Blackguards – As We Play

As we play offers the thought strands of the reviewer as they’re going through the game. This offers unique content for the reader so they can come to understand the conflicting feelings of the reviewer as they’re playing a game for the very first time. All feedback on this concept is welcome.

I’m completely willing to admit that I’m a bit of a role-play geek; once this article is up and finished, I plan to go off and begin work on making myself a monk’s robe so that I can dress up as a mad cleric and get drunk in the middle of a field full of people wearing leather and chainmail. If its got a fantasy or sci-fi setting, a screen full of numbers that keep going up and an interesting story, I’m generally in my element.

I’m also willing, however, to admit that I have absolutely no head for strategy. If I’m playing a character that can handle a weapon and take a few punches, I tend to take things head on, which often leads to disasterous results. I’m the guy who storms the front door rather than taking the lesser-guarded side-passage and the guy who bluntly admits my true intentions to a room full of people because it just seems a lot easier than lying. Last week, I shot my superior (an NPC in a homebrewed tabletop game my friend was running; I told you we’re geeky) for cowardice in front of the entire crew,in a move that my character assumed would simply sort out the line of command, but instead resulted in a ship-wide mutiny followed by a massacre. It made sense at the time.

I therefore expected the rather more strategy-oriented Blackguards to take me out of my comfort zone. My previous forays into the genre have generally been twinged with utter faliure and while I’m vaguely familiar with the system it is based upon; Germany’s answer to Dungeons and Dragons: The Dark Eye, it’s not a system I’ve ever actually played before either. I expected to be completely bloody useless at the game from the offset, and to be fair, I was, but not entirely for the reasons I actually expected.


Strategy RPG, with a capital ‘S’

But first, I should probably summarise exactly what Blackguards is. Made by Daedalic Entertainment, otherwise known as the team that made the Deponia games, Blackguards is a Strategy RPG that forgoes a number of traditional RPG features and instead focuses almost entirely on strategic combat. The game’s story begins when the player is framed for the murder of Princess Eleanor (or possibly not, it’s all typically ambiguous) and is imprisoned and tortured for information while awaiting their execution. When a strange and rather violent dwarf turns up in the torture chamber, the player has no option but to team up with this bizarre individual and a European-accented Lothario of a Mage, break out of the prison and make a run for the border. Along the way they battle bandits, the utterly maniacal Baliff and his army of bounty hunters, representatives of the player character’s former employer, and figures from the former lives of the rather less than scrupulous team of controllable characters.

The game is split up into two sections; a series of prettified menus, dialogues and simplistic maps make up the game’s exploration, planning and story elements, while the larger part of the game is taken up by a series of intricate turn-based battles. Outside of battles, players must train and equip their party, accept quests from complete strangers in that typical RPG way, purchase and sell items and advance the plot by travelling to specific locations or talking to specific people. As only items that are equipped by the characters – either as their main equipment, secondary or tertiary weapons or in pouches found in the characters’ belts – can be used in a battle, preparation before each is very much key to the player’s success. Players should always remember to stock up on arrows and potions at this point, because the game won’t do it for you automatically, as I learned on many, many awkward occasions.

Each battle takes place on a hexagonal-gridded area, usually spattered with a variety of obstacles, objects and environmental details which the player must use to their advantage. Each character takes it in turns (determined through those characters’ ‘initiative’ stat and behind-the-scenes dice rolls) to move and/or take an action, with turn orders appearing as a series of portrait cards in the bottom left corner of the screen. A character can move a stat-determined number of hexagons (marked with a blue fill) before taking an action, or up to twice that distance (marked with a lighter blue) while forfeiting the action. Actions that a player can perform during their turn include making an attack, using an item, interacting with nearby objects or switches, performing a spell or setting a trap and so on, making for a rather impressive range of options during a battle. The player can also opt to use up any amount of a character’s movement during their turn and then tell the character to wait by pressing ‘space’, which moves the character’s portrait to the end of the turn, and allows them to use up the rest of their movement and action at the end of the round. Once the action point has been used up, however, the character’s turn ends regardless of whether or not they have used their movement points.


