Indie Review: Blackguards
Alternating between intensely rewarding and f-word dropping levels of frustrating, Blackguards is a game for pen and paper RPG lovers with a masochistic strategic streak.
- Worth The Time?Mostly.
- Things LovedThe non-level based progression system; the authentic table-top RPG feel to the combat, especially the ability to use many environmental factors in fights.
- Things HatedThe difficulty jumps and blind strategic decisions; MISSING ALL THE TIME!
- RecommendationFor those who like games that require meticulous strategy and a lot of blind luck, this is a good choice.
- Name: Blackguards
- Genre: Turn-based RPG
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: No
- Platforms: PC, Mac
- Developer: Daedlic Entertainment
- Publisher: EuroVideo
- Reviewed On: PC
I play a lot of tabletop or pen-and-paper RPGs, and so when I saw that Blackguards is a turn-based RPG based on a pen-and-paper system, I was excited and nervous. I really like seeing the ways in which pen-and-paper RPGs can be translated into video games, but they can also tend to excessive complexity. Blackguards is based on a German RPG called Das Schwartze Auge (The Dark Eye – more like the Black Eye where difficulty is concerned!)
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The game opens quite dramatically, launching you into an easy series of fights with increasingly detailed information about the game given before each successive fight in the tutorial section. The gameplay is actually quite familiar to anyone who’s played D&D, or similar table-top RPGs. The quite detailed combat area is overlaid with a map of interlocking hexes, with your character’s base move distance highlighted in blue.
The combat areas themselves include some nice touches, like environmental obstacles that can be used as traps, like quicksand, or for cover. Although, I still don’t entirely know how the cover system works, and protest wildly when Bandit Archer fires through a stone wall.
The only real adjustment from more familiar systems to Blackguard’s system is surely the level up system, which in my opinion is actually quite an exciting idea. Instead of having discrete character levels at which your Dwarf Fighter can improve his strength, and learn Super Power Attack VI, your characters gain Adventure Points (AP) at the end of every quest and combat. These AP can then be spent immediately to upgrade almost any aspect of your character – the same pool of points could be used to raise one of the eight stats, or to purchase new talents, or power up your spells. This makes for a more dynamic kind of character progression, and feels a bit more realistic, especially in that new spells and talents must be learnt from books or tutors, rather than your wizard suddenly hurling fireballs because “level up, bitches”.
These features combine to make Blackguards a game that really engages you strategically. You can custom-build your characters to fit specific tactical niches, and the interactive objects in the environment can provide excellent focal points for strategy, ducking between cover, placing traps in choke points, and dropping chandeliers on guards. You definitely need to take a few moments to examine the battlefield, because your enemies certainly are going to use it to their advantage – although they can be quite easily forced into dangerous territory (like flaming bushes, or boggy swamps) through tactical positioning of your team. This makes for highly engaging combat, as you can really go all out in exercising your mind.
In terms of aesthetics too, the game is quite engaging. Yes, the voice acting is slightly cheesy, but in a way I felt that it reminded me of the typically hammy roleplay sections of any table-top RPG. The visuals are quite polished overall, and the plot is interesting, drawing you in to the mystery and providing you with some very nasty (and one incredibly camp) nemeses to goad you on to finish the game. And, even though the dialogue is, as I’ve said, slightly cheesy, the characters are actually quite interesting, each with their own agenda and motives. The plot is also quite gritty, with opiate-addicts, shady dwarf gamblers, slavers, and freakish human (or elfish) experiments. However, there are some moments where the plot goes a bit strange – well stranger than expected. For instance, after failing the bonus objective to save a significant NPC, my characters did nothing afterwards to acknowledge their terrible failure, apart from the brief “Nooooo” halfway through the fight.
However, the fundamental drawback of the game is the complexity of its system, I think. There are 8 stats and numerous combat talents that need to be taken. And, despite my best efforts to make my Hunter actually able to, you know, hunt things with a bow and arrow, he manages to miss (despite the 90% hit chance) a sodding WOOD TROLL. As in, a walking freakin’ tree. And not just once, but three turns in a row. The causes for this are quite difficult to tease out, seeing as the ability to hit targets in Blackguards relies on 3 stats, plus weapon talents and, as per the usual pen-and-paper style, the roll of the dice.
This really also goes to the root challenge of simulating something like pen-and-paper games for two reasons. The first is that on the table-top, I know what my die roll was. I can see when I have critically hit, or failed as the case may be. And I can’t blame anyone but the fickle goddess of fortune (or perhaps the dice manufacturer) if I roll terribly on all my key rolls. Here, however, the dice rolls (and the addition of my various modifiers) happen in a black box, and I see the net result – which is an inordinate number of misses. And maybe, just maybe, that because I can’t see the dice rolls that I feel I’m cheated.
The second is the lack of a Dungeon or Game Master, who can adjust the encounters to ensure they’re balanced. And, if I’m honest, most of the time they are. Apart from the occasional character miss-fest, most of the fights are supremely winnable, and often through interesting trickery, like trapping enemies in quicksand, or luring them into flammable swamp gas. However, there are a few which are glaringly impossible, unless you happen to critically succeed at every roll while your enemies fail every one of theirs. Spoiler – that doesn’t happen often. So you can wind up replaying the same fight (with the same camp lawman screaming hysterically at you in a cutscene) until you give up on the bonus mission, or actually wind up surviving the fight.
On the whole, the experience is a lot of fun. There’s a lot of potential character customization in terms of skills, if you choose the advanced option. However, with the challenge the game can pose, it may be wise to start conservatively, and build towards a custom character once you’ve seen the rest of your party and mastered the game. However, the game’s frustrating qualities, combined with some of the tougher fights, can becomes a swear-fest of utter rage. For the rest, it can actually be very rewarding, if in a masochistic way!