Review: Blackguards (PC)

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Blackguards
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 01/22/2014

When it comes to tactical role playing games, the east is usually where it’s at. They make Fire Emblem, Disgaea, Ogre Tactics, etc. That’s kind of a shame though, as the western style of RPG could really add a lot to the formula. We’ve seen as much with the recent Shadowrun Returns, which won our pick of game of the year. Blackguards is another game bases off of a tapletop counterpart. While The Dark Eye might not be a household name here in the states, it still makes for a great option when creating a video game. Did Daedalic do it justice, or is this one genre still best left to the other side of the globe?

blackguards1Like many RPGs, you start Blackguards off by creating a character. There are only three different classes, but this is misleading. You’re basically just choosing your starting stats and figuring out whether your character can cast magic or not. Warriors can’t cast spells, but make up for it by being big and beefy. Hunters are better at range, and can use some spells out of the gate. Mages are squishy, but they’ve got a wide variety of magic at their disposal. However, you can spend adventure points to rank up your characters in any way. For example, you could easily turn your mage into an expert with two-handed weapons if you’re willing to spend the points that way. After all, isn’t shooting off fireballs while swinging around a claymore the dream of every child?

The story begins with your character awakening to find the princess dead and himself/herself blamed for the crime. While you’ll quickly escape and set off to find out what happened, the truth is that you don’t know if you killed her or not. From there, the game follows your exploits with a group of ruffians you meet along the way. From the gruff Naurim to the sleazy Zuburan, the characters exude plenty of charm and personality. Each will be glad to chime in during conversations, so no one is really left behind in terms of character development. The exception is a warrior you get later on, but his gimmick is that he never speaks, so that’s somewhat acceptable.

The characters are what make the story, but the events themselves are often interesting as well. It’s almost like a greatest hits collection of homemade quests and side quests. I have found myself in similar situations in my own tabletop games, so everything felt right at home. While the stuff certainly isn’t mold-breaking or at a particular level of excellence, it’s still downright enjoyable. You’ll want to stick around long enough to see how it all plays out. There’s the added bonus of multiple endings based on choices you make throughout each chapter.

blackguards2Visually speaking, the game is above the norm for the genre. The character models are neatly proportioned, and the environments are vast and detailed. There’s certainly more of an attempt to have the thing looking realistic. However, the art style relies a bit too much on dark colors for my taste. Things can feel murky at times limiting visibility on more than one map. Still, it looks much better than other games in the genre.

Aurally, the game is a hit. The music is moody and subdued, but still fairly enjoyable to hear. The voice acting is solid throughout, with only a few bad spots along the way. The supporting characters can often steal the show, Naurim in particular. The writing isn’t always the best, but they still deliver the lines well. If there’s one issue I had, it’s that the voice clips that accompany certain aspects of battle can get old. When someone is poisoned, for example, they’ll complain about it each turn until you remove it or it goes away. Of course, some of that stuff works, like having the angry dwarf complain about being healed, or the arena crowd booing when you use buffs.

Unlike many tactical games, there actually is a strong RPG element to this game. When not in battle, you’re free to wander around, talk to NPCs, visit shops, and tool around with your character. However, there are no random battles to help you farm experience, so the emphasis is on strong character building.

Winning battles and completing quests gives you adventure points. Each character gets their own pool of points that can be spent on whatever you want. There is a bit of a catch though. Spells and special abilities can only be learned by finding someone willing to teach them to you. The upside is that you can full customize a character. No one is restricted to certain weapons or abilities. Only spells are limited, but that’s all right. For example, I’ve taken vastly different approaches to the warriors in my party. My main is a fencer that uses precise shots that help weaken an enemies defenses. This opens the door for my other warrior, who uses low percentage shots with high damage output. Both characters are seemingly cut from the same cloth, but utilize vastly different abilities during battle.

blackguards3Battles take place on a hexagonal grid. Characters take turns based on initiative rolls, and play continues until you fail or complete the main objective. While the objective is usually killing all of your opponents, there will be several occasions where that is not the case. For example, you might just need to reach a certain location, take out a boss character, or collect some items. Characters can use a move action and any other one action on their turn. However, taking a non-move action ends their turn automatically. So you can’t hit and run. Everything is decided by dice rolls, but those are in the background. Your chances improve based on your stats and equipment, so setting up your character correctly is paramount.

Player choice comes up quite frequently. In particular, boosting your charisma stat allows for more options in dialogue. For example, one quest has you attempting to enter a tower. Goblins guard the tower, and won’t let you pass without a citizenship card. You can choose to pay fifty gold or fight them outright. However, enough charisma will allow one character to trick the goblins into lower the price drastically. You’ll end up moving forward either way, but the fun is in picking your path.

Mechanically, the game strives to streamline things to the point where you don’t need to cycle through a hundred menus to perform basic actions. For starters, you can simply click an enemy to attack them. You’ll move to the right spot automatically and everything. More importantly, the game uses a radial system that allows you to move through your abilities with ease. Simply moving over the battle icon will show you your attack options. Likewise, you can open the radial menu on another character to perform an action on them. So, if you want to heal an ally, you can right click on them and cast your spell, rather than opening the menu, choosing the spell, and then selecting your target. You can also set hotkeys for favorite abilities. This wasn’t necessarily needed, but it helps make the game run smoother.

blackguards4Now there are a couple of things that experienced genre players may expect that this game does not offer. For starters, there are no random encounters or ways to grind experience really. You can take side quests, but once they’re done, they’re done. This makes it quite important to plan carefully, lest you don’t have strong enough characters to progress. Also, you can’t place your troops at the start of battle. Each battle is a set piece, designed to work a certain way. The benefit is that there are interactive objects on the field that change up tactical considerations. The downside is that it can feel a bit contrived.

The game isn’t overly difficult really. As long as you’re somewhat smart with your choices, you should be all right. You can restart any battle with no penalty, and characters don’t die permanently. So, if worse comes to worse, you can just retry until you get it right. The game seems to go out of its way at times to make things easier for you. For example, one mission has you trying to lead two troops to a ladder on the other side of the field. If one falls, the other can still win the mission. Realistically, this means leaving an incapacitated ally behind to die. However, they’ll be back on the next mission like nothing happened. It’ll bug hardcore players to be sure.

In the end, the game works on just about every level. It might not be the best tactical RPG on the market, but it’s solid throughout. It has solid mechanics, an interesting story, and plenty of content to last you dozens of hours. The challenge is just enough without being too hard, and the game really opens after after a while. It has a slow start to be sure, but that makes the payoff better in my opinion.

Short Attention Span Summary

Blackguards is a complete success. While every element might not be perfect, the game doesn’t really have any glaring weakness to hold it back. The story and presentation or enjoyable throughout, while the gameplay is fun and tactically interesting. The forty dollar price tag might seem high, but the game offers more than your typical tactical role playing game to help make up for that. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is one you’re not going to want to miss.

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