Review

Blackguards Review (PC)

The Dark Eye is an extremely popular tabletop fantasy role-playing game in Germany, in the style of Dungeons & Dragons and their ilk, so it’s odd that the only games which have been made out of it are Daedalic’s adventures Chains of Satinav and Memoria. Both were very good, but if you’re making games based on an RPG surely there should actually be an RPG among them? Finally Daedalic have done just that, and it’s called Blackguards. Yay.

Blackguards is a game that either has been built for you or it hasn’t. There aren’t many games that I struggle to review because I personally didn’t get on with it and yet I know that it’s built for a very specific sub-set of player, but Blackguards was definitely one. I was attracted to the game by the description of it as an RPG with turn-based combat based on The Dark Eye universe. After two enjoyable adventures set in Germany’s answer to D&D I was looking forward to seeing what Daedalic could do with the more naturally-fitting genre for a fantasy role-playing tabletop set. What I didn’t expect was for Blackguards to be all combat. It’s basically a board game.

The most sorry bunch of heroes in a fantasy RPG you’ll ever see

Blackguards puts your player-created character in the role of a prisoner, convicted for the brutal murder of the Princess Elenor who was supposed to be your friend. After escaping from the prison alongside a mysterious lothario mage called Zurbaran (who may or may not be a spy) and an angry dwarf called Naurim, you and your little band of fugitives must not only escape the bounty hunters and strange men in black on your trail but also eventually become the unlikely hope of the land of Aventuria.

The story isn’t bad, with one or two points of treachery and some neat characters (particularly the leads), but it’s nowhere near as intriguing as Memoria. There’s also just some plain odd writing, like the nutty Bailiff hunting you proclaiming “keeping company with murderers makes you a murderer too!” Er, no it doesn’t, and I don’t think his ploy about kidnapping a baroness (who a moment ago was surrounded by heavily-armed bodyguards) and hanging her to draw us in to a trap would make him very popular in that area. Couldn’t I ask her massive retinue of guards to help us save her? Instead of putting us in an impossible battle where I could only save her if I died? After about twenty restarts I just let her die, and it didn’t cost me anything.

The turn-based combat, as mentioned, is the entire thrust of the game. There’s no exploring, very little choice, no talking things out, if you click somewhere on the map 99% of the time you’ll get a combat encounter. You have got to ask yourself right now if this is what you want from an RPG. While you occasionally have choices to make there are no consequences so there’s very little actual role-playing, it’s all either going into battle or preparing for your next battle. Again, if you’re happy with this then great, fair play to you. I personally found that the whole game got very tedious very fast.

Oh no, ambushed next to the Bog of Eternal Stench!

The way battles work is traditional turn-based style on a hex-based grid with each character having a Health and maybe a Mana bar which you have to manage, and numerous tweaks to keep it interesting. Characters move XCOM-like with a short range to move before an action or a longer “dash” range with no action. You have a wide selection of options every turn depending on each character’s skills, which you can pull up on a menu wheel with RMB. Items (you can only use what’s on that character’s belt, including poisons, potions and traps), Perception (to detect traps), all the various types of spells, special attacks, or just choosing to wait for someone else to have a go first are various examples. The downside is that this menu is standard for all characters, and so doesn’t compensate if one isn’t a mage for example so they’ll always be unable to use half the stuff on the wheel. Commonly used attacks can be assigned to a number key at least.

Battles are all about using what you’ve got strategically, and that includes the environment. Traps can be hidden, stacks of boxes can be pushed over and then set on fire, undergrowth can be torched which can spread, certain features can cause a character to slip, and sometimes even natural gas pockets can be ignited to cause a massive explosion. If you don’t carefully observe the battlefield before you start moving you might find yourself roundly humiliated. I really like this and it keeps the battles interesting. Mostly.

Despite the large amount of battlefields and enemies I have to say I found that combat became a chore for me far too quickly, and when the entire game is based around combat that’s a problem. Daedalic have done their best to keep battles interesting, like a continuous castle siege by lizard-men with a dragon launching aerial attacks or a trek through a long cave infested with giant lice, but they do boil down to doing the same thing over and over again. The other undeniable fact is that occasionally you’ll hit a battle that is simply unfair and unfun, like a couple in that aforementioned castle siege which would be hard anyway but which has a crystal that completely heals all enemies every turn and can’t be attacked with magic from afar. It became a mad dash to get to the crystal and destroy it while a dozen powerful lizard men whittled my characters’ health down. I only got through with luck (and putting the difficulty down to Easy), and that’s not something you can rely on for enjoyment.

Outside of combat you chat with locals, get the odd side quest, stock up on supplies, configure your characters’ many, many stats (80% of which I doubt you’ll use) and replenish your health and mana. All from the single screen that represents a town. If you like exploring in your RPGs don’t buy Blackguards. Spending your gold wisely and making sure your guys are running at their best for every new battle is the main focus, as well as advancing the plot. As mentioned there is a confusing amount of stats, spells, and talents to choose from, including abilities that seem mostly useless and odd spells like ‘Clarum Purum’, ‘Witch’s Spit’ and ‘Lightning Find You!’. While there’s a lot of preparation to do the meat of the game is all combat.

Seriously, I only used like 5 of these the entire game...

Fun and addictive Blackguards can certainly be despite my criticisms, but oftentimes it can also be a frustrating chore. It also doesn’t help that it looks like a game from ten years ago with awful stretchy-mouth lip-synching that I haven’t seen since Unreal Engine 2.0. Voice acting isn’t as bad but never reaches any level beyond “okay”, and brings in most of Daedalic’s go-to actors so any fans of theirs will recognise a lot of the voices. Then there are a few odd annoyances, like the total inability to rotate the camera in combat so sometimes you can’t easily select a tile behind a character, the way restarting battles (which you’ll need to do regularly) replays both cutscenes and tutorial messages, or the way the crucial description of a spell is right at the bottom of a page you can’t easily scroll down without accidentally moving to another spell.

If you’re looking for an interactive board game with role-playing elements, a ton of stats and moderately interesting writing you could do a lot worse than Blackguards. If you’re looking for a proper RPG, look elsewhere. Throw some turn-based combat and XP into Memoria and it’d be more of a Dark Eye RPG than this. There is fun to be had and Daedalic have done their best to keep battles interesting, but often things can get very frustrating and it’s hard not to come to the realisation that you’re just doing the same things over and over again. Daedalic have made two excellent adventures out of The Dark Eye, but they’ve yet to make a good RPG.

Top Game Moment: The siege of Morbal by the Achaz (lizard-men) which, although often frustrating, is still compelling. Especially when the dragon shows up.

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Comments

By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Jan 27, 2014
SirRoderick
I had the EXACT same problem with the healing crystal battles. The difficulty spikes up too hard in those kind of fights. Other than that I do actually kind of like it, if you're a fan of sRPGs, it's not a bad one. IF you're not above switching difficulty on those silly fights.
By nickhorth1 (SI Veteran Newbie) on Jan 28, 2014
nickhorth1
That Baroness fight is incredibly annoying. Enjoying the game for the most part, though.