But can you push your enemies onto the difficulty spikes?

Despite the potential for complexity, I found the basics of combat in Blackguards to be much simpler and more intuitive than other Strategy RPGs I’ve played. For the most part, the game just makes sense; the cover system is simple and intuitive and lets a 6ft human fire arrows straight over the head of a 4ft dwarf (an incredibly useful strategic fact, considering that the dwarf was my only melee character at the time), the combination of a well-designed radial menu and a fully customisable hotbar of commands for each character made finding and using skills a thoroughly painless experience.

Some elements weren’t quite so well explained, however; while environmental features can be used by player characters directly and highlighted on the map by pressing the ‘v’ key, other environmental hazards go entirely unexplained and are much harder to spot, often looking like simple bits of cosmetic environmental animation. The effects of these are often only discernible through trial and error (usually error).

Thankfully, the punishment for defeat is extremely lax; the player either has to re-begin a battle from the beginning or return to the last save game. The game autosaves at the end of each battle, but also provides both a manual save function accessible from the options button and a quicksave and quickload function that can be used by pressing F5 and F9 respectively.

A mere few hours into Blackguards however, I came to a complete halt. I was more than willing to blame myself and my total inexperience at the game and it’s systems, but as the game doesn’t offer any ways of grinding to improve characters, it’s rather easy to find yourself backed into a corner where you feel like your characters just not quite good enough to make it through the small selection of stages that you’re given to play at that time. Personally, I had assumed that having not really entirely understood the game’s character sheets at the beginning, I had melded my crowd of unscrupulous misfits into a rather less than stellar build, but a night’s sleep and another attempt showed me where I was making my errors; firstly I had completely failed to notice that a seemingly random rockfall occurrence in a cave was actually in a fixed location shown by an extremely subtle water droplet effect in the water below. Secondly, I realised that the game is affected by luck a lot more strongly than you would expect from such a strategy-oriented title. I soon found myself repeatedly restarting battles in order to get the initiative rolls I needed to get a drop on my opponents and altered my strategies to account for the ranged-damage heavy makeup of my team. Only then, did I finally manage to beat one of the troublesome levels I had been stuck on.

This is also the point that my understanding of the game’s strategy went from a mere understanding of where to position people and who to axe first, to a point where I was coming up with actual, functional strategies. I converted the enemies’ wooden crate cover into highly damaging walls of fire by throwing area-of-affect fireballs at them. I created bottlenecks using magical barriers, forcing enemies to contend with my dwarf one-by-one, while my archers and mage picked the rest of them off. I led enemies directly into trap after trap, which was quite easy as when enemies are not being psychic (I mean, seriously, how can non-sapient giant lice know when my mage’s barrier is going to go down) they’re utterly stupid, being quite willing to fall directly into traps and environmental hazards that have already been shown on the map, yet have perfectly good routes around them.


The calm after the storm

This, in turn, led to a third revelation; I was not the badly prepared idiot that I assumed myself to be, but had instead simultaneously hit a couple of spikes in difficulty. In actual fact, I had developed a pretty badass team of extremely offensive-oriented Blackguards and I was simply unprepared for a sudden momentary jump in what the game was expecting from me. For a while, every battle after that one was an absolute breeze that could be overcome with overwhelming force rather than any actual strategy or tactics, suggesting that something’s just not quite right in the game’s challenge curve.

The lull in challenge instead gave me time to focus on the game’s presentation and, rather sadly, the game could be a lot better presented than it is. Daedalic Entertainment are usually known for their visually interesting, hand-drawn, point and click adventures, but their flair for an aesthetic hasn’t quite carried over into Blackguards. Non-player character models are all quite low in detail and most look extremely similar to each other (presumably to make the armour and clothing models universal), and enivronments are often reasonably pretty in their designs, but actually quite low-poly. The developers have tried to disguise the outdated-looking graphics using lighting effects, high contrast visuals, a lot of bloom and some depth of field tricks, but for the most part, this just makes things dark and blurry.

