A Valiant Effort
Game developer Daedalic Entertainment is known for their exquisitely crafted point-and-click adventure games. Now, the good folks at the German based company are trying their hand at something different. Blackguards is a turn-based tactical RPG with combat set on grid-laden maps. It is packed with challenging battles, an obscene amount of class customization and artwork that I have yet to criticize from a Daedalic title. It is a valiant first entry, yet still leaves room for improvement with regards to the interface, technical modesties and the overall tone of the story.
The introduction gives you a false sense of the bitter world, as you witness a wolf tearing into the chest of a princess you considered a friend. Discovered by guards after defeating the feral canine, you are accused of her murder, thrown into prison and given a fair bit of torture before being tossed into a cell to await the noose. Though as chance would have it, the guards imprisoned a dwarf named Naurim, who scoffs at human prison locks while setting you free. Before your exodus, you also release a mage named Zurburan, and the unlikely trio decide to travel together, if only to use each other for personal gain.
I expected the story to get darker and the relationships to become more tenuous, but as I made my way through the chapters the opposite occurred. Naurim has a gruff demeanor and always chooses the blade over diplomacy, but then, he’s a dwarf, and aren’t they all like that? Zurburan follows a more casual and haughty approach, attempting to woo every fair maiden he comes in contact with. He throws out smug retorts which often cast him as the comic relief. A little later you meet Niam, a drug junkie who’s post intervention withdrawal does nothing to sully your newfound friendship. Takate, the barbarian from the forest bred for bloodshed, and Aurelia, a witch accused of conspiring with demons round out your party, though neither presents a sinister profile you may have been hoping for.
From the start you are deemed the leader of the group, making all the decisions and choosing the responses during conversations. A few instances give you an opportunity to stray to the darker side of morality, and some choices could have dire consequences further in (be wary those who choose every dialogue option, like me). But more often than not your quests involve helping those in need, and certain situations even force you to be noble in order to claim a reward. An example of this is giving alms to a beggar in exchange for information that begins a side quest. There is no option to beat the information from him–it’s either be the philanthropist or forget the side quest. The relationships between the characters never grows beyond coworkers in an adventuring party, either. Tempers flare in later chapters, but as a whole the party remains amicable, more obedient than their nature suggests. The civilized towns themselves are also an enigma. All around there is talk of political corruption, yet in most of the lightly animated town scenes people are casually mingling or lounging under a tree or near a pool for a bit of a nap. Ultimately, the story itself is well written, but it grossly fails as being baleful in tone.
Looking beyond the plotlines, the gameplay is extremely engaging and full of challenges. Creating your character gives you the option of three archetypes: warrior, hunter, or mage, or a pool of Adventure Points to build a class from scratch. You gain more of these experience points as you win battles and complete quests, which can be used to upgrade many elements of your character. Attributes such as Strength, Dexterity, Cleverness, Intuition, and others influence the combat values, as well as the prerequisites for learning many of the Special Abilities. These are active and passive skills that allow you to perform targeted shots, impairing melee blows, quicker recharge of Astral Energy needed to cast spells, and dozens of other customizations. There are Talents that, when leveled up, improve your ability to detect and disarm traps, withstand being knocked down, and provide statistical information on enemies. There are also Weapon Talents where you can upgrade your proficiency in specific weapon groups such as crossbows or two-handed bashing weapons. Finally for spellcasters there are spells to collect and improve. Each spell has four tiers to unlock, with each providing stronger effects, damage, or healing. It is a vast pool of possibilities that will have you checking your character sheet after each battle, and making a mental queue of the order you wish to level up your skills.
The game is scripted between the main storyline and numerous side quests, yet there are no random encounters for you to exploit. This, however, plays into one of the game’s greatest assets – its difficulty. Tailoring your character soon becomes an exercise of precision planning, as you’ll want to make sure Attributes, Talents, and Spells complement each other. Combat takes place on a grid, with plenty of environmental hazards to avoid or manipulate. Dropping chandeliers on enemies, tipping over platforms of boulders and igniting gaseous sections of a swamp are only a few ways to tip the scales in a battle. Oftentimes you will actively seek these handicap inducers, as enemies are always equally matched or stronger in straight combat. Even still, chance plays a large part of combat in Blackguards . The game accurately follows the rules of The Dark Eye , the popular pen-and-paper RPG in Europe, using percentages and a role of the dice to decide whether an attack strikes true. Even spells, when not leveled up, have a minimal chance to be cast successfully. It’s a gripping risk/reward format that makes every battle exciting and curse inducing.
Another key feature that keeps the gameplay fresh is that there are no recycled maps. Every time you engage in an encounter, the battlefield feels fresh with new obstacles, some that may even surprise you, such as stalactites that suddenly fall on you from a cave ceiling. They are fixed, three-dimensional maps that can be panned but not rotated, though each accurately depicts the setting with exquisite craftsmanship from the art department. The character models and environments lack fine detailing, and the animations are protracted, though these criticisms are hardly detrimental for a turn-based RPG. The game offers you a Hotkey-bar to place frequently used skills, and the character menus are easy to navigate, however the action wheel in combat is a bit of an annoyance, often having me reselect my actions.
There are plenty of nice touches with regards to the audio. Cityscapes are filled with appropriate ambient noises like bushes rustling, townsfolk chattering, and birds chirping. Even small things, like the crowd cheering after a kill in the gladiator’s arena, and booing when a character is healed, incites a nod of approval. The voice acting is competent, though it is burdened with only a few actors voicing numerous characters, with little change in inflection to distinguish them. The music tracks were short but well orchestrated, and I particularly enjoyed how it crescendos in battle to denote whether victory or defeat is close at hand.
A multiplayer feature is decidedly absent from Blackguards . The game does fine as a single-player campaign, but the one element that could have boosted the value of the game considerably is user-created content. Everything from map and enemy generators to multi-tiered modules could and should be implemented for players to create their own adventures and upload them for others to play. Considering how tight the game follows The Dark Eye , and the d20 format in general, Blackguards could have been the go-to game for any pen-and-paper RPG enthusiast to translate a story into a video game. Adding an adventure creator, and possibly allowing multiple players to participate as a cooperative adventuring party is where I personally believe this game should go, and where it would thrive.
Daedalic may have had the intent to spin a tale of treachery and malevolence with Blackguards , but from the outset you’ll find that each character has a conscience that is rarely tested, ultimately weaving an only slightly less-than-virtuous tale. That being said, every encounter is exciting and challenging, and the massive amount of class tailoring gives you plenty of reasons to replay the adventure and sample different character choices. It’s a great foundation, especially for a game developer not accustomed to the genre, and I am eager to see if Daedalic can do anything more with the series, be it with a sequel, new content, or tools for players to create their own adventures.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
No boundaries are pushed, but it has the consistent hand-drawn excellence that Daedalic takes pride in. 3.7 Control
Menus are fairly easy to navigate, though some issues with battle controls in targeting and the scroll wheel, need some fine-tuning. 4.2 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
It’s the usual suspect of voice actors, but the melodies are well put together, and there are plenty of nice, small touches with the effects. 3.8 Play Value
The five chapter campaign offers dozens of hours of gameplay, but I would be ecstatic with the prospect of creating my own adventures. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best