Games The Visual

Translating Spanish Authors Into the Interactive: “Blacksad: Under the Skin” Review

At its core, "Blacksad: Under the Skin" is a decent detective story. But it suffers from buggy gameplay and questionable choices that frustrate even diehard "Blacksad" fans.

Ever since the first issue of the Blacksad comics debuted in 2000, Spanish comic artist Juan Díaz Canales and illustrator Juanjo Guarnido have been building a cinematic, noir universe set in the 1950s United States. In 2019, the Blacksad universe expanded into video games with Blacksad: Under the Skin. The art’s dripping atmosphere and the writing’s languishing pull have made this comic series successful — but how does that translate into a video game?

In the comic book series, Blacksad is a private eye portrayed as a somber, anthropomorphic black cat with the sarcasm, wit, and expressiveness of a comedian doing stand-up. He gets into various scrapes while trying to solve mysteries, and usually succeeds with his own skills and the cooperation of various side characters. As for personal goals, Blacksad just wants to live in a world where justice can be served, either officially with police involvement, or in the shadows where he tends to thrive.

Blacksad: Under the Skin takes place between the events of the second and third Blacksad comics, Arctic Nation and Red Soul, in which Blacksad and some of the cast grapple with the aftereffects of Natalia Wilford’s murder. The video game focuses on a new murder — the mysterious death of Joe Dunn, the lynx owner of one of few integrated boxing gyms in 1950s New York. It is Sonia Dunn, his daughter, who seeks Blacksad’s help. With an intriguing new plot and new medium, let’s take a closer look at the visuals, gameplay, and story to see how Blacksad’s world fares in the video game format.

The supremely half-baked character models

The best part of the Blacksad comic books is how well the reader is sucked into the art and the story. Guarnido’s drawings are beautiful and free-flowing, featuring deftly chosen watercolors and patterns. Unfortunately, this style is rarely present in a majority of the video game, aside from some flashbacks or moments of tribute to the original comics. The careful detail that went into every panel, and the expressiveness of the characters, is much harder to find. The character models are stiff and not nearly as beautiful or detailed as Guarnido’s artwork, and they’re certainly not able to express such believable facial features or intense emotions.

Besides the obvious contrasts to Guarnido’s incredible artwork, the video game’s immersive experience and narrative is often broken by the characters’ buggy mechanics and stiff reactions. The video game models look half-finished and plasticky, and they even clip through the walls (and each other) at random points throughout the game. There are also lip-syncing issues, and even some missing pieces of dialogue altogether. Rigid, often unbending atmospheres and backgrounds only add to the trouble. For the unseasoned video game enthusiast, attempting to work around these issues on the first go can be daunting. Even if the player has enough memory on their gaming system and the proper update installed, the game will still likely seize up or spazz at some point — and if a restart doesn’t fix the problem, it may be wise to return the product and just get a refund.

Blacksad himself may also need a refund. He wears the same near-homogenous look of disinterest throughout a majority of the game. His stiff clothes and rigid walk make it seem like he has a metal pole going down his spine. This is nothing like his comic book counterpart, who is active, lively, and prone to wide, sarcastic grins (as well as heated snarls). In some of the video game scenes, Blacksad looks like a wet seal, not a lithe cat. When side characters try to emote, they look goofy. It becomes sloppy and hard to look at. This is unfortunate because one of the most impressive things about the comics is how expressive and human the anthropomorphic characters are. In the comics, Blacksad is extremely telling through his facial features. Those muscle twitches and poses say much more than any word that comes out of his mouth — although the words that Blacksad does say are typically well-timed.

Guarnido is a masterful artist in his own right, having cultivated his skill years before he and Canales finally decided to team up, and that is displayed clearly throughout the evolution of the comics. Pendulo Studios, however, had a trying time with Guarnido’s creative style, as they admitted in an interview on RTVE (the largest audiovisual group in Spain). Josué Monchán, co-writer of the video game alongside Ramón Hernáez, states, “The biggest challenge is to move the wonderful world of Guarnido watercolors to 3D, with the limitations that it has. Guarnido spends a lot of time in each vignette and we can’t afford it. Our priority is to get 15 hours of playability. Imagine what it would be like to try to recreate those 15 hours with the care Guarnido performs in each vignette.”

