Published by Microïds and developed in partnership between Pendulo Studios and YS Interactive, Blacksad: Under the Skin is a mystery adventure game derived from a Spanish comic album, Blacksad. The comic follows the fictional investigations of a private eye detective in 1950s New York, each volume dealing with a different political or ethical theme of the time period. Volume 2: Arctic Nation, for example, is primarily about racism while Volume 3: Red Soul takes place during the Red Scare. Under the Skin is no different, forming its story around the changing social landscape of the US during one of the most tumultuous moments in the country’s history.
Like the comic, Under the Skin features anthropomorphic animals as its characters, using the commonly associated traits of animals to create a surface-level context for each person. Arctic foxes, for instance, are typically calculating, cold-hearted white supremacists while raccoons, reptiles, and amphibians are all usually profiled as petty criminals. You play as a dark-haired cat, the titular John Blacksad, a black man struggling to make a living as a private detective. He’s sassy, cunning, and mostly keeps to himself, and his incredible senses of sight and smell help him make observational deductions that most others cannot.
In Under the Skin, you shape Blacksad’s decisions as he unravels a new mystery: a missing persons case. Sonia Dunn hires Blacksad to find boxing star Robert Yale, who disappeared several days before the most important fight of his career. Yale disappeared the same day that Joe Dunn, who’s Sonia’s father and Yale’s trainer, was found hanging from the rafters of his gym in what appears to be an obvious suicide. Joe’s death leaves the gym to his daughter, along with the heavy amount of debt it had accrued. To get the necessary publicity to keep the gym from closing, Sonia needs to find Yale and get him to fight.
As Blacksad, you’re free to explore a series of connected hub areas in New York in order to interview witnesses and suspects. If the preview demo is any indication, the game does not hold your hand for most of the story, forcing you to piece together where to go next and who to talk to without any sort of waypoint, only relenting by giving you a nudge with a notification that you’ve gathered enough clues to make a deduction. It’s at this point that you can arrange collected evidence in a way that you believe makes sense. Some of what you learn is useless though, so you’ll have to figure out what clues connect to what. And although certain deductions are necessary for advancing the plot, some seem to be optional.
You don’t necessarily need to tell the black boxer at Sonia’s gym which of his fellow gym mates wrote the very explicit racist slurs all over the locker room, for example. That small side story isn’t a part of the overarching mystery and choosing to ignore it doesn’t prevent you from moving on in the main narrative. That said, choosing to reveal the racist’s identity most likely alters the overall fate of the boxer, who angrily says he’s going to kill the scumbag next time they meet. The demo ended before we could discover whether he does follow through on that murderous intent, though, so there’s currently no way to know for sure. Revealing the racist’s identity might be one of those good intentions that backfire in the worst way, a common occurrence in the Blacksad comic.
In order to ensure the game would be authentic to the world of the comic, the studios behind Under the Skin went directly to the source. “We wanted to involve the authors as much as possible,” Microïds game producer Nouredine Saad told GameSpot. “When Pendulo got involved and we started to create the characters and original art, we involved [Blacksad’s creators] by showing them everything. And when I say everything, it’s everything–all the characters, the 2D and 3D designs. We showed it [all] to the authors. The voice-overs as well when we started to record. It was important for us to just involve the authors like that. They could say, ‘Okay, I’d prefer Blacksad have a deeper voice or I want a lighter voice for Weekly.'”
Under the Skin takes place after the second comic album (between the aforementioned Arctic Nation and Red Soul volumes), and delves into a theme that hasn’t been heavily explored in a Blacksad comic before: corruption. “When we studied the ’50s for the story for this game, we noticed that there was, at this time, a growing issue with corruption in sports because of gambling and bets,” Pendulo Studios co-founder and CEO Felipe Pinilla said. “There were many controlled fights where you bet for one [boxer] knowing that he’d lose or win. And those [actions] make room for more corruption behind that, such as [drug abuse].”
Thus, Under the Skin is a brand-new standalone story in the Blacksad universe, and the studios behind the game want fans to view this game as the unofficial sixth entry in Blacksad’s story. “We have five, six characters from the comic book,” Saad said. “All the other characters are original to the game. The [world is] the same. We are in the ’50s. We are in the US. We have anthropomorphic animals, everything. But [this game] is the sixth album. We have five comic books and this is the sixth.”
Depending on your choices there will be several different endings.
This theme of corruption begins to bleed through the game’s story in its very first scene. The preview demo covers the first two hours or so of Under the Skin’s story, and the game opens with a confrontation with an angry rhinoceros whose wife believes he’s cheating on her. Through Blacksad’s internal monologue, we discover he already knows the rhino has been unfaithful and that there’s photographic proof. After the husband finishes pleading his side though, the game presents you with your first moral choice: tell the wife the truth, take a bribe and lie to the wife, or refuse the bribe but still lie to the wife. Your decision doesn’t have immediate consequences, though the effects of your choice begin revealing themselves about an hour later and continue to snowball.
“Depending on your choices, [Blacksad] can be a tough guy or a sensitive guy,” Saad said. “At the very beginning of the game, a rhino tries to give you some money. You can take it or not. You have moral choices.” Choosing to refuse the money, but also lie to the wife causes her to be grateful that her marriage, and thus her family, is secure, and when you run into her husband again later in the story, he thanks you for covering for him. However, Blacksad’s friend and sidekick who took the pictures, Weekly, will be miffed on losing out on some bribe money (if you decide to tell him about it, that is, as you can also hide the truth) and Blacksad himself will continue to wrestle with both the morality of what he’s done and his dwindling finances. Given how important the rhino, Weekly, and Blacksad’s financial situation appear to be to the overall plot, the consequences of that initial decision will seemingly continue to pop up as the narrative continues. And that’s just the first choice. The demo proves it is not the last.
“Depending on your choices there will be several different endings,” Pinilla said. “You’re Blacksad and the character will evolve depending on your choices, whether you are talkative or more quiet or whether you’re someone willing to be blackmailed. The main ending [of the game] will be the same, but there will be some difference in the outcome.”
“It’s important for us to involve the player and not just have Blacksad decide everything for you,” Saad said. “You, as a player, you can decide and say, ‘These are my decisions based on my deductions that I’m making. I’m solving the case and not Blacksad.’ If we let Blacksad [control] the game, it [wouldn’t be] your own moral choices and moral decisions.”
That’s part of the reason why you only play as Blacksad in Under the Skin, instead of both Blacksad and Weekly as was initially planned, Saad added. The studios felt that, for Under the Skin’s story to work, it’s important to focus the player’s sense of morality and willingness to resist corruption through one character with every other character having their own moral code. Seeing the game through multiple characters’ point-of-view would allow the player to be a puppet master and shape the story to an ideal conclusion. The hardest part of Blacksad’s life is that he’s a great detective, but he doesn’t know exactly what people are thinking. He’s not psychic. The player is no different, so at no point does the game switch to offer an alternative point-of-view so that it’s easier to make educated deductions that give everyone the best possible ending. You need to decide what’s morally right for yourself, and then live with the consequences of your choices.
Blacksad: Under the Skin is scheduled to release for Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC on September 26.
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