Platforms: PC, Mac
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: January 22
Most often, fantasy RPGs place you in the role of the hero, often the only person who can save the day, world, or all of reality, depending on the stakes. Not so in “Blackguards,” a turn-based RPG that not only casts you as a convicted murderer, but also has you palling around with other less than savory characters in an attempt to ferret out the truth behind your circumstances. If you happen to get to one of the game’s happier endings in the process, so much the better.
Did you really kill someone close to you, and a princess to boot? The game’s grisly opening sequence makes it intentionally unclear, right after you’ve created your adventurer. There are only three stock classes to choose from and a handful of appearance options, but don’t be fooled. Based on the German pen-and-paper RPG “The Dark Eye,” the “Blackguards” system of skills, special abilities and spells is tremendously flexible once you’ve got it down.
The turn-based combat is taught to you as you go, and the basics are pretty easy to pick up. Initiative determines who acts when, and the order is shown by a line of headshots at the bottom of the screen. During every turn, you can perform an immediate action (attack, spell, use a potion, switch weapons, etc.), move a little and perform an action or move further and forfeit any further actions. The interface is extremely helpful, illuminating where you can move, which targets are valid for ranged attacks and spells, and so on.
Fans of tactical games will be happy to know that everything matters in battle. Cover can hinder or protect characters altogether from ranged attacks—though you can fire right over the heads of dwarves. Bows actually get a penalty to hit if you’re too close. Muddy terrain can lead to slips, and crates can be knocked over onto unsuspecting victims. Daedalic really did a nice job thinking up environmental features that can be used by you or your enemies in creative ways, and some battles are much easier if you use your brain instead of slugging your way though them.
After the battles, you collect your loot and its on to the next location. Little to no time is wasted in “Blackguards” traveling from place to place, setting it apart from many RPGs where the journey ends up being a disproportionately large part of the gameplay. Games are autosaved after each battle, but you’ll still want to have plenty of manual saves to fall back on if things go sideways on you—and they will at some point.
Your escaped con doesn’t have to go it alone thanks to a rotating cast of companions. Naurim the dwarf and the mage Zurburan are with you from the start as escapees from the same prison. They’ve got secrets and checkered pasts of their own, as do characters who join you later. Decisions made during dialogue can affect companions in different ways, but the game doesn’t show you exactly how, which keeps things interesting. Still, they’ll often go along with doing the “right” thing, so the selling of the cast of “Blackguards” as a cast of anti-heroes is slightly overblown. The characters often act out of self-interest, but don’t most people?
One aspect that is completely under your control is the development of your party. Instead of a leveling system, the game assigns Adventure Points for each battle won and most completed quests. This pool of points can be used to increase base stats, weapon proficiencies, skills and special abilities, and there are always decisions to be made before spending them. Practically all skills and abilities can come in handy, so it pays to have a well-rounded party. For instance, it’s not vital for every character to have the Warcraft talent that displays the Vitality and Astral Points for humanoid enemies, but it sure is helpful if someone has it.
This flexibility just about begs for multiple play-throughs with different character builds, but the truth is that “Blackguards” isn’t necessarily the most replayable game around. The early stages are very linear, and once the “trick” to winning some battles is discovered, beating them again is more a chore than a pleasure. Three difficulty levels help a bit, as does the fact that the game opens up a bit in its third of five chapters.
Graphically, the land of Aventuria is lush and varied enough to earn some praise. It looks great on current PC technology, and older systems can still run it in very playable fashion with the settings turned down. The voice acted characters are fine if not especially noteworthy, and the same can be said for the game’s soundtrack. I’ve already given a shout out to the UI, which works very well and seems like it could easily be adapted to consoles if Daedalic ever considered going that route.
Of course turn-based RPGs are the province of computer gamers at the current time, and “Blackguards” is a very worthy representative of its genre. Even if the “bad guys” under your control really aren’t that bad, it lives up to its promise of challenging tactical combat in a darker than normal fantasy world. And as it turns out, it’s one that’s a pretty fun place to spend some time.
+ Tactical combat system is well-designed and rewards creativity
+ Flexible character progression system give players plenty of options
+ Character interactions can impact the story in ways that aren’t always obvious
– Early portions of the game are very linear and not very exciting to replay