BLACKSAD: UNDER THE SKIN -a version of 1950s

This is a noir thriller set in 1950s New York that dutifully hits the notes you’d expect. In the biggest ‘however’ you’ll come across all year though, thanks to the comics this draws from, every single character is an anthropomorphised animal.Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.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.

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.Fail to press the right button at the right time, and you die. Immediately. Snap, neck broken, press a button to retry. It’s such a sudden, enraging start. But if you’re not murdered by an ungulate in the game’s opening seconds, you discover the rhino is in fact the unfaithful husband of your client, and is offering you a big stack of money to lie about his affair. It’s a big decision, right out of the gate.

Many of them are also somewhat sexualised. I’ve interviewed an unnervingly buff Rottweiler lying in a hospital bed, desperately tried to ignore the cleavage of a buxom cheetah secretary despite the game’s best efforts, and had to process the sight of a sexy cat in a short tennis skirt.It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz. 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).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.

The game is littered with well-framed decisions like this, and takes track of your choices to paint a picture of your version of the character. You can be a hard-boiled, hard-hearted street bastard who trusts no one, or a kind soul, always ready to give suspects the benefit of the doubt.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.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.You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men.

There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.Although you’ll have to do plenty of environment combing for documents and other clues, there’s no inventory. Instead, you’ll be told when you’ve gathered enough info to make at least one new deduction. You then adopt a thoughtful pose, and have a think about which two (or more) facts or theories to combine in order to reach a new conclusion. This is rarely challenging, but that helps keep things going.This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not–the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

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.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.

You will always be Blacksad, however: a feline iteration of the archetypal PI, hired by a damsel in distress to investigate the disappearance of a boxing star, who was the protégé of her father, until he took his own life. (Be warned – despite everyone being a fun animal, Blacksad deals with some fairly dark topics).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. 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.

The unfaithful rhino charges into your office, there’s a bit of action, and some interesting choices to make. The client that drives the story then makes an appearance, the daughter of a leopard(?) who apparently died by suicide in the boxing gym that he ran. Needless to say, things aren’t that simple, but the experience begins to drag just as you start to pick up on suspicious details. There’s a lot of trudging around the same few locations and talking to the same few people. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.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.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.