The game also suffers from the long-standing Daedalic problem of rather hit-and-miss English-language voice acting. While there’s nothing quite so bad in here as Sadwick from ‘The Whispered World’ (a piece of voice acting so painfully bad that I still have nightmares about it), voice artistry in Blackguards tends to run the entire gamut from boring deadpan to complete and utter ham, with the hams providing the most entertaining and interestingly cartoonish characters. In one interesting piece of so-bad-it’s-good casting, the Lecherous mage Zurbaran (presumably named after the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán) who comes from a distinctly hispanic part of the The Dark Eye world, is given a bizarre Transylvanian accent. His lines are done with such wonderfully hammy gusto, however, that it’s impossible not to love his wit and charm, unlike the player character who sounds like an extremely bored voice actor carefully trying to keep his accent straight.

Still, despite the relative boringness of the main character, the game gives its costars the kind of wit and charm you’d expect from a company that have been making point and click adventure games for the last half-decade. While the main plot may be reasonably generic and obligatory end-of-the-world intrigue, the conversations between characters is well-written, witty and often rather funny.

Blackguards Character Sheet

Areas for Development

  • Better indication of environmental features and their effects
  • Graphics filters that don’t make the screen look like it’s been smeared with petroleum jelly
  • AI Tweaks that make actions seem a little more realistic (seriously, who stands in fire?)
  • A more inviting difficulty curve
  • Minor improvements in camera angles and selecting opponents
  • Alterations to the inventory menu to make comparing two items more clear

Final Analysis

Considering I’ve played ten or so hours and barely got past the content being offered in the demo (It’s actually a seriously generous demo, and therefore well worth a look) I’d be hard pressed to call this a ‘final’ analysis, but what I was able to play of Blackguards was reasonably impressive. By keeping their focus on the combat system and abandoning or neglecting the rest of the genre’s usual features, Daedalic have produced an extremely refined and well thought out strategy game that strikes a good balance between usability and functionality.

While the game could certainly be a lot prettier in its presentation, and content outside of battles is often sparse or extremely spartan, it more than makes up for it in the enjoyable and challenging nature of the game, which is often far more akin to a strategic wargame than a computer role-playing title. However, the game does suffer a rather awkward difficulty curve that throws up the occasional unexpected spike, and it can become very frustrating when you feel like you’ve managed to back yourself into a corner through your choices or options.

Being in a bit of a niche genre, there’s a certainly a good chance it won’t be your cup of tea, but I certainly recommend that you give it a try regardless.

Technical Competency – 9/10

Graphical State/Sound Quality – 7/10

Network Stability – N/A

Overall – 8.0

It plays excellently, but it could definitely look better. It just needs a little more polish.

(These grades assess our playthrough, taking into consideration how many (if any) bugs were encountered, whether there were any interuptions in gameplay and the product’s final technical state. These scores, coupled with the Final Analysis and Areas for Development, are suggestions for future patches and updates which the developers could (and in our opinion, should) explore. These scores are separate to our DLC/Expansion Reviews but link into our Patch/Firmware Reviews.)

(These scores are not designed as a grading system to determine the entertainment value of a product and should not be treated as such..)

Issues you’ve encountered

  • Minor graphical errors, including the equipment icons in the character sheet being assigned to the wrong slots, and a corpse that flickered unsettlingly.

Have you encountered any bugs and problems in your playthrough? Anything we missed? Add them in the comments below and we’ll slot them in!

About the author

Mark Cope

A sort of gaming jack of all trades, Mark is a lifelong enthusiast who has more recently directed his interests towards the PC and indie gaming scenes. He once wrote about a different game every day for a whole year, but nobody is entirely sure why.
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