Blackguards – Review
Let’s get something out in the open straight away: Blackguards is a deep and difficult son of a bitch. If you’re considering purchasing Blackguards to relax and have a merry jaunt through a fantasy world, I suggest you find something else. If you’re looking for cute elves and a happy sing-along with forest folk, look beyond Daedalic Entertainment’s turn-based strategy RPG, because this game means business and it’s taking no prisoners.
Although, if it was going to take prisoners it would probably be for a crime they didn’t commit. This is how your adventure starts, as either a Warrior, Rogue or Mage, depending on how you’re feeling on any given afternoon. Do I want to hit things with a big stick and take lots of hits from big sticks? Do I want to throw tiny sharp sticks at people, and hope no-one has the good sense to come and hit me with a bigger stick? Do I want to abstain from sticks all together and just pretend I’m a mother-fucking sorcerer? Choosing your class, gender and hair-style represents the entire depth of the character creation in Blackguards, which, given the type and nature of the game, is quite a shame. Whatever your inclination, once it starts, you quickly get stitched up for a murder you didn’t commit and are slung in jail.
As per every single RPG in creation, this prison has the security strength of a wet-paper bag, covered in jam, in a swamp, and you soon break out, along with the token dwarf and mage that also happen to be in prison at the same time, and who also happen to feel compelled to accompany you on your quest. Herein lies Blackguard‘s second problem behind the shallow character creation, in that I’d selected my starting class as Mage. I like magic, and figured that I could be a sort of rabbit-out-of-the-hat come Gandalf type of fellow. That in itself was fine but, fresh out of my jail cell, I was paired up with a Warrior class and another Mage. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t jealous that he was encroaching on my occupation, it was just that we were now very much lacking in the ranged department. Thankfully, we encountered an elf not too far into the story, but add into that the fact that being a Mage seems to be akin to picking Charmander as your starter Pokemon in the original Pokemon games and you can kinda see the problem: the game became rock hard because it just isn’t suited to starting with a magic-class character.
Not be deterred by a challenge, I grabbed my stereotypically angry dwarf, my stereotypically cute elf, and stereotypically sex-pest wizard (possibly not a stereotype there), and off we ran to try and clear my name and take part in all manner of adventures. The game will take you across a nicely crafted overworld map, which features plenty of different locations for the main story and optional side quests. Blackguards certainly has a huge array of cities, forests, dungeons and caverns for you to explore, and each area boasts a different set of enemies and environmental factors for you to both travel through and fight in.
If you’ve played the recent XCOM remake, then the combat arena for Blackguards is going to resemble something familiar. You move your characters across a hex-grid, allowing them one turn to move, and then one action phase after that, provided they don’t run into an environmental trap. Much like XCOM, you can sacrifice your action phase to move a greater distance, but this is redundant because this would only throw me closer to the enemy, and running for cover is pointless because of the poorly implemented line-of-sight cover system. I have no problem attempting to judge line of sight, but Blackguards’ camera only allows for movement left to right and pitching up and down. I can’t spin around the battlemap and make a certain judgement on whether or not I’m protected. There aren’t any visual clues to suggest if I’m in cover or not, so I tend to just take the damage and hope I can deal enough back before my vitality totally drains away.
Once you’re done strolling around the combat arena, you might care to partake of some actual fighting. The combat in Blackguards is by no means the best I’ve ever seen in this type of game, and part of me wonders if the excellence of titles such as XCOM and Advanced Wars have spoiled turn-based strategy for me. The random number generator that accompanies all the combat choices within Blackguards does feel slightly off kilter.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the unpredictability of these types of games, because I do. A good part of the fun factor when playing Blackguards is knowing that you’re no more in control than you are when rolling real dice and dealing with a real games master. The problem with having a pen and paper RPG transferred onto the computer is that you lose the transparency of having every action play out in front of you. If I roll dice in reality and turn up a fail three times, that to me is just bad luck. However, if it happens on the computer screen and everything is going on behind the scenes, you can get the impression you’re getting screwed over. The difference between Blackguards and other turn-based games is how often you feel like you’re getting screwed over. The answer, unfortunately for Blackguards, is with regular frequency. A 95% chance of hitting an enemy missed three times in a row, before thankfully landing on the fourth attempt, with my character on the brink of death. In those few minutes I experienced the strongest emotions of frustration and joy at a plethora of invisible numbers, and while that sounds great in theory, I’d much rather prefer there was a happy medium of enjoyment with just the occasional kick in the teeth.
If you can remain blissfully ignorant of the random calculations taking place behind the scenes, the combat in Blackguards can be enjoyable. There is a certain satisfaction to winning each battle, which is partly down to the unpredictable nature of the number generator, and partly because each fight really feels like you’ve climbed a small mountain to succeed. A good portion of these battles have an optional objective or some extra problem to deal with, such as covering up spawning points or getting to a certain area of the battlemap in a set number of turns in order to save an NPC. These can be fun or frustrating, and that’s totally dependant on your playstyle.
