Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Blacksad: Under the Skin

Beginning in the year 2000, the independent album-format comic Blacksad by Spanish duo Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido tells the adventures of private investigator John Blacksad, set in a version of 1950s America populated by anthropomorphic animals and heavily inspired by noir films. Though I had been aware of the comic for a while, what spurred me to actually try and read the comic via an all-in-one collection was the announcement of a video game adaptation, Blacksad: Under the Skin. Even knowing the game had some technical issues at launch, when I finally read the comic, I enjoyed it enough to immediately track down a physical copy of the PS4 Limited Edition version of the game and start playing it as soon as I could. While the game does a great job at emulating the original Blacksad comics, and is worth experiencing despite the technical issues, said issues could not be ignored entirely.

Though non-canon, the story takes place chronologically between the second Blacksad album, Arctic Nation, and the third, Red Soul. Transitioning directly from the impactful title screen, the story opens with the founder of Dunn’s Gym, Joe Dunn, found hanged. John Blacksad, after dealing with the aftermath of another case, is hired by the Gym’s current owner, Joe’s daughter Sonia Dunn, at the recommendation of John’s friend Jake Ostiombe, to investigate whether or not her father’s death was really suicide or something greater.

Having read all of the Blacksad comics just before playing Under the Skin, I can safely say that the storytelling manages to perfectly emulate the tone and style of the comics, including John Blacksad’s occasional noir-style narrations. This even extends to the Checkpoint screen being presented in a manner that replicates a Blacksad comic, down to panel layouts, dialogue and captions, using the in-game models in place of drawings. The art style itself faithfully recreates that of Juanjo Guarnido as seen in the later albums, even if the difference in mediums prevents it from having quite the same level of expressiveness. Much like the comics themselves beginning with Arctic Nation, the game also brings up heavy topics such as racism (as it was in 1950s America), though handles them with the same tactfulness as the source material.

The visual style of the comics is faithfully recreated.

The voice acting in the game works as well, with the English voice actors fitting their respective characters and the character dynamics preserved from the original comics. Aside from Blacksad himself, some recurring characters such as Weekly and Smirnov, as well as one-off characters from the first album Somewhere Within the Shadows such as Jake Ostiombe and Paulie, make a return in this game in some capacity and their voice acting worked well enough for those characters that when I looked back at the comics, I could hear them saying those lines. With the comic fresh in my memory, I also picked up on some lines having (fittingly) been lifted from the comic, even the ones published after Arctic Nation, and recontextualized, such as John’s opening narration borrowing from Somewhere Within the Shadows, optional dialogue between John and voice-only cameos of his sister Donna and nephew Ray lifted from Amarillo and a slightly modified exchange between John and Weekly about a bourbon shake taken from Arctic Nation. Some additional references to the comics are also made, including a callback to a minor event in Somewhere Within the Shadows, a mention of a honeymoon at Niagara Falls (Red Soul), Amarillo being an optional dialogue option at one point (Amarillo) and the fact that the reptile-based pool hall La Iguana is not a welcome place for furry clientele (Somewhere Within the Shadows).

The gameplay follows that of other detective games, in that you interact with various characters and parts of the environment to gather clues, which are stored in a notebook for future reference. When multiple parts of the environment can be interacted with at once, you can swap between different hotspots to make things easier, rather than having to painstakingly move to the proper space. There are also points where you can use Cat Senses to make observations in slow-mo about the immediate area or other people to collect further information, which can sometimes yield additional clues. Once you’ve gathered enough clues, the game allows you to make a deduction using relevant clues that advances the story or helps complete some objectives.

There are points where you need to successfully complete a QTE to advance, as well as dialogue trees when interrogating people for clues and other info. Some dialogue trees are timed while others aren’t, though some of your choices have an actual impact on the narrative, with some choices from the early and late games even influencing which of six endings you end up with. You can also go back to a previous checkpoint to rethink some of your choices, however the amount of effort required depends entirely on how far back you go since you must play the game from that checkpoint or chapter forward.

Throughout the game there are also a number of hidden sports cards to collect, which can be viewed in a Hall of Fame card binder in the pause menu, where you can flip them over to read their bios on the back. Additionally, some cards are actually split across two or four separate cards, increasing incentive to look for them before you can view their bio. Interestingly, the tutorial goes out of its way to make the distinction that the sports cards are completely optional and that you are the one collecting them rather than Blacksad.

Collect them all!

Before starting the game, I waited a few hours to download a patch for the game that solves a lot of the technical issues from launch, however, while certainly not unplayable, there were some that not even a nearly 13GB patch could fix. The biggest issue is the lengthy load times between locations or even when loading the game, followed by some texture loading that takes a few seconds. On top of this, there are some noticeably low-res textures in places, including an entire brick wall in the alleyway behind Dunn’s Gym, and I had it in one session where some interactable textures would flicker unless I looked directly at them in the interaction. I even had one texture disappear completely on me until I visited the Hall of Fame screen and backed out, a strategy that also came in handy when I loaded a checkpoint and the camera somehow ended up out of bounds above the room I was in. On that note, there was one point where clothing almost loaded improperly when retrying a timed sequence during a dialogue tree section and an entire object turned invisible in the same sequence. During a separate segment in the same chapter, I activated Cat Senses just before time ran out, and rather than Cat Senses deactivating, the death animation played with the slow-mo and overlay of the Cat Senses mode (this was immediately resolved when I hit Retry).

Some issues exist in the audio side as well, such as some English subtitles not matching 100% with what’s being said in the English audio, leading to some small confusion, with one end game subtitle not even matching the dialogue at all and at least a couple subtitles that were improperly timed with the audio. Towards the last quarter of the game, audio cutoffs became increasingly frequent, and one optional bit of dialogue from Blacksad when talking to Helen Moore in the first half of the game didn’t even play the audio at all. I will also mention that when pausing twice in quick succession, the Hall of Fame option becomes inaccessible after the first pause for whatever reason unless you move a little bit.

Despite the technical issues, Blacksad: Under the Skin is still worth persisting through for the gripping story that fits in line with the original comics. The game is also written to be enjoyed even without having read Blacksad, making it more accessible to a non-fan, however the references to the source material are better appreciated from those who have.

No comments:

Post a Comment