BLACKSAD: UNDER THE SKIN
By Ferry "Sadhonker" Adams on November 21, 2019
Everybody wants to be a cat! Well, probably not everybody. Although, even if you're not a cat person, you have to admit that there are a quite a few upsides to the feline life. For instance: you always land on your feet, when you're hungry you only need to call out and diner is brought to you, you can go your own way and people will think it's natural, you can sleep all day long and still be called adorable. Is that all? No, because, last but not least, you can use your talents to solve a more than suspicious looking suicide case... wait, what?
Yes, dear readers, it's time to get our claws out and sink our proverbial teeth in a case that looks simple at first, but turns out to be everything but! How? Well, by crawling into the mind of a cat detective named John Blacksad. Now, John is indeed a cat, but not your everyday meowing ball of fluff. No sir, he is an anthropomorphic cat, so he acts, walks and talks like a human being. Everybody in 1950's New York, for that is the setting of the game, seems to be some sort of animal-turned-human. But beware, because this town is no petting zoo. It's a dog eat dog place and you'll have to be on your guard at all times... Welcome to the jungle, baby!
It's the early 1950's when John Blacksad, private investigator, is hired by Sofia Dunn, daughter of legendary prize-fighter-turned-gym-owner-and-boxing-coach, Joe Dunn to investigate her father's apparent suiced. Now normally, a suicide needs little investigating, but somehow this one seems off. What reasons did Dunn have to kill himself? As far as we can gather, none at all. Furthermore, there are a few other circumstances that can be called suspicious, to say the very least. For one, where is Dunn's star pupil, Robert Yale, who is on the verge of making it big-time in the world of boxing? Or who do the footsteps left behind at the gym belong to? These, and many, many more questions just beg to be answered. Now, doing so needs a keen mind, so it's up to you, Blacksad, to use all your wiles and cat senses to solve this case and see that justice is done!
Blacksad: Under the Skin is a detective adventure game, developed by Pendulo Studios and published by Micro´ds. The game is based on a Spanish comic book series, created by Juan DÝaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. Although it is based on said comics, Under the Skin is a brand new story, filled with a number of unique characters, as well as a few characters you might know from the comics. You control John Blacksad as he makes his way through the streets, alleys and buildings of New York City, investigating the death of Joe Dunn. To solve the case, you'll have to gather clues by investigating the environments and talking to other characters.
To move John around, the developers opted for a direct control system, as opposed to the usual point 'n click system they used in their previous games. This means you can move John around as you see fit and even pan the camera to get a better view of your surroundings. Now, with John being a veteran private eye, he has a good... well... eye, I suppose for clues in the environment. Because of this, points of interest will be revealed to you as you approach them and can be investigated with the press off a button. Sometimes, multiple points of interest will be visible at the same time. When this happens, you can freely switch between them and select the one you want to investigate first.
Of course, a good P.I. makes use of all his senses when on the case and John Blacksad is no exception to this universal rule. While interacting with other characters, John can call upon his cat senses to evaluate and investigate the present situation and extract clues that will help him bring the current conversation or interaction to a successful close. When using these senses, the screen shifts into a greyscale mode and time crawls to a halt, giving Blacksad plenty of time to process clues... most of the time, that is, but we'll come back to that later. The clues that can be found when using the cat senses are divided into three categories: sound, image or smell. A counter next to the individual icons at the edge of your screen tells you how many clues in that particular category can be found in the current scene.
Now, finding clues is all well and good, but you wouldn't be much of a detective if you weren't able to combine them into evidence, now would you? Luckily, John is perfectly capable of making deductions, based on the evidence he has found so far. Whenever enough clues are gathered, a message will alert you to the possibility of making a deduction. By pressing a button, we step into John's "Mind Palace" and can see the clues he gathered so far. By clicking on a clue, it is added to the deduction menu. By correctly combining it with another clue, we can make a deduction and gather new information on the case or on any of the characters involved. The fun thing about this is that, once you made a successful deduction, the resulting clue might be the one you need to make another deduction, and so on, and so on. Personally, I think it's a very clever system and really fun to use.
All information you manage to scrounge up about the various characters you'll come across is written down in your journal. This journal can be called upon if you're stuck or just want to know more about a certain character. Every page contains an abbreviated backstory of every character, plus every scrap of info you managed to uncover so far. It is a helpful tool if you want to get your thoughts in order or decide where to go next. Now, his journal is not the only book in John's possession; he also has a Hall of fame sticker book. During your adventures, be sure to keep an eye out for collectible sports cards or pieces thereof. After you find them, you can stick them in your Hall of Fame album and build an extensive collection of no less than 100 cards or card pieces.
Another thing to keep an eye out for during your investigation, are quick-time events. These usually occur when Blacksad gets into trouble and has to fight or hide in order not to get caught and have his life cut short by, oh I don't know... a frantic Red Panda wielding a shotgun, for example. Does that sound strange? Well, to use the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive: you ain't seen nothing yet! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, John can actually die during the course of his investigation. Now, this doesn't mean you'll have to start the entire game over from scratch, but it does mean you'll have to redo everything from your last checkpoint. Talking about doing stuff over; if you're not happy with the outcome of your actions, you can always decide to go back in the story and restart your adventure from selected points in time. This timeline is presented as (what else were you expecting) a comic book. Again, a really nice touch that is totally in tune with the rest of the game.
It's not only in these situations that time is a factor in the game. More often than not, giving answers or asking questions during conversations has a time limit. The difference is that, when in a conversation, the other party doesn't fill you with lead if the time's up. It will mostly mean that Blacksad will remain silent and the other party can take that however they like, maybe steering the conversation in another direction than you originally planned. There are also sections of the game where you'll need to complete an objective before a timer runs out, sometimes even resulting in your death. Whatever the case, failing to complete the task before time runs out means that you'll have to try again. This system does help to keep you on your toes during the entire game and is a fun addition to this already very cool game.
With so much going for it, does Blacksad: Under the Skin have a downside? I'm sorry to say it does. While the game truly shines in the art, story and game mechanics departments, it feels somewhat clunky from time to time as far as the controls are concerned. I played the game on PC and this issue may be caused by the age of my PC, but navigating the various environments is not always as easy and smooth as I hoped it would be. The controls feel sluggish at times and discovering some points of interest is a case of standing in just the right spot at just the right angle which, every now and again, results in a form of pixel hunting. Again, that may just occur when playing the PC version or even just when playing it on my specific system, but it can get a bit frustrating from time to time. Luckily, the story, the cast of awesome characters and the overall quality of the game more than make up for this minor issue.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is currently available on PC, Mac, Playstation 4 and Xbox One, with a Nintendo Switch version soon to follow. The developers at Pendulo Studios did their best to bring this strange yet beautiful and mysterious world to life and I can only come to the conclusion that they truly succeeded in doing so! Blacksad: Under the Skin is a more than solid detective game, featuring an intricate story, a veritable buffet of cool characters and challenging investigative puzzles. The addition of deductions and John's cat senses give the game an additional dimension and help to immerse the player in the richness of the story. The game also features multiple endings, giving it a higher replay value than a regular puzzle adventure game, because you can go and try a different approach to see what results that may yield. So, if you're into detective games, why not give this game a whirl. Get out there and start unraveling this web of deceit, crime and passion during one of the strangest cases you'll ever come across!