted in the deduction menu only for them to become available at a later point.

Another issue I found with the deductions is that often the game notifies you when a deduction is available which kinda feels like it goes against the nature of including such a function in the first place. Though I can understand that maybe you don’t want the player to become too lost in trying to smash their heads against the sometimes confounding ingame logic, I feel like this is something that should be solved at a more fundamental level than just making a notification blip and telling you when you should engage with it. If the game’s logic for deductions followed a more consistent through-line there would be no necessity for the deduction notification.

On the most part however, I found how hands off the game tended to be with its exploration to be quite a breath of fresh air from the modern adventure game. No mission objectives telling you where to go and who to talk to and things in the environment can only be seen and selected when you’re close to them, so you have to pay close attention while sniffing for clues. That’s not to say that sometimes your agency isn’t taken away from you and I often found the game snatching me away from instances where I can explore environments and look for collectables and teleporting me to the next scripted sequence or environment. Hidden throughout the world are collectable sports cards which you can collect and place in a “Hall of Fame” album. These are standard collectable affair with many scattered in the different environments, but given the nature of the game not being a fully open world, you can often find yourself missing a few with no ability to try and find them without playing the whole game again.

Small details in the environment build up the world and its characters.

The dialogue sections give you many options when talking to possible suspects or witness’ and meaningfully allow you to shape the conversation and effect your connection to other characters. Blacksad also uses a timed response that makes sure that you’re on your toes at all times. Take too long to answer and you’ll end up staying silent, and even that will have a great effect on how the story progresses going forward. The game keeps track of almost every decision you make in these conversations in the “Your Blacksad” and through this you can see how much you’ve shaped Blacksad, is he strong and silent, is he tough but fair or does he crave connection with those around him? The level of customisation of the central character feels more involved than other games in the genre and the effects it has on the story is palpable.

All of these ingredients together should create a perfect narrative experience. With the great execution in the world-building, the cool anthropomorphised characters, the hands off exploration and the great variety of dialogue options. All of these elements should come together to create a perfect game and it does… kind of.

Dialogue options vary as you engage with characters that are more than just black or white.

The biggest failing of Blacksad: Under the Skin is in its performance on the Switch hardware. Plagued by near constant frame rate drops and blurry textures, the result is a game that you know is supposed to look as visually striking as Dontnods Life is Strange series, but fails in its execution and ultimately it’s just disappointing to see it chugging along.

Even the most forgiving player could look past flaws like this if it weren’t for the fact that these issues very much effect the gameplay. The previously mentioned frame rate drops lead to quick time events (used to heighten the tension in cutscenes) causing unfair deaths as you’re not given enough time to react to on-screen prompts. This happened to me almost every time and even though the game is quite generous with checkpoints so you don’t have to go back too far if you fail one of these; however, since you’re put back into the exact same situation, once again you have almost no time to react to what input is being asked of you and that will result in failing again and having to watching the same cutscenes over and over.

The game has very long loading times, whether it be a first time boot up or loading between scenes and different areas. And after every load screen textures will pop in or just not load at all, leading to entirely texture-less characters or environment objects. Every time you access a menu like the deduction menu or the notebook you are greeted with a jittery load as you can tell the game is trying it’s best.

Blacksad is also rife with various glitches, almost every time I boot the game I’m greeted with something new, such as loading me into a cutscene allowing me full control of Blacksad while action and cinematic camera angles are happening, T Posing character models, Blacksads head doing an almost 360 degree turn in a tense cutscene, NPCs walking in front of the camera obscuring the view and even full game crashes. It’s really hard to look past these flaws as they did hamper my play experience. Although some of the glitches were funny at times, nothing takes you out of the immersion more than the game soft locking in a tense fight scene and then having to sit through the incredibly long load times to try and fix it.

You almost start to feel bad for noticing these issues as you can tell that the effort and love for the source material is there. The team at Pendulo Studios and YS Interactive clearly tried their best but unfortunately Blacksad: Under the Skin on Nintendo Switch does not run well at all and it really is disappointing. The publisher Microids has informed me that a patch to address many of the issues I’ve raised here is on the way. We’ll update this review with all the relevant information when that update comes.

Gritty Noire locales aplenty throughout this game.

The world of Blacksad is a gritty representation of America in the 50’s and it touches on topics pertinent to the time such as racism and sexism, I really appreciated that the game doesn’t shy away from the topics of the time and it doesn’t romanticise them. However, I think using a world full of animal stereotypes as a bedrock to tell your story about racial prejudice in the ’50s is maybe missing the mark a little bit. You end up legitimising the racism of the time if say, all the fox characters in game are conniving and all the simian characters excel at sports and athletics. Though, I’m willing to accept I may be wrong on this.

The comparisons of Blacksad: Under the Skin and Telltale Game’s outings work both in the games favour and against it. Fans of the now defunct Telltale will appreciate Blacksads approach to the genre with the point and click elements that provide more challenge and the dialogue sections that are more liberating and give more freedom in how you want to shape the central character. On the other hand, Blacksad: Under the Skin does embody some of the less desirable parts of Telltale Games back catalogue with poor lip syncing and other animation bugs while having problems unique to the Switch version like poor load times, poor frame rate and numerous crashes.

The problems with Blacksad: Under the Skin are almost entirely on a technical level and with the clear love for the source material and sheer promise of what the game could be on display by Pendulo Studios and YS Interactive, I’m intently waiting on a patch to fix all the issues so I can quickly get back into the shoes of the thrilling crime solving cat detective.

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