Clearly, for as much as Pendulo Studios said they were true “fans” of Canales and Guarnido’s work, they fell short.

Unreliable controls, dreaded QTEs, and frustrating camera angles

After the player hits “New Game” on the main menu, they are thrust into a mini-game where they, as Blacksad, must correctly time the sequence of buttons and controls which appear on the screen. This sequence echoes a few panels of the first comic book, and there is similar copying and pasting throughout the game, but it’s more noticeable here. Still, the sight of Blacksad sitting on the edge of his desk, his right foot up on a chair, and a lit cigarette in his left hand, should spark familiarity in the true Blacksad fan. Thankfully, Pendulo Studios placed this scene in the beginning of the game, creating a sense of trust between the developers and the players. It reassures the player that, yes, Pendulo Studios did read the comics and wanted to recreate the world in a new way.

Immediately, the player is forced into a fight sequence. Because it relies so much on player input, the entire sequence lags. The amount of button-mashing is exhausting, simply because the video game’s controls can bug-out and force the player to wrestle with the glitches and delays — which may result in them having to restart the sequence from scratch. In a typical hack n’ slash video game, this kind of button-mashing is expected, but in a story-based narrative, it is a bit unusual. The introduction’s pacing also implies that this will be a more leisurely experience, so being required to tangle with a rhinoceros right away is a bit jarring.

The bigger problem is that the game is extremely buggy. During the fight sequence, the player has to correctly time their actions (like pressing left stick or a face/function button). But sometimes, these actions don’t register. This adds unnecessary strain when trying to make Blacksad headbutt his opponent instead of punch, or to go for the groin instead of the neck. The awkwardness of the scene also comes from the way the characters idle, waiting for the player to make a decision. This is frustrating when the player has made a decision — but the game is still thinking and processing. Controls are almost a full beat behind, like the novice flute trying to keep up with the rest of the band. This lagging was not fixed with a simple restart or even an “uninstall and reinstall” of the entire game. Performing certain tasks and timing it to perfection, whether it’s giving Bobby Yale CPR or having Weekly take sneaky photos of Helen Moore and her mysterious “fan,” are nightmarish.

It seems like most quick time events (QTEs) in video games hit on one extreme or the other: They either work perfectly, or they’re a massive headache. Many of these in Blacksad: Under the Skin are the latter, and they’re not doing the game any favors, especially when combined with the control lag and the often awkward camera angles. The view often gets stuck behind buildings and various obstructions, or never gets in the right position so the player can see what they actually need. By far one of the worst QTES is trying to find an alternate source of light in the basement of a Chinese restaurant (the one that serves as O’Leary’s headquarters). It’s frustrating to move Blacksad’s stiff body inelegantly through the cramped spaces and find nothing but unnecessary sports stickers stickers/cards for a lengthy amount of time (and in near total darkness). Apparently, there’s a flashlight on top of the single large rack on the right side of the area. Cramming Blacksad into a weird position and staying still for a few seconds will (eventually) get the job done. A prompt will appear, allowing the player to grab the item. Having the flashlight prompt not appear when the player is in its immediate vicinity could be due to an internal bug, or it could be the developers actually wanting the players to keep circling until they give up — or happen to get lucky and stop exactly where the flashlight is.

As for the camera angles, they manage to stay relatively focused when players must string buttons and controls in whatever order during these QTEs. Otherwise, the camera will do what it wants, generally pointing in the right direction and then refusing to look beyond a certain point. This forces the perspective to be more boxed-in and constricted than it needs to be.

The jarring aspect of Blacksad’s voice actor

In a brief statement on Gameblog, a French video game website, Vincent Elmer-Haerrig said, “Blacksad: Under the Skin is rather under the radar, and for good reason. The game will address a fringe of players who are both BD-philes and video game lovers. A bet for Pendulo who is not at his first attempt.” Elmer-Haerrig’s point is that people who actually care enough to play the video game will most likely be steadfast comic book fans who also happen to be gamers. Of course, showcasing Blacksad at a few gaming events and conventions helps spread the word, but it is truly a project meant to impress the fanbase that is already there — which is honestly somewhat niche, compared to the much wider spread of Marvel and DC comics.

