Blackguards Review: Braving The Wild South and A Host of Design Flaws
Read our First Impressions of Blackguards here!
Blackguards, the new cRPG from Hamburg-based developer Daedalic Entertainment (Deponia), at first seems to channel Bioware’s and Black Isle’s great licensed Dungeons & Dragons games from the mid ‘90s. Character creation is pleasantly open-ended, though a simple class-based system is available for overwhelmed players, and no time is wasted filling the world with interesting characters to travel with and battle against.
After its opening dungeon crawl, Blackguards reveals itself to be more Final Fantasy Tactics than Baldur’s Gate. Individual characters are only controlled in battle, and all exploration is done through a dry, point-by-point world map. Almost everything that happens in Blackguards leads to combat, and even expository flashbacks usually include some fighting. Luckily, every encounter in Blackguards feels unique. Every ambush, sidequest or dungeon has its own set of traps, strange interactions and new concepts; plain battlefields are rare, and they almost never repeat. It is always exciting, nerve-wracking and fascinating to see what new twist the next battle will bring. But at the same time, the constant addition of new mechanics is frustrating.
Mastering a battlefield is often necessary to victory, and battles move slowly. Having to start a battle from the beginning after 10 minutes is never fun, and when you’re forced to fight multiple battles consecutively it can be infuriating. There is too much trial and error in Blackguards, which makes the solid mechanics at the center of the game feel underutilized. Even worse are the battlefield events that usually occur between rounds and take upwards of 30 seconds to complete. It is as though many of Blackguards design choices seem crafted to accentuate its flaws. The longer battles tend to come in unannounced groups of two or three, and any special rules a specific fight may have, be it an environmental trap or a special victory condition, are rarely explained. Letting a player figure out the rules of a game world is a great way to involve them more intimately, but any interesting discoveries hidden in Blackguards are irrelevant in the next battle.
Despite the repetitive structure, the mechanics are nicely balanced, and combat is satisfying as a result. Any kind of character I wanted to play was easy to make, and every approach I tried led to a useful character that was fun to play. Once I started to see how different character builds could work together, things got even more engaging. I laughed out loud when I realized that I could put up magical walls to force enemies into traps, or into my melee fighter’s range for a quick attack of opportunity. The slow speed and complex mechanics makes Blackguards feel more like a tabletop game than almost any other cRPG I’ve played. The hex-based battlefields and huge focus on randomized dice rolls feel more like moving miniatures around a grid than playing a video game, which for an adaptation of Germany’s most popular tabletop system The Dark Eye is a good thing.
Blackguards’ dialogue and characters are another strong point. Although you are still fighting against the same collection of heretics, bandits and cave monsters that find their way into every fantasy RPG, your party is anything but traditional. Straddling the line between interestingly flawed and downright incompetent, your party is spectacularly good at getting into unnecessary trouble. Consider Naurim, a rough, honorable dwarf who in an early sidequest leads the party into danger to reclaim his favorite axe, or the addict who will occasionally show up to battle high. Dialogue trees allow multiple characters to talk to NPCs, and these misfits are every bit as present in the story as your protagonist is. Even the setting, which at first seems entirely generic, eventually develops into something interesting and the ending left me satisfied with the experience.
Even with everything it does right, Blackguards does not grab me like a great PC RPG or strategy RPG should. Open worlds work so well in RPGs because it lets us inhabit a world fully, with the underlying mechanics facilitating more complex interactions with it. The only interactions in Blackguards involve fighting or preparing to fight. Intelligence scores affect spellcasting alone, and Charisma leads only to discounts. The combat and character building, though fun, are not enough to carry the game on their own, and the epic multi-fight struggles that should have been the highlight of the game only frustrate with their glacial speed.
A review code for this game was provided by Daedalic Entertainment.