The frustration doesn’t stop at random combat additions, due to a couple of remarkably strange decisions by the developer. Firstly, I can’t move past a hex that is being occupied by one of my own party, which leads to some irritating situations, considering you don’t get a choice regarding move orders. I understand why you can’t just move past a hex that has an enemy in it; that would be daft. However, things take a turn for the downright stupid when someone gets knocked down in combat. If you floor an enemy in a fight, you can move past them using the hex they occupy – super, they’re knocked out, it makes sense. However, if someone in your party gets knocked down, you still can’t move past them. What the fuck is this? Are you worried about kicking them in the face as you move past, or just concerned you might ruin their state of unconsciousness? It’s incredibly frustrating and I can’t think of a single reason why it makes logical sense, other than to piss the player off.
One redeeming aspect of the combat in Blackguards is the environmental traps you can trigger. Knocking down beehives, using boxes to block routes, and laying bear traps are just a few things you may do or encounter during play. These traps add an extra layer to the combat, although the enemy combatants usually just ignore them and take the damage. I hoped that dropping beehives to release a deadly swarm would deter the bad guys from the direct route, and buy me time to take them down from a distance. No, not at all; they all just ran straight through the swarm, taking various amounts of damage, and got within striking range of me. On the flip side, there is much fun to be had luring enemies into flammable gas clouds and then igniting them with a fire spell, so while the environmental dangers are not always taken into consideration by the brainless AI, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy using them.
If you typically like tinkering with your character and their statistics, then there is also enjoyment to be had. Blackguards is bursting at the seams with character information and accompanying numbers. There are so many different options and routes to travel in terms of how your characters should evolve that you almost feel spoilt at times. Basic values, weapon talents, talents, spells and special abilities are the headers for your character sheet. This is where you spend your Adventure Points, which is basically your experience. There is a plethora of options to choose from when tweaking your character, and, given the expensive price behind some paths, role-playing fans will be hard pressed to make certain decisions about their desired route for the gang of would-be heroes. A very clever feature is that your special abilities tree acts a lot like the perks you find in other games but, unlike other games, you can’t go unlocking them any time you like. Instead, you have to find the specific trainers to teach them and, even then, they’ll be asking for a large amount of Adventure Points to do so. It keeps the systems balanced and means you’ll think twice about spending or saving vital experience.
Graphically, there isn’t anything groundbreaking about Blackguards. The overworld map is nicely crafted, and the passing clouds as you look down unto the earth are a nice touch. That aside, it’s a pretty standard affair, with some nice character models, predictable spell effects and pretty backdrops. None of it is particularly amazing, but it does what it says on the tin and can’t be faulted for that.
The same can, unfortunately, be said for the audio, with the combat tunes getting a little repetitive and possibly even stuck on loop, on occasions. The voice acting is pretty standard and, thanks to the subtitles, you could play the game muted and not really lose anything from it. That’s a sad thing to admit but it’s the truth. Everyone just sounds like they’re reading from the same sheet titled ‘Standard Fantasy Character Fifty-Seven”. Some better voice work probably could have sold the world to me better, but as it stands it sounds like everyone is just completing a tick-box exercise.
This isn’t a small adventure and it is going to take you some time to plough through it. I kept the difficulty at a normal level, but still found the initial learning curve to be a real bastard, especially when fumbling about with the Mage character. If you want to be eased in as gently as possible, read the help guide and select the Warrior class. Dealing damage and soaking it up sounds like a no-brainer, but not having to rely on Astral Points for spells is a blessing. If you feel really brave you can select ‘expert’ mode at the start and tailor a character to your own chosen stats, rather than a pre-selected class in the ‘basic’ mode.
Regardless of your choice, there are plenty of hours to be slung into this title, and I truly recommend that you do. For all its frustrating problems and points of concern, Blackguards is a good game. It features some enjoyable combat, a decent story and some solid character-building options. It’s just a shame that everything couldn’t have been polished a little further, and some annoying design choices revised to make this a more inviting product.Pros
- An interesting world to explore
- Deep and challenging character building
- If you can look past the problems, the combat can be enjoyable…
- … but if you can’t, it will make you want to kill cute kittens
- Graphics and audio are very average
- The lack of a clear cut tutorial means that players have to read through a ton of text to understand a lot of the systems in play
Blackguards is a good game. It has got some very enjoyable moments, there is plenty to experience and you can sink plenty of hours into its world. Equally, I can’t ignore its shortcomings, in the form of some truly frustrating combat, and lacklustre graphics and sound. I can recommend Blackguards; just make sure you come ready for a fight and with an extra calm spell.
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