Keeping this in mind, it’s hard to believe that the English voice given to the series’ titular protagonist can be so incredibly off-putting. The voice of a hard-boiled detective in a noir setting typically reflects their era and adds to their charm. Fans and players have been told that Blacksad is a tale from the dark underbelly of 1950s New York, so a deep, American male voice with a New Yorker’s dialect immediately comes to mind. That is what many fans expected. Unfortunately, what they received was a raspy older man speaking in their ear, breaking the player’s initial expectations and immersion.

The English voice actor is Barry Johnson, a man who also happens to play Captain Jeffrey Fowler in Detroit: Become Human (2018). Johnson’s raspy voice was appropriately chosen for 56-year-old Fowler, but having him use this same exact style for a spry cat detective supposedly in his thirties is highly questionable. Mary Purnell, Joe Dunn’s secret fiancée, states in a conversation with Blacksad, “You might be too young to understand this but … real love has little to do with seduction.” Blacksad’s Spanish voice actor, Gabriel Jiménez (the typical Spanish voice actor for Hugh Jackman), fits the bill. His tenor and vibrance sound much closer to a thirty-something, fiercely clawed detective. There is no doubt that Canales and Guarnido wanted the best for Blacksad’s Spanish portrayal, and they got it. What English-speaking fans received is almost bizarre. Pendulo Studios is not a big company. It isn’t unreasonable to think they would spend some hefty cash to appease the Spanish creators and get Gabriel Jiménez on board, and then find someone to do the English voice at a cheaper price.

Multiple endings, moral choices, and some decent noir writing

The most redeeming part of the video game experience is that there are multiple endings and choices, and the story is cohesive and thought-out. Never has there been another narrative path or alternate conclusion to a Blacksad adventure, but the video game format makes this possible. That is something to be celebrated. Six main endings are available: in the main storyline, the player uncovers the true mastermind and any number of characters can die. Blacksad outright refusing to take the case in the beginning results in an immediate “game completion” — since Blacksad never takes the job, there is no epic adventure to be told. Additionally, Blacksad being too silent during his interrogation at Mary Purnell’s home prompts him to head back to his office and quit being a detective. Choosing not to call out the true villain at the very end of the game means there is no full story closure, but Blacksad does go home with a hefty pocket of cash.

The endings all place a measure of responsibility on the player. Their choices culminate to reveal not only what kind of detective the player is, but what the player has decided that Blacksad is. Is he a true vigilante? Does he crave justice above all, or does he really need that extra cash because living on the fringe is tough? The player can also check their personal Blacksad on the menu screen, seeing how their latest interaction has affected the protagonist’s personality, as well as reveal the player’s own moral tendencies: Romantic or lonesome? Uptight or pragmatic?

These choices only add to the writing provided by Josué Monchán and Ramón Hernáez. Their studious and meticulous eye to Canales’s own writing is apparent — the video game features direct quotes from the comics in the beginning. The gritty, noir details and speech are often uplifted by a humorous edge, much like in the Blacksad comics themselves, and that reprieve is occasionally needed among the story’s more troublesome and dire situations.

For all its technical issues and awry camera angles, at least Blacksad: Under the Skin is a decent detective story. Red herrings, nearly seamless introductions of new characters, and Blacksad’s self-deprecating humor, alongside an interrogation of the player’s morality, build the 2019 video game into a bonafide Blacksad narrative. The unique experience of placing Canales and Guarnido’s work into this medium allows comic book fans to experience Blacksad in a new way, even if a truly interactive re-imagining of Gaurnido’s visual style seems a long way off.

S. N. Valadez is currently the Assistant Fiction Editor for the interdisciplinary journal Anastamos. She is a second-year dual-degree M.A./M.F.A student at Chapman University, and received her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. She has traveled the world, from teaching English in Japan to doing field research in Scotland. She hopes to publish many short stories and novels throughout the course of her writing career.