Blacksad is a multiple Eisner-award winning comic series from Spanish authors Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, the writer and artist of the series respectively. Five volumes have released since the first in 2000 (eventually coming to the United States in 2003). It's a noir-tinged detective series following a universe of anthropomorphic animals in the 1950s; namely the star of the series, the feline detective John Blacksad. In September, the series is getting its first new volume since 2013. Only this time, it's interactive.
The video game Blacksad: Under the Skin, from Pendulo Studios, is set after volume two, with Blacksad fresh off meeting his eventual partner Weekly, a weasel who's a local tabloid journalist, and still reeling from the murder of his ex-lover, the actress Natalia Willford. In Blacksad's office, you see a framed photo of Natalia on his desk. Looking at it, he wonders aloud whether he should let her death go or stay in mourning. As the player, you're given the option of choosing how he should feel.
It's an adventure game, where you mold not just Blacksad, but the story too. While the main outcome of Under the Skin's 12-or-so hour journey will be the same, the big choices you make to get there will vary, and there will be different endings overall. Getting the atmosphere of the comics just right for an interactive medium, the game's developers say, was the hardest part in making Under the Skin.
"To achieve that atmosphere that appears in the comic, to find the mechanics that make you feel like investigating something," Felipe Gómez Pinilla, CEO and co-founder of Pendulo Studios, tells me, "that you are inside of the game not just watching it, but [being] part of it."
Blacksad has cat-like abilities, as his species would suggest. When in conversation, he can pause and narrow in on features—like their eyes or maybe some personal tic—and surmise some new intel. He also has to ponder his clues, which means you have to put together his clues. It's not as hand-holdy as detective games like L.A. Noire and Judgment. With the clues and information you garner, you yourself piece together two to three lingering facts together in Blacksad's thought bubble screen. Eventually, Blacksad will have a mini breakthrough when you make a correct match, and you'll be able to progress the story.
"In the comic book, you can just follow Blacksad in his investigation but you'll never Blacksad like, 'Okay, I have this feeling because I am a cat, I can see further,' something like that," Nouredine Mohammed Saad, the producer of Blacksad at publisher Microids, says. "We added something new. This is a challenge for us because we wanted to have the good feeling [of] a detective game. You don't just follow Blacksad because it's a game. You're investigating as Blacksad."
Like the comics it's adapted from, Blacksad: Under the Skin is no kid-friendly Zootopia. The comic's creators are directly involved, giving the team at Pendulo Studios advice and guidance when needed. At the start of the game, which we played in our demo, an angry unfaithful spouse busts into Blacksad's office, knowing that Blacksad has photographic evidence against him for cheating on his wife. The man attempts to shoot Blacksad, and after fighting him with successful QTE prompts, eventually tries to offer Blacksad a bribe. I opted for a more prideful detective feline, who refused it and later phoned the man's wife to tell her the news. In our next run-in, he was extra mad. But it can go the other route too: you can take the bribe, and then maybe call his wife. Or you can neglect to inform the wife at all.
"The themes are quite the same," says Saad. "Mainly corruption [in the sports world] and racism, but like issues we could have during the 50s in the U.S.. In all the stories in the comic book, corruption wasn't like shown in the main topic, and that's why this this one, it's like the sixth album; an interactive album." The second volume, Arctic Nation, heavily follows racial segregation and racism in the 1950s.
The case I've seen so far in Blacksad, wherein he's hired to find out who staged the faux-suicide of a local boxing gym owner, also tackles these issues heavily. The gym, Blacksad learns, has always been friendly to all. It's the first racially integrated gym in the city, in fact; which some haven't taken kindly too, with slurs graffitied on the lockers. The deceased's star pupil is black, and has also gone mysteriously missing shortly before a big boxing match in the aftermath.
Corruption in sports, they tell me, is the biggest throughline in Blacksad: Under the Skin. The mystery that unfolds revolves around a missing boxer, a dead coach, and a lot of money on an upcoming match. When exploring environments, you'll even be able to collect cards for your own "Hall of Fame" album, featuring classic portraits of hockey, baseball, football, and of course, boxing.
"So for us this is a replay value," says Saad. "Maybe you will finish the game but you can't fill out all your albums so you have to redo the game in order to find them all. And of course it's like another cool feature with other characters, [ones] you won't see them moving in 3D, but you wanna see more Guarnido-style character, anthropomorphic animals on cards."
While it's an original story, there are callbacks all around in the Blacksad series, from Blacksad himself still being troubled over the loss of his ex, to the big German Shepherd police officer he's buddies with. While investigating a locker, I even spotted a poetry book written by Greenberg—the in-universe stand-in for the famous poet Allen Ginsberg.
"We wanted to put these Easter eggs in the game for, you know, all the Blacksad fans," says Saad. "They will be thrilled. They will be excited to play the game until the end. And for all the other players, they will enjoy just the atmosphere and the game. But yeah there will be other Easter eggs."
Blacksad feels like a true noir game, even if navigating the same boxing arena for its opening couple of hours can get a bit dry. Jazz music fills the air. The voice actor behind Blacksad himself sounds perpetually tired, hardened by the world. He sounds a lot older than I'd expect, actually. Characters talk like they're straight out of The Maltese Falcon. It's not as charming as, say, Grim Fandango—the excellent noir point-and-click adventure game from LucasArts released in 1998—but it has its own flair. It's something fans of the comic, or even fans of Telltale's Fables adaptation The Wolf Among Us, are likely